John Legend may have just scored his first Academy Award nomination for his Selma song “Glory,” featuring Common, which is up for best original song. But he, like many critics of this year’s all-white acting nominee list, would have liked to see the accompanying film get more recognition from the Academy beyond its best picture nomination.
“I was a little surprised and disappointed,” Legend said in an interview Tuesday, noting that lead actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay were particularly “brilliant.” “It’s not that anybody else didn’t deserve it, because I haven’t seen all the other films, I just know it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years. So for it not to be nominated in some of those other categories was a bit disappointing for me.”
Legend, meanwhile, has been getting plenty of recognition as of late, taking home the best original song Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards in the past two weeks alone for “Glory,” with a just-announced performance at the Grammys on Feb. 8 expected to feature the song as well. As for whether Legend and Common will perform at the Academy Awards, the 36-year-old singer couldn’t confirm whether an invite had been officially extended. “I just know we would want to deliver the best performance possible,” he says.
His busy awards-season dance card aside, Legend is focusing on his new role as the artist ambassador for Unilever’s Axe White Label Collective. The newly launched program will see Legend encouraging five emerging musicians to “#TakeTheLeap,” per the campaign’s hashtag, to be selected for a music-mentorship program led by Legend and including a showcase performance during South by Southwest in March. Legend performed his hits “All of Me” and “Ordinary People” on an ivory-white Yamaha piano on Tuesday at an influencer event announcing the program.
“I’ve had a few leaps myself,” Legend says. “Part of it was me deciding I had to quit my day job and focus on music. I was a management consultant for awhile, and I had already started working with Kanye [West], which was a huge pivotal thing for me. But as things started to progress, I realized I needed to spend more time on my music in order to succeed. And so I had to take that leap and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna quit my day job and risk some stability and security by going out there and believing in my talent.'”
Billboard spoke at length with Legend to learn more about the Axe partnership, the genesis of “Glory,” and why he’s forever grateful for his 2014 Grammy performance.
How did you get involved as the artist ambassador for Axe’s White Label Collective?
They approached me early on as they were developing the idea of the Axe White Label Collective, and it really resonated with me, because this is the kind of opportunity for artists like I was 10, 12, 15 years ago need. A lot of times you practice, you prepare different things to develop your talent, but you need the opportunity to be heard before you can make the most of it. Kanye signed me to his production company, helped me get featured on some of his records, and you need that opportunity. So what we’re trying to do for White Label Collective is help new, aspiring artists who’ve worked on their talent, submitted it to us and need that opportunity to be heard and be seen.
How might that look going forward?
We’re going to mentor five winners on the music side, and in the future we’ll unveil five on the fashion side as well. So for the five music winners, they’ll have an opportunity to meet and be mentored by me, and also perform at South by Southwest. Not sure exactly how we’ll do it, but it’ll be a great opportunity for them to be heard and seen.
You’ve taken several major leaps in your own career. Would you say changing your last name from “Stephens” to “Legend” was a pretty big one too?
Yeah, I think it’s a series of leaps, and eventually you have to have enough confidence in yourself to say, “Hey, I could do this.” And part of that was saying, “Hey, I’m gonna go ahead and assume this kind of heavy, bold name” and try to go out there and live up to it.
Let’s talk about the latest leap you’ve taken: the song “Glory” you and Common wrote for Selma. As he mentioned during your speech together at the Golden Globes last week, it sounds like Common came to you with this idea?
Common came to me and he said, “We need a song for the end title.” And I didn’t have any expectations beyond trying to write a great song that fits the film and honors the subject matter, which was really important for me. We wanted something powerful that captured the social importance of the movement and of the film, and he suggested a few titles to me, one of which was “Glory.” And that was the one that felt most resonant to me for a chorus to build on, and one day I was in London with a few hours off thinking about the idea of glory, and started singing this chorus I had already started sketching. And I recorded the piano and the vocal and sent it to Common. I wanted something tied the spirit of Selma with what was happening in the streets at the time we were writing, which was people protesting in Missouri and eventually New York about injustice and police brutality. We had a song that I think spoke to a lot of people, and it’s brought us to this point now where it’s nominated for an Oscar, and it’s won a Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice Award. We’re really grateful for the awards, but we’re also really grateful for just being able to make something special for a film that’s so important and so needed right now.
You were just announced as a performer at the Grammys, presumably for “Glory.” Does this feel like a bookend moment, following your performance last year, which helped take “All of Me” to No. 1 on the Hot 100?
I kind of say it all started with me getting married at the end of 2013, and we released the album around the same time. “All of Me” was doing OK at the time, but without that Grammy moment, I don’t think it would have gotten to where it got. I’m always gonna be grateful to the Grammys. I’ve had a great relationship with them ever since I won Best New Artist back in ’06. It’s always been a great moment to be heard by more people than I would normally be heard by.
Circling back to Axe, you’ve worked with brands a lot this past album cycle, from TV commercials with Chevy Impala to support from Samsung and Citi on your just-wrapped tour. Since this collaboration with Axe seems to be less about you using the product, what are you looking for when talking to partners?
All of my endorsements have to have some kind of substance to them. Even with Chevy, we focused on the songwriting process and what it means to create something new. Also, as the kid of an autoworker, it was cool to do something for an American car brand. So with Axe, this is something I would do even if there wasn’t a brand attached to it. Of course they’re gonna pay you and do all these things, but you want it to be something you feel connected to, and creatively I enjoy mentoring young artists that I would have wanted myself.