John Legend: Leading With Love to Build Healthier and Safer Communities

John Legend addresses the Class of 2021 at commencement.
John Legend addresses the Class of 2021: To love your neighbors "means being curious about their lives. Genuinely wanting the best for them. Investing in their success."

President Price, Provost Kornbluth, deans, and faculty: Thank you for inviting me—and including me in this venerable class.

To all the Duke community…  alumni, friends, faculty, family, whether you’re tuning in from Durham or across the world: Welcome!

And most importantly — thankfully, blissfully — let me extend a big, in-the-flesh congratulations to our guests of honor: The Class of 2021!

What a day! What a year! What an accomplishment! Congratulations!

D-D-M-F!

You know, this is the first time I’ve been in front of a live audience, hearing live applause, since last February. 14 months ago.  For a needy performer, this is a very big deal. It feels nice.

But this is not my first time on your beautiful campus.  Way back in 2004, I performed at LDOC with someone named Kanye West.  (Anyone heard of him?)

In those days, I would play piano and sing the hooks for Kanye, and hope people would notice me.

Then later that year,  we released my first album, Get Lifted—and I’m realizing today… that maybe it’s thanks to Duke that my career took off.

And I’m thrilled it’s brought me full circle, back to speak with you on this most momentous day.

Seriously, this is a special milestone.  And if you don’t feel it yet… well, that’s okay, too. When I was prepping for my own graduation way back in 1999, I remember feeling pretty indifferent. 

Back then, I was too cool to care about a silly ceremony.  I’d already done the work. I’d made the friends. I’d turned in my papers and passed the tests.

What was the point of all the… pomp and circumstance?

But, during the actual ceremony, I realized: Being together is the point. Being joyous is the point. Celebrating is the point. 

We have so few moments to enjoy these rites of passage— to just revel in our accomplishments with the people we love.

Today is one of those moments. And, of course, after a year when we couldn’t gather at all, it takes on a special meaning.

Let’s just acknowledge the elephant in the stadium: On your way to Wallace Wade, your class lost a lot.

Some lost job offers. Some lost loved ones. And all of you lost a whole year of those little moments that make college so special — the in-between moments. 

Those late nights in Perkins, sitting across the table from your delirious friends.

Those talks in the common room or spontaneous lunch dates. Those weeks camping out in the freezing cold for tickets to a sports game, because apparently that’s a thing we do here.

Those nights dancing around burning benches after you win a sports game… because, apparently, that’s a thing we also do here?

All this loss is no joke.

I keep thinking about your senior performances. Losing those would have been tragic for me. All you band members and a capella singers and dancers and improv aficionados, I feel your pain.

You’ve lost something you can’t get back. I won’t sugarcoat that. It sucks.

 

SEEING OUR INTERDEPENDENCE

But from what you’ve lost — from all of this vast, incalculable loss— you’ve gained something, too. 

The fact that you’re here today, graduates of one of the world’s best universities, means that you’ve had to approach life with a certain competitiveness. 

I know because I did it, too.

I skipped grades to get ahead. Worked hard to graduate second in my high school class. Went to Penn. Got a job at Boston Consulting Group.

That path required this constant drive to push harder, reach higher, do better — to try to be perfect, or close to it. I’m sure it sounds familiar. 

But over the past year, you were forced to pause... to see yourselves not in competition with one another, but in community with each other. Anyone getting sick was a risk to everyone.

We all had to slow down. Social distance. Cover our faces. Stop filling our days with maximum productivity, and simply keep each other safe. Keep each other alive. Care for one another. 

And this perspective you gained will serve us all.  Because while that competitive drive that got you here can be an incredible gift, it can get in the way too.

We all know that for Duke to win, UNC must... I think we say G-T-H? 

But that competitiveness can be a slippery slope to thinking: For me to get ahead in life, for me to succeed, someone else is going to have to lose out. Someone else is going to have to suffer.

You let that competitiveness take over your thinking, and you might start seeing life as a zero-sum game. 

 

FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY

This kind of thinking has poisoned our democracy from the beginning. 

One of the most important books I read this year was The Sum of Us, by Heather McGhee. In it, McGhee lays out exactly how much that zero-sum game has cost us.

America’s story has always been marred by efforts to exclude, to dominate, to subjugate… to keep certain groups of people with no voice, no power, and no opportunity. Workers. Women. Indigenous people. Black people. Immigrants. The LGBTQ community…

All because of a fear that if those people did better, people at the top would lose out. 

The miracle of our story is that, as we expanded opportunity, in our best moments, we proved that those fears were unfounded. 

When more people made more money, rich business owners didn’t suffer. They got more customers! Prosperity increased for everyone. 

When people who’d been excluded finally got their voices heard, it didn’t mean everyone else had to sit down and shut up. Our national conversations got better, truer, smarter — and so did our public policies. 

Our nation is at its best when we realize that we all do better when we all do better. 

Yet, today, we’re still fighting against the old zero-sum thinking that’s been holding us back since the beginning. 

We see it in efforts to deny people their right to vote.  We see it in the shameful attacks on trans rights.

“Our nation is at its best when we realize that we all do better when we all do better. Yet, today, we’re still fighting against the old zero-sum thinking that’s been holding us back since the beginning.”

We see it around the world.  In places like China, Hungary, Russia, India, Myanmar — across the globe, nativism, sectarianism, exploitation, and authoritarianism are gaining ground.

We see it in efforts to hoard economic opportunity, too. Today, the 26 wealthiest people on the planet own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest.

And powerful people are spending lots of money lobbying to keep it that way.

And, of course, we see it in our policing and carceral systems: In the simple fact that so many people heard “Black Lives Matter” and assumed it meant that other lives couldn’t matter, too. That’s zero-sum thinking if I’ve ever seen it.

Now, I know some of you may be thinking: “Why is he bringing us down on our graduation day?”

And you wouldn’t be the first to say something like that.

“As North Carolina native Nina Simone once said, ‘It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.’ And you know what I think? It is also a banker’s duty. It’s a lawyer’s duty, a doctor’s duty, a teacher’s duty, an engineer’s duty, an entrepreneur’s duty, a plumber’s duty, a nurse’s duty. A mom’s and dad’s duty.”

I’ve been hearing calls to “shut up and sing” for my entire career. (Shut up and sing) 

Well, as North Carolina native Nina Simone once said, “It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”

And you know what I think?

It is also a banker’s duty. It’s a lawyer’s duty, a doctor’s duty, a teacher’s duty, an engineer’s duty, an entrepreneur’s duty, a plumber’s duty, a nurse’s duty.  A mom’s and dad’s duty.

Class of 2021, Duke has poured all kinds of tools and resources and experiences into you. 

I am asking you today to use them on behalf of our democracy. To remember just how interdependent each of us is on each other.  To build communities that are healthier and safer for everyone--where everyone can live up to their full potential.

 

WHERE DO YOU EVEN START?

But how do we do that in practice? 

It’s a tough question. 

When I was in high school, I entered a Black History Month essay contest, sponsored by McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s. The prompt was: “How will you make Black history?” 

With a 15-year-old’s confidence, I declared I would become a famous musician:

“This, in turn,” I wrote (and I’m quoting myself here), “will put me in a position of great influence, which I will utilize in order to be an advocate for the advancement of Blacks in America.”

But how does one do that?  The problems are entrenched and interconnected. There is no clear path to follow. I kept thinking: where do I even start? 

During the decade since I’ve become heavily involved in this fight, I’ve stumbled on three answers that I’ll share with you today. 

 

THE LEARNING DOESN’T END TODAY

First, while your schooling may be over — at least for some of you —the learning doesn’t stop today. 

It can’t. 

Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the library reading about Dr. King and other civil rights heroes—Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells. I wasn’t into comic books so much. These were my superheroes.

But even as someone steeped in the civil rights movement all my life, if you would have asked me about criminal justice when I was sitting where you all are today, I probably would have framed it as a personal responsibility issue. I think that’s pretty common for those of us who’ve spent our lives striving for perfection. I thought that the problem was with individuals, not the system.  I had family members and friends who were locked up.  They messed up, and I found a way not to.

But then I learned about our country’s mass-incarceration complex: How the United States has just 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. How one in three Black men will serve prison time during their lifetimes. How more Black men are under corrective control today than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War.

How much of this over-incarceration is a direct result of intentional policies that targeted people of color?

Take the “war on drugs.”  

Our leaders said they’d wage “war on drugs,” but crises of substance abuse and drug addiction didn’t go anywhere. Instead, this war destroyed communities. It tore apart families.

All of us have borne the brunt of that, but especially black and brown communities.

We already suffered from housing and school segregation, massive wealth disparities, chronic underinvestment. Then, these communities were specifically targeted for enforcement. Even though black, white and brown people use drugs at roughly similar rates.

And now, what should have been a public and mental health issue has turned into an excuse to disappear millions of people from their families and communities. 

The more I read about all of this trauma and tragedy, the more I understood the systemic issues, the more passionate I got about doing something to change it. 

So I started Free America, a campaign to reform our deeply unjust, criminal-justice system.

And the first thing we did was listen. 

I met with people currently incarcerated. I met with their families. I met with survivors of crime. I met with district attorneys, corrections officers, state legislators, and civil rights activists. These folks knew a lot more than I did. I had to listen to them with an open mind and a humble spirit—and then focus on amplifying their voices.

Only then could we effectively support crucial reforms—like initiatives to decriminalize drugs, find alternatives to incarceration and restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.

It’s been some of the most gratifying work of my life. But it never would have happened if I simply considered myself already educated on these issues, and stopped my learning there. 

 

DON’T GO BIG, GO HOME

So that’s lesson number one. Here’s number two:

I think it’s natural to think you should start by tackling the biggest problem you see in the biggest possible way. 

They say, “go big or go home,” right?

But in my experience, some of the most important work you can do starts at home, whatever that means for you. 

So often, we focus on major national issues. And don’t get me wrong, national issues matter.

But municipal, county, and school-board elections determine the everyday realities of our lives: Who lives where? Who goes to school where? Do we all feel safe walking down the street? 

George Floyd’s murder mobilized a national and even global movement for change. But the truth is, most of the tangible reforms we need to reimagine public safety will come from local elected officials–the mayors and city councils setting budgets, the prosecutors deciding how justice will be served.

And that’s not just true for criminal justice reform.

Local non-profits and organizers know their communities—and know what they need in order to fight hunger and homelessness and violence in their local area.

I know some of you are about to move to a new community, each with its own unique historical context and social fabric. And just as many of you moved to Durham four years ago and adopted this city as your own, I hope you’ll learn about your new home’s past, present, and future. Find its changemakers and boundary-breakers. And bring your own unique gifts to the table, to engage in the real, tangible bettering of your community.

There is wisdom, strength, and power in community. You’ve learned that here at Duke. But don’t forget it as you find and build community elsewhere.

 

LEAD WITH LOVE

And third: When you feel lost in this tangled web of problems, know that in truth, the way out of it is simple. Instinctual, really.

It’s LOVE.  Love should be your North Star. Let it guide you.

Maybe this sounds more like song lyrics than a serious point. But I believe it with every fiber of my being.

Think about what it actually means to let yourself feel and show love for your neighbors.

It means being curious about their lives. Genuinely wanting the best for them. Investing in their success. 

And once we recognize our interdependence—our mutuality—it’s clear that love is precisely what our society needs: To take care of and look out for each other. 

There are nearly 8 billion people on the planet: 8 billion strangers. What does it mean to love people we don’t know?

It means letting go of fear and embracing our shared humanity.

Practically, it means things like ensuring everyone, everywhere, can access the coronavirus vaccines – because we know that until we’re all vaccinated, we’re all at risk.

It means ensuring everyone is safe from the worst consequences of the climate crisis – especially in communities already undermined, under resourced, and under water.

To paraphrase the indigenous Australian activist Lila Watson, love means that your liberation is bound up with mine—and mine with yours.

Professor Cornel West has a word for what this kind of love looks like in public. That word is justice. Love in public takes the shape of justice.

And I’ll close with one final story about that.

It’s about a man named Desmond Meade. He grew up in Miami, graduated from high school, and joined the army.

He served this country as a helicopter mechanic, dreaming of one day sailing the skies as a pilot. But along the way he struggled with a painful addiction. He was convicted of felony possession.

He served his time and came out committed to staying clean. But he reentered a world that treated him as a loser in a zero-sum game… that didn’t care if it was impossible to find a job or a home or a second chance.

He also reentered a state that denied him the right to vote.

State laws discriminating against formerly-incarcerated people are direct vestiges of Jim Crow.

After the amendments granting voting rights and equal protection to Black citizens after the Civil War, the white majority feared the power of the black vote and found many ways to limit it: physical violence, poll taxes, ridiculous literacy tests. And felony disenfranchisement. 

The plan was to incarcerate Black Americans for petty theft, loitering, and “vagrancy,” and then disenfranchise them, often permanently. This way, they barred millions from the full rights of citizenship. Today, an estimated one in 13 Black Americans has been stripped of their right to vote due to past convictions.

The odds of reversing these laws are tiny. It requires a constitutional amendment—and in many states, a popular referendum. I’m not talking about a ballot initiative that wins with 51 percent of the vote. You need 60 percent. And in a state like Florida, that can feel… impossible.

Only love can give you the power to take on these kinds of odds. 

Love of the people you’re fighting with... and love of the people you’re trying to persuade. The basic belief that if we can honor each other’s humanity and dignity, then no matter our differences, we’ll end up wanting the best for each other. 

Desmond Meade got sober. He went to law school. And filled with great love, indomitable optimism, and audacious hope, he launched a campaign to take on those odds.

We partnered with him at #FreeAmerica. We shared people’s stories. Asked neighbors to talk with neighbors.

And when the time came, we didn’t win 60 percent of the vote.

We won 65 percent. 

We passed a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to more than 1.4 million Floridians.

A year later, I stood in a Florida courthouse as a judge made it official for a room full of formerly-incarcerated people. 

Some of these people hadn’t voted in decades and hadn’t really felt connected to their communities at all since their incarceration. But many said that this one moment made them feel like they fully belonged again. Like they were part of something bigger.

They were in tears celebrating, and so was I.

And so was Desmond — this veteran, this former bodyguard, this calm, cool, and collected attorney with tears running down his cheeks.

Duke Class of 2021: I wish you lives with Desmond’s kind of love:

Love for our neighbors—and for people who feel like they’re a world apart.

Love for justice—defined by a spirit of mutuality and community.

Love for a world where we don’t need to win at someone else’s expense, even if they’re Tar Heels—where we can win together. 

We can do this, Class of ‘21! 

And when we live with this kind of love, when we lead with this kind of love, then one day, one day….  

One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
One day, when the war is won,
We will be sure, we will be sure
Oh glory
Oh

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.  Go Duke!

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