John Legend may have multiple Grammys, an Oscar, and a Tony under his belt, but he wants you to know he was also a spelling bee champion. Sitting in a classroom doing press for Axe’s Find Your Magic initiative, the University of Pennsylvania alum — who skipped two grades before graduating high school at age 16 — corrects the misspelling of “genitalia” on the chalkboard. (It has two i’s).
Axe didn’t bring Legend onboard for his spelling skills, but his reputation for being a nerd turned superstar surely helps. As ambassador, his job is to help the brand, once a byword for teen douchiness, champion inclusivity, and fight toxic masculinity. He sat down with the Cut to talk about social justice, life on the road with baby Luna, and how his wife Chrissy Teigen is “destroying” him at Instagram.
What were you like as a kid? Did you struggle with your sense of masculinity?
I was a little bit more of a nerd — I was into the arts particularly. Even though I loved sports, I was a terrible athlete. Just terrible. I think, particularly at my high school in Ohio, the best athletes are often the more popular kids at school. Sometimes, when you’re not at the top like that, you feel like you’re lesser than the people who are. You don’t realize in high school that what you do is going to be important and make you successful later. The nerds can do well after high school!
Boys can do crazy things to impress each other. What do you remember doing?
There was a lot of pressure to be sexually active at a young age, for boys especially. We’d have these conversations with each other in high school. We all lied. Like, Yeah, I did this with this girl, blah blah blah. We definitely lied when we were kids.
What do you think is the biggest problem that results from toxic masculinity?
It manifests itself in a lot of ways — violence against women is a huge issue. We see that a lot. You also see that people who have violence against women issues have other issues where they’re acting out in society, and violence against women is the telltale sign it’s gonna happen. Like the guy that killed the young woman [Heather Heyer] in Charlottesville — he had an issue with domestic violence. A lot of these bigger crimes start at home.
Like the man who shot the women in the sorority house at UCSB. Yeah, exactly. They start in more intimate settings with women; I think it’s a toxic brew of fear, insecurity, and these messages of what it means to be a man.
Hip-hop and R&B music has traditionally been a hypermasculine domain. How do you think it stands right now?
I think it is changing. If you look at the ’90s, if you look at the 2000s, I think there was a lot less freedom for men to express themselves in ways that weren’t hypermasculine and hypermacho. There’s a little more space now for them to have different ways of expressing themselves, different ways of communicating — allowing themselves to be vulnerable, talking about their insecurities and their fears and their pains. Jay-Z would be an example, talking about his relationship with his wife and therapy. It’s still not completely rid of sexism and misogyny, but I think it has evolved quite a bit, and I think society as a whole is evolving too.
You’ve also done a lot of work with prison reform and mass incarceration, with your FREEAMERICA campaign. Where do you think that’s headed with the current administration?
We focus mostly on things at the state and local level. It’s not just because we don’t have a friend in the White House anymore, but because most of the decisions that affect a lot of people are made on the state and local level. Most of the people that are locked up are locked up in state and local prisons and jails. Changing the system requires us thinking about districts and states, more than thinking about the whole federal system.
We’re thinking about how to affect the way district attorneys are chosen, and how they’re held accountable for doing the right things for their communities. We’re thinking about changing state laws so that sentencing isn’t as harsh as it used to be. We’ve passed propositions, we’ve been part of coalitions that helped cast propositions in California, we’ve been part of organizations that have worked with legislatures across the country to change laws, to make our system more fair, more balanced, and less destructive for some communities.
We’ve locked way too many people up for far too long, and a lot of times it’s because of something as simple as bail. People can’t afford to get out of jail, so they get stuck there for more days than they would’ve been sentenced for the actual crime they’ve committed. We’ve been listening and learning and talking about these issues for a while now, and we’re really seeing hearts and minds change — and laws change too.
Have you always considered yourself an activist, or is this something you’ve become more committed to as your career has taken off?
Some of my biggest heroes as a kid were civil-rights leaders and great leaders in history who did something bold and stood up for what was right. I’ve always valued that trait in other people, and I’ve always aspired to be that kind of person. I wrote in an essay when I was 15 that my goal was to do exactly what I’m doing. I wanted to be a musician and be successful at it and use that success to make the world better. And that’s what I’m trying to do now.
All this, and you’re touring too.
Yeah! [Laughs] The tour continues in Europe in September.
How has life been on the road?
It’s been so much fun. Luna’s been on the tour with us, so it’s been the first tour with her. That’s been a lot of fun — a big difference from the early touring days. We’ve got a crib and a changing table on the bus. It’s a completely different life, but it’s cool.
Is Chrissy with you too?
Yeah, she’s been with us pretty much the whole U.S. tour, and she’ll be there part of the European tour too.
She just spoke out about some of her body insecurities. As a husband and a father of a young daughter, how do you help grapple with these issues of gender equality?
In some ways, society’s becoming more inclusive and open and having these conversations about body positivity. At the same time, social media puts a lot of pressure on people — particularly Instagram, which is a more women-centric channel. It’s going to be hard to shield Luna from that and help her navigate it.
Every parent that I know is dealing with trying to have that conversation with their kids, both boys and girls, about not feeling so much pressure to look a certain way. I think it is a bigger challenge for girls because there is more pressure.
It’s crazy how kids now have basically grown up on social media. They’re going to have clear records of their childhood.
Yeah! And it’s not just famous kids, it’s every kid. All of my friends post their kids’ pictures on Facebook and Instagram, too, but obviously, I post mine, and it’s 7 million people, and Chrissy posts hers, and it’s twice that many on Instagram. She’s killing me on Instagram.
Are you guys competitive with that?
Oh no, she’s been destroying me for a long time on Instagram. But I do have more Twitter followers. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed.