Sat. Aug 20th, 2022

And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio: The Axe Files together with your host, David Axelrod.

This is the five hundredth episode of The Axe Files. I’ll have extra to say about that on the finish of this podcast. But appropriately, right this moment, I’m joined by a legend, John Legend. The Grammy, Tony, Emmy and Oscar-winning musician and movie producer. His private journey is exceptional, however the way in which during which he is leveraged his superstar to fight injustice and create alternative right here and world wide is actually inspiring. So right here it’s: Episode 500, my dialog with John Legend.

John Legend, it is nice to see you. I’m so excited to have you ever on my five hundredth episode.

Oh, wow. That’s a pleasant milestone.

Of The Axe Files. Yes. And I wanted somebody who was as much as the duty, and who higher than a legend to be on my five hundredth podcast? And I’ll discuss to you later about how John Stephens grew to become John Legend.

But I need to discuss going backwards and discover the Stephens household. I do know you had been on with Skip Gates on his present and he explored your roots and also you discovered so much. And it was like a unprecedented story. Tell me about your loved ones going again.

He discovered a lot about my household that we had no concept about. And this was like cinematic. Some of the tales he was capable of finding out that we had a few of our ancestors had been enslaved within the south in a border state, and had been granted their freedom by their enslaver upon his or her demise after which moved to Ohio, which is the place I used to be born and raised. Moved to Ohio, however among the surviving kin of the enslaver wished to mainly carry them again into slavery. And there was a whole court docket case fought about it. And Ohio mainly was on our aspect, on our household’s aspect, and fought for us in court docket. And they gained. They had been capable of win our household’s freedom and the precise for them to remain in Ohio. And I had no concept about any of that till I used to be on Finding Your Roots with Skip Gates.

Now, one factor that we will assume is that one of many issues that sustained them by way of all these ordeals was religion, which I do know was a really huge a part of your upbringing. Talk to me about what the church meant to you as a baby.

Well, my household mainly ran the church. So once I thought concerning the church, it was actually my household. So my grandfather was our pastor and my grandmother was the church organist. My mom was the choir director. And my father taught Sunday faculty and sang within the church choir and performed the drums as nicely. So all of us had been very concerned in working the church as a household. And I spent a variety of my time there as a child. And with regards to music, that is actually the place I obtained most of my foundational coaching as a musician, singing and enjoying in church, studying from my grandmother, studying from my mom, studying from my household and singing with them and enjoying with them. And you may hear that story rather a lot, notably with Black musicians singing R&B and soul music, that a variety of our roots are from gospel music, and we develop our chops by enjoying and singing in church. And I’m actually a type of of us.

That affect continues to be — you’ll be able to hear that affect in your music.

Absolutely. It’s right here and it is right here to remain.

You knew very younger that, man, I like being up right here singing and performing in entrance of individuals.

I beloved it. I beloved it from a really younger age. I might do it at college. I might do it at church. I might do it at recitals for my piano instructor. And both method, I loved being on stage. I beloved the connection I felt with individuals. I beloved the suggestions I obtained from individuals. And I beloved being inventive. I beloved developing with a efficiency and developing with songs finally that I began writing once I was a bit of bit older as a child, however I beloved all of that and I wished to do it for a dwelling. And once I was a child, that meant, you realize, I wished to be on Star Search. I need to be on the Grammys. But finally it meant that I began actually working by myself unique materials and began growing what an album from me would sound like. All these issues began taking place once I was a bit of bit older, however I used to be in faculty and after which in my early twenties once I began to determine my sound and the way I wished to sound if I got here out with a document, and that each one began taking place over these years. But it began with me singing and enjoying in church as a child.

And inform me about your of us, as a result of I do know that it wasn’t a straight line for your loved ones, that there was some actual battle.

That’s proper. So I grew up in that household. And you’ll suppose, you realize, the whole lot was fairly peachy eager for some time. But my grandmother died in her late fifties, which is fairly younger for anybody to die. But she had coronary heart failure. And it actually rocked my household, notably it rocked my mom as a result of that was her mom. And she grew to become depressed and finally disconnected from the household, from my father notably, however from all of us. And then as soon as they obtained divorced, she form of was primarily dwelling within the streets, hooked on medicine and self-medicating and form of disconnecting from us as a household. And we misplaced her for a few decade. She recovered. And finally my dad and mom obtained remarried and all this stuff occurred. And she’s dwelling a really wholesome life now and is a good mom and a terrific grandmother. But for these ten years, we barely noticed her.

How previous had been you when she broke away?

It was mainly my complete adolescence. So she left once I was round 11. I began going to public faculty for the primary time. In eighth grade I used to be the age of a sixth grader, however I had been homeschooled. And in order that they skipped me up a few grades as a result of I examined out of the grade I used to be imagined to be in.

Your mother homeschooled you?

My mother homeschooled me. And so I begin eighth grade when I’m 11 years previous and highschool when I’m 12. And all of that occurred with my mother’s assist and preparation. But then she disappeared primarily for a few decade.

How does an 11 12 months previous cope with that?

Well it is laborious you realize however we had one another. It was my dad and me and my three siblings. So there’s 5 of us in the home, my dad and 4 youngsters. And then we had a lot of kin that lived close by. My uncles, my aunts, my cousins. And, you realize — Hillary wrote that guide, “It Takes a Village.” And that is, you realize, based mostly on a, I feel an African proverb. But it does take a village particularly when one of many dad and mom is lacking and also you want that additional help. And our village actually rallied round us, my church, my prolonged household, even of us who labored on the public colleges that I went to, like counselors and lecturers, individuals simply all pitched in and helped us. And a part of it, I feel individuals noticed a variety of potential in me. I used to be a straight-A scholar and normally close to the highest of my class, and lots of people wished to make it possible for that potential wasn’t wasted. And in order that they took specific care to, you realize, make investments their time and vitality into ensuring I did not slip by way of the cracks. And so I’m grateful for these individuals in my life.

But there isn’t any substitute for a mother.

There’s no substitute for a mother. And it was powerful for us. You know, I feel a part of the way in which I coped with it, truthfully, was by way of music. It was by way of discovering different shops and discovering methods to attach with individuals by way of music. And a part of it was I simply wished to remain busy in order that I did not must go house and, you realize, form of take into consideration the truth that we did not have our mother there. And I averted her for some time as a result of she simply seemed unhealthy. She was addicted on the time and it was a tricky time to see her. And so I form of averted seeing her and simply threw myself into music and faculty and all the opposite distractions that I might discover.

You know, I learn someplace you saying that you just’re not an emotional particular person, that you just’re probably not demonstrative.

Which is so placing to me as a result of your music is so evocative and connecting. And it form of obtained me questioning, trigger I’ve performed these podcasts with, you realize, like Tom Hanks, for instance, who had a extremely tough upbringing and lived in ten completely different locations. And mentioned, you realize, I discovered my group in theater. I discovered my group there. And I used to be questioning what music — you type of answered this — however music is a method to categorical your self so you do not have to precise your self in different methods.

Yeah, you realize, I feel lots of people who’re good on stage are additionally actually shy in particular person and and guarded in particular person. And I used to be very guarded and reserved and shy and like I mentioned, I used to be a few years youthful than everybody, too. And in order that form of exacerbated no matter social awkwardness that I had. And so music was that point once I felt like I used to be in management and I used to be I used to be my full self and I might categorical myself totally. And I feel it’s therapeutic to have the ability to try this and be on stage and really feel such as you’re being, you realize, this idealized model of your self in entrance of an viewers. And then it makes it simpler so that you can be offstage, too, as a result of I feel I grew to become extra social once I was capable of introduce myself to individuals on stage by way of music.

Yeah, he really — Hanks notably mentioned the identical factor. He mentioned he appeared on stage and other people would chortle and other people would reply and it was connecting for him.

So you discuss your mother self-medicating and you have spent a variety of your life, your grownup life, addressing points like legal justice reform and sentencing reform and so forth. How a lot was she in your thoughts? How a lot did that focus you on what occurs to individuals after they have psychological well being points or drug associated points and get handled as in the event that they’re criminals?

Well, you realize, what’s attention-grabbing is usually, notably whenever you’re youthful, you do not see the macro view of issues. You’re simply seeing what’s taking place in your life. And then as somebody who averted getting in hassle with the police, I noticed that I used to be in a position to try this. And you begin to see the whole lot by way of the lens of particular person duty. You’re pondering, nicely, my mom made errors. She coped together with her trauma and her tragedy within the improper method, and this brought about penalties for her. And then I had a number of associates, you realize, who obtained in hassle with the legislation. You know, a few of them had been hustling, they had been drug dealing. They had been concerned in conditions they should not have been in. And so when I’m youthful, I’m simply pondering of these people and the errors that they made and there being form of nearly like an automated punishment for these errors within the legislation. But I’m not serious about the truth that these legal guidelines had been written by males and by girls with frailties and with political, you realize, factors of view. And that these had been coverage selections that these lawmakers and executives made to place our nation within the place the place we had been essentially the most incarcerated nation on the planet. So I noticed the micro view of the person making a nasty alternative, however I did not suppose in any respect once I was a child concerning the macro choices that had been made to make us essentially the most incarcerated nation on the planet. To make us, you realize, pursue the battle on medicine. To make us pursue these tough-on-crime insurance policies that lock up, you realize, tens of millions of individuals yearly in America. And so it took me getting older after which studying extra concerning the macro aspect of issues, studying, you realize, Michelle Alexander’s guide, “The New Jim Crow” studying Bryan Stevenson’s work and studying others’ work concerning the system that we have created by way of coverage choices over the previous few a long time that dramatically accelerated incarceration and made incarceration the go-to resolution for a variety of societal points. And these had been all coverage choices that had been made. And these put us on this place proper now. And in order an older particular person, I used to be capable of relate my mother’s particular person trauma and battle to all these different tens of millions of people that have gone by way of substance abuse, psychological well being struggles, all these different struggles that they’ve gone by way of and the way we as a nation have determined to deal with these points nearly with the identical resolution on a regular basis, which is lock increasingly individuals up.

Yeah, I discuss so much about psychological well being right here on this podcast as a result of we deal with it as some type of character deficiency.

Rather than an sickness. And that leads us to horrible coverage selections. I need to come again to what you are particularly doing in a couple of minutes, however I do not need to lose the thread of your story as a result of it is too good to not observe that thread. So you go to varsity at 16, you go to the University of Pennsylvania, which is kind of a university. Once once more, you arrive and also you’re youthful than everyone.

Younger than everyone. I’m poorer than everyone, just about coming from a small city when a lot of the youngsters got here from both huge cities or suburbs and main metropolises. And, you realize, I simply felt misplaced in a variety of methods. But once more, music was my connector. I began singing in an a cappella group there, made a variety of associates that method, and simply linked to a variety of different individuals by way of music. I began working at a church up in Scranton as nicely, the place our president is from. I used to drive up on the weekends and play and sing at this church and direct the choir there.

But how did you join with that? You’re a child. You’re an adolescent.

I performed and sang so much rising up in Ohio, performed in church so much. And one among our household associates knew a pastor in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who was in search of a brand new musician. And I began simply going up there, I feel as soon as a month or twice a month. And finally they employed me to return up each Sunday. And yeah, it was simply all by way of a household connection and household pal connection. And I began, you realize, dwelling a double life the place I used to be a scholar all week. And then I might drive to Scranton on Saturday, rehearse with the choir, after which play for them on Sunday morning, after which drive again to high school proper after Sunday morning service.

I imply, one of many issues that’s one other throughline in your story is you are all the time ridiculously busy.

I imply, as a result of Penn just isn’t a simple faculty.

It’s not straightforward. And, you realize, I used to be doing my important, you realize, actions had been really going to high school. I additionally had a work-study job at Upward Bound, which is a form of a pre-college program for underrepresented and first technology and minority college students. And then I used to be main the a cappella group that I used to be in finally, in order that took fairly a number of hours of my week, after which I might drive as much as Scranton and do what I did with the choir. So these had been my like important issues in my life and I didn’t sleep sufficient. I used to be all the time sleepy, sleepy, driving to Scranton, sleeping at school. I all the time inform individuals I used to be busier then than I’m now, for positive. Even although I’ve a household and a fairly demanding profession. I obtained much less sleep then and labored extra again then in faculty than I do now.

Well, you will need to have been awake at school lengthy sufficient or sufficient since you— this sort of blew my thoughts that you just went to work on the Boston Consulting Group.

Which is a, you realize, a significant company strategic consulting agency.

I labored there for 3 years. I graduated magna cum laude from Penn with an English main, and I knew that I wished to do music, however I wanted a job. And most of my associates had been making use of to those companies, you realize, the banks and the consulting companies. I did not go to Wharton, however Wharton is correct there on our campus. And so we had been an enormous feeder faculty into a variety of these huge companies. And, you realize, these had been the distinguished jobs that had been out there. And I did not even think about that form of work. I do not even know what they did. I did not know anybody who did it till I began to know alumni, you realize, who had been like a 12 months or two forward of me, who had been, you realize, coming again to campus to recruit. And one among my associates, her identify was Kenna, she got here again to Penn to recruit. She had labored at BCG on the time, and he or she had this occasion she was part of the place alumni will come again and communicate to Black and Brown college students about these careers that had been out there to them. And I sat subsequent to her and he or she instructed me all concerning the work she was doing and it sounded attention-grabbing. So I utilized to BCG and some different companies. I obtained interviews with BCG and McKinsey, however I did not get a suggestion at McKinsey. I obtained one at BCG and it was for 50 grand a 12 months, and for me that was some huge cash on the time. So my dad was a manufacturing unit employee. My mom stayed at house with us. There was no level at which our household revenue was larger than 50 grand a 12 months, and that was the primary wage that I used to be provided popping out of faculty. And I used to be like, nicely, I obtained to take this job. So I graduate, begin working at this consulting agency and I determine I’m going to get a document deal inside a 12 months or two and I can give up this job. By that time, I had already performed on “Everything Is Everything” on Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation album. I did that whereas I used to be nonetheless at college, and I used to be beginning to work with completely different producers and writers and and recording a demo whereas I used to be nonetheless at school. And so I figured my huge break was going to be proper across the nook. But it took 5 years from once I graduated from faculty to once I obtained a document deal. And throughout that point, three of these years I used to be working at BCG.

Yeah. I imply, the factor that strikes me is, as you realize, most performers, their aspect jams are like ready tables and tending bar and stuff like that.

That should have been absorbing.

It was, it was a variety of time and vitality, however I discovered time to put in writing songs, I discovered time to attach with individuals. And you realize, that first 12 months I used to be in Boston, which wasn’t nice for my music profession, however I requested them to let me switch to New York for my second and third years, and so they allowed that. And this can be a time when the Internet increase was taking place, that first one, close to the tip of, you realize, Clinton’s time in workplace and younger individuals who had been working in these consulting companies had been all leaving to go work for dot com. They would go work for or no matter dot com, each dot com, each phrase that had a dot com after it was beginning to, you realize, appeal to all these younger, sensible individuals. And so our consulting agency was beginning to lose individuals to that. And so—

Yeah, that was a great time to ask for a favor. So I’m like, nicely, I must switch to New York. And they had been like, okay. So I transferred to New York and that was when issues began actually opened up on my music profession so I might work all day after which I might play gigs in New York. I might simply meet completely different individuals within the trade. I met Kanye throughout that point.

Yeah, which grew to become a formative relationship.

Yes, in fact. So I, one among my roommates from faculty and from New York was a man named DeVon Harris. And DeVon was Kanye’s cousin, is Kanye’s cousin. And Kanye moved from Chicago to the New York space and began to, you realize, blossom as a younger hip hop producer. And DeVon was like, you set to work with my cousin. He simply moved right here and we began working collectively. And I finally labored on a variety of his early recordings and he labored on a variety of mine. My demo finally grew to become my debut album, Get Lifted, and his demo finally grew to become College Dropout, all of which we labored on collectively.

Yeah, as a result of it is attention-grabbing that you just guys each had been in type of the identical place. You each had been very, very proficient younger guys. Just looking for a method to break by way of.

Yeah. And, you realize, he broke by way of just a bit bit earlier than I did, however we had been mainly friends and developing collectively. But he was ready to actually assist me as a producer, and he started to have increasingly connections within the enterprise. So finally I signed to his manufacturing firm as form of like a go-between between me and any main label that I might signal with. So I used to be signed to his manufacturing firm, Good Music, and he helped me get signed to a significant label cope with Columbia. And I signed with them in 2004.

We’re going to take a brief break and we’ll be proper again with extra of The Axe Files… And now again to the present.

Let me ask you about your relationship with him, as a result of I do know you are associates nonetheless, however he is, you realize, his conduct and his politics, I assume, his politics are a lot completely different or have been a lot completely different than yours.

Well, you realize, we aren’t associates as a lot as we was, as a result of I truthfully suppose as a result of we publicly disagreed on his working for workplace, his supporting Trump, I feel it grew to become an excessive amount of for us to maintain our friendship, truthfully. He was upset that I did not help his run for presidency of the United States of America for comprehensible causes.

You weren’t alone in that, by the way in which.

I wasn’t alone in that. But, you realize, he was not pleased about that. And we actually have not been shut since then.

What do not individuals perceive about him?

Well, I feel individuals get so much about him. I feel he is been very open with who he’s and his struggles with psychological well being. And he is very actual, truthfully. So I feel there’s not so much about him that individuals do not get. Like he is been fairly up entrance together with his opinions, his struggles, all of the issues that he is coping with. And I feel what you see with him is just about what you get. I do not really feel like he is an entire separate particular person in non-public than he’s in public. I feel you are just about seeing the actual Kanye publicly.

First of all, you had nice success proper out of the bat. You obtained a rap filled with Grammys and Grammy nominations and so forth, and also you went from struggling to search out your home within the music world to a breakthrough artist. How did you course of all of that success that got here all in a rush?

Well, you realize, it is attention-grabbing as a result of again to Kanye being with him when it occurred for him, simply, you realize, like a 12 months or so earlier than it occurred for me, that was really helpful for me as a result of it was it was nearly like an apprenticeship the place I obtained to see the whole lot that was going to occur to me like a 12 months upfront. And it helped me, I feel, mentally put together for it and know how you can transfer in that world earlier than I used to be the main target of consideration.

In 2006 you took a really public place concerning the battle in Iraq.

And I do know that, you realize, your advisers had been nervous about that, as advisors all the time are.

Possibly. I do not keep in mind them being that nervous. They did not actually discuss to me about being nervous. And, you realize, earlier than the battle even occurred, I used to be marching on the streets of New York once we had that vast protest as we had been, you realize, as you possibly can inform, the Bush administration was drumming up help for the battle. We all knew, all of us who marched knew that it was bullshit, you realize, just like the case was bullshit. You might inform they had been looking for causes to do one thing that they actually simply wished to do. And they had been making an attempt to drum up intelligence help for one thing that clearly they simply determined they wished to do. Clearly, Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, and the case for him having WMDs was, you realize, weak at greatest. And it simply appeared like they had been promoting us a invoice of products that, you realize, I did not imagine it, and I do know your former boss did not imagine it both.

No, he made a speech to that impact not removed from the place I’m sitting right here that most likely modified his life and altered the world.

Yeah, modified American historical past that he made that speech. But, yeah, I used to be a type of people who simply did not imagine it from the start, I marched to protest in opposition to it from the start. And I did not imagine in it after it occurred. And I assumed it was a waste of our troops, of our cash, of all of the issues that each one the assets had been put into. And and it distracted us from fixing different issues that wanted to be solved.

I imply, you articulate it nearly as he did once we talked about him making that speech again in 2006. But or I assume it was that that that point it was 2002, within the fall of 2002.

No one knew who I used to be once I was marching in 2002 and I used to be simply one other particular person on the road marching. Eventually, you realize, as we had gone to battle and and so they had been nonetheless speaking about surges and all these different issues, I used to be nonetheless in opposition to the battle, however the unique protests had been earlier than anyone knew who I used to be.

And did you all the time have these sensibilities, these political sensibilities? Did you pay a variety of consideration?

Well, I grew up very impressed by civil rights leaders, so I might examine them. You know, I used to be house schooled for fairly a number of years in my youth, and we’d go to the county library and my dad and mom would allow us to pick no matter we wished to examine. And I might all the time gravitate in the direction of studying about Black individuals who fought for our rights in America. I used to be all the time impressed by them, all the time pleased with the work that they did for our individuals. And in order that was my actual introduction to politics was by way of the inspiration that civil rights heroes delivered to me, together with Dr. King, however others as nicely. And in order that was my first sense of political engagement and consciousness, was serious about it by way of the lens of justice and equality and the rights of Black Americans to be full residents on this nation.

I ought to level out one among his final initiatives, as you realize, was his opposition to the battle in Vietnam.

Absolutely. The battle in Vietnam, fought to finish poverty, fought to prepare staff. You know, these are issues that he centered on along with combating for Black individuals to have the precise to vote and desegregation and all these different issues.

You’ve mentioned that you just cried the evening that Barack Obama obtained elected president whenever you had been watching the protection from Grant Park down the highway right here. But earlier you mentioned, you realize, I’m not one who’s demonstrative.

Why that second? Why had been you so overcome at that second?

Well, I assumed concerning the historical past, and the the second that broke me was watching the older Black Americans who had been within the park. Reverend Jackson was there.

Yes, I used to be standing proper close to him, and I noticed tears pouring down his cheeks. And I thought of the whole lot that he had been by way of in his life, together with being there when Dr. King was killed.

And that is what broke me, was watching individuals like him crying and serious about all that that they had seen in America and possibly by no means believed that this second would have arrived. That was essentially the most shifting factor about that. And then, in fact, the truth that we had been capable of be a part of it and assist, you realize, encourage the nation, encourage younger individuals to exit and vote and vote for him. I used to be proud and honored to be a part of it. But actually, what broke me and made me cry was serious about our ancestors and our predecessors who fought so laborious.

You talked to your of us about it?

Oh, yeah. They had been you realize, they had been all moved by it. And they had been proud that I had any small half in, you realize, serving to him turn out to be president. And finally they obtained to satisfy the president when he got here by way of Ohio on marketing campaign stops. And that was all cool. But yeah, I imply, it was, you realize, it was inspirational for lots of oldsters.

You had been an enormous and an articulate supporter of his highly effective advocate for him. I need to ask you concerning the position of celebrities in politics. It strikes me that you’re, there are completely different classes. There are individuals who categorical themselves and present up at a fundraiser or lend their identify to a fundraiser. And then there are individuals who transcend that. And it feels such as you you’ve two issues occurring directly in your life. One is you are investing of your self in your music, clearly, and in your inventive aspect. You have a movie firm now named after your first album, however you are additionally somebody who isn’t just talking, however organizing. Tell me about what drew you to being far more energetic than merely lending your identify.

Well, like I mentioned, these are points have cared about for a very long time and thought of them for a very long time. I even wrote an essay once I was 15.

Yeah. For a McDonald’s competitors referred to as Future Black History Makers, the place you needed to discuss how you propose to make Black historical past. And I mentioned I used to be going to turn out to be a well-known musician and I used to be going to make use of that success to attempt to make the world higher, and notably to battle for the rights of my individuals and my group.

And you do not need to misinform McDonald’s, you realize that.

You do not need to misinform McDonald’s of all individuals. But you realize, but it surely simply and I forgot about this essay for a very long time, however my dad jogged my memory of it and he was like, Johnny, do you keep in mind this essay you wrote? And I forgot about it, however I vaguely remembered having performed it and I learn it and it was so, you realize, fairly shut to identify on for what I’m doing in my life proper now. But I feel I’ve grown over time in understanding how you can use my superstar and how you can use the ability that I’ve and the attain that I’ve and the assets that I’ve to really make change. And so through the years, you realize, typically I might be extra centered on schooling reform. And then extra recently, I’ve been centered extra on justice reform and in addition simply the entire concept of native authorities and the way we take into consideration how our native governments work on our behalf and make us stronger and and spend money on the precise issues to make us all more healthy. So I’ve been occupied with all these issues, however there’s extra to it than simply being . Once you begin constructing organizations and having a crew which are centered on these points. And so we have been actually constructing, we have been elevating cash, we have been contributing our personal cash after which constructing organizations that concentrate on these areas. So we began FREEAMERICA, I feel again in like 2014 or 15, someplace round there. And FREEAMERICA has been centered on ending mass incarceration in America. And so we do fairly a number of completely different initiatives and we discuss to a variety of completely different activists and get entangled in a variety of completely different native and state fights and nationwide fights when essential. But a few of it is by way of serious about the position of the district lawyer and the way we will be impactful in races for district lawyer in communities. Some of it is by way of altering legal guidelines on the state degree, just like the Amendment Four in Florida that restored voting rights to of us with a felony conviction, or Prop 47 in California, which downgraded a bunch of crimes that had been initially regarded as felonies to misdemeanors and subsequently lowered our jail and jail inhabitants by about 20,000 individuals a 12 months and redirected the funds that we might have spent on these issues to group constructing actions. So we have gotten concerned in state and native fights primarily as a result of that is actually what our legal justice system is about. It’s a bunch of legal justice methods in a bunch of locations, whether or not they’re counties, cities, states. That’s the place a variety of the selections are made that affect individuals’s lives. And the overwhelming majority of our incarcerated individuals are not in federal jail. They’re in both state jail or of their native jail.

Local jails ready, oftentimes ready to be tried.

To be tried, not convicted of a criminal offense, however they cannot afford to get out as a result of they cannot afford the money bail that is been assigned to them. So we began FREEAMERICA after which we began Human Level, which works with another former Obama alums from FUSE Corps. And that is all about native authorities and the position that native governments play in individuals’s lives, notably in serious about structural racism, whether or not it is housing or environmental or the legal justice system. And total, I discuss so much about budgets and the affect that budgets have on individuals’s lives. And it has been mentioned that budgets are ethical paperwork. And primarily what we’re saying is within the budgeting course of, within the useful resource allocation course of, let’s have individuals within the room who’re serious about the group, serious about the marginalized individuals who have typically been ignored, in order that when these choices are being made, these of us lives are being thought of. And so we rent fellows who’re funded by way of our fundraising efforts, however they work on the behest of the town authorities to be within the communities and attempt to make change throughout the room when the selections are being made about useful resource allocation and how you can execute the legal guidelines of that group in a method that is actually honest. And only for all of the group members.

You journey the nation so much, having a variety of conversations. It’s not nearly elevating cash. Talk to me about that.

The very first thing we did once we began FREEAMERICA was do a listening and studying marketing campaign, nearly like a politician would do. You know, I keep in mind when Hillary ran for Senate the primary time in New York, I used to be you realize, I used to be one among her constituents on the time. And she did a listening tour across the state, you realize, and a variety of occasions individuals are form of cynical about these issues. But I truthfully suppose she discovered so much in that course of and he or she grew to become a greater candidate for it.

John, let me simply interrupt you and inform you that Barack Obama working for the Senate and spending as a lot time as he did in small cities and rural areas, in addition to the Chicago space, I feel actually ready him for Iowa, but in addition only for being president of an enormous, numerous nation.

Absolutely. And so we’d like our legislators to go on listening excursions. We want them to pay attention and take note of what individuals care about.

As lengthy as they’re listening, yeah.

Yeah, listen. And then really, you realize, govern as if they’ve paid consideration. But anyway, we did an analogous factor. We went round and talked to of us. We went the prisons, went the jails. We went to juvenile detention facilities. We went to satisfy with a bunch of prosecutors, went to go meet with public defenders. We went to satisfy with corrections officers, all of the stakeholders in our legal authorized system. We met with them to actually discover out what was on their minds, what they cared about, what they prioritized. We met with a variety of previously incarcerated people who find themselves typically the main activists with regards to this. Learned what they had been prioritizing, spoke with them so much and began coordinating with them so much of their activist organizations. So we discovered what they cared about and discovered what we thought can be good for us to battle for. And then we began choosing fights and getting concerned. Some of it was to go state propositions. Some of it was to get sure individuals elected, which I’ve to form of separate from the nonprofit wing of my life, however I nonetheless personally get entangled. And then a variety of it was about schooling. So taking what I used to be listening to from all these stakeholders after which translating that to my viewers, I’ve, you realize, 15 million Twitter followers and 15 million Instagram followers. Lots of people who, you realize, may be listening to what I’ve to say and what I feel. And so I wished to amplify, you realize, all of the issues I used to be studying, amplify the voices that I used to be listening to from and exit and inform individuals about it in order that the general public might perceive what we had been doing as a rustic. And each time our authorities is doing one thing, they’re doing it both tacitly or explicitly with our approval and with our tax {dollars} and with our votes. And so I wished the American individuals to know extra about what our authorities was doing below our identify. And I do not suppose lots of people even knew that we had been essentially the most incarcerated nation on the planet. I mentioned it on the Oscar stage once I obtained the award with Common for “Glory” for Best Original Song. I mentioned we had been essentially the most incarcerated nation on the planet, and most of the people had been like, “Is he telling the reality? Is that true?” I obtained reality checked, I feel by Washington Post or one of many reality checkers. But yeah, that is true. That is a reality.

Yeah, no, that may be a reality.

And so I and others have actually taken upon ourselves to coach the general public about what we’re doing after which assist us think about a greater method of fixing these points.

We’re going to take a brief break and we’ll be proper again with extra of The Axe Files… And now again to the present. Let me ask you about these D.A. races that you have been concerned in and in addition the final dialogue about budgets, about policing. Because I really feel like, nicely, you realize, it will be a really very long time earlier than we get our arms round what this virus did to us. But we have seen, you realize, an eruption of crime. And there’s been type of a backlash as a result of individuals need to really feel secure. And that is not— that is individuals within the poor communities and different communities. And so this complete concept of other sentencing and so forth has run into a variety of opposition. And these D.As, who you’ve got helped elect, I imply, we simply noticed Chesa Boudin in San Francisco lose round these points, however actually as a response to crime. So inform me the place you suppose we’re on this and the way do you reply to individuals who say, nicely, hey, you realize, I do not need to let an entire bunch of individuals out as a result of I do not really feel secure.

I perceive. First of all, everyone deserves to really feel secure. And once I say everyone, I imply everyone. I imply of us who encounter the police, of us who’re caught up within the system ultimately, but in addition the broader group, their households, their neighbors. Everybody deserves to really feel secure. And there is a position for policing to play in that. There’s a job for the legal justice system to play in that. But I feel we additionally want to understand that now we have to make different investments in security to make our communities actually safer. That means specializing in psychological well being. That means specializing in drug dependancy. That means specializing in homelessness. That means realizing that incarceration would not remedy all of our issues. We are already essentially the most incarcerated nation on the planet. If that had been the important thing to us being the most secure nation on the planet, then we might already be that. But we even have a gun drawback the place we’re essentially the most armed nation on the planet. We even have psychological well being crises in so many communities. We have drug dependancy crises. So all these different issues are taking place. And then notably in locations like San Francisco, now we have an inexpensive housing disaster. And so a variety of occasions the difficulty of security and crime has been conflated with, oh, I see a bunch of individuals on the streets in my group, and I perceive why that makes individuals really feel much less secure. But the answer to make us all really feel safer actually can be, nicely, how do we discover inexpensive housing for all these of us so they are not dwelling in a state of chaos? And what we have discovered is that when individuals are homeless, it really exacerbates the opposite points that we’re fearful about. It exacerbates drug dependancy. It exacerbates any psychological well being crises that they are coping with. So if we had been to assault the foundation of that, it might be, nicely, how do we discover extra inexpensive housing for these of us? And belief me, it prices some huge cash to incarcerate these of us. It’ll be cheaper to search out inexpensive housing for these of us. And then I feel it is also necessary to ensure we’re coping with details and never the form of exaggerations of individuals with an agenda. And one of many issues that is been a fear is that whereas crime has gone up through the pandemic, a variety of it has been exaggerated by individuals with an agenda who’re anti the reforms that we have fought for. So there are of us with an agenda to incarcerate extra individuals, to form of assault any makes an attempt at accountability for the police and some other actors in our system. And so a few of these of us have dramatically exaggerated the uptick in crime whereas there’s some crimes have gone up. I noticed a chart just lately about shootings in New York. They have not gone up dramatically, however the press protection of them had gone up dramatically. And so we’d like to ensure we’re coping with details and we have to make it possible for our journalists are telling the reality and ensuring they are not simply repeating propaganda by individuals with an curiosity within the final result and an curiosity within the funding resolution. And both method, individuals should really feel secure. And there was an uptick in crime through the pandemic. And we’d like to ensure we try to unravel these issues by attacking the roots of these issues and never simply pondering we’ll incarcerate our method to security in our communities, as a result of we have been doing incarceration. We’ve been doing very nicely in incarcerating individuals, however we’re not fixing all these issues. So we have to suppose extra creatively about how you can spend money on our communities to stop a few of these crimes from taking place. Make all of our individuals really feel safer, but in addition give them locations to reside, give them alternatives to work. And in the event that they’re having psychological well being crises or drug dependancy crises, giving them assist.

You had been sad otherwise you expressed unhappiness when the president mentioned that he wished native communities to make use of among the among the Rescue Act cash that is remaining to extend the hiring of police and I presume this is the reason you suppose that a few of these assets are higher spent on different priorities.

My view of that’s mainly we fund police at a really important degree. I imagine our police funding outstrips the funding of nearly each different nation’s army funding on the planet apart from, I feel China and possibly a few different international locations. So we spend some huge cash on police. So once more, if we might police and incarcerate our method to security, we might have already performed it. So the query is, is there any higher use for that enjoyable than placing it in policing? And, you realize, individuals obtained upset about “defund” and the way, you realize, they thought it was a catastrophe as a political slogan. But the actual fact is, it makes you really take note of funding. And the actual fact is, we proceed to fund and proceed to fund, it doesn’t matter what occurs, whether or not crime goes up or goes down. We proceed to fund the police. And the query is, would any of these funds be higher spent doing different issues? And we all the time complain about we do not have the cash for this. We do not have the cash for that. We do not have cash to assist the poor. We do not have cash for housing, however we all the time have cash for jails, prisons and policing. So my admonition to the nation is, let’s take into consideration these priorities and resolve that there are higher methods to spend this cash typically than extra jails, prisons and police.

But simply as a political matter wasn’t defund police, did not that turn out to be form of a cudgel for opponents.

It did, however is not the whole lot a cudgel? First of all, no Democrats ran on defund. No, you realize main nationwide Democrats. Joe Biden did not. Almost no House members ran on it. Almost no Senate members ran on it. It was actually simply an activist slogan, individuals on the left who’re activists responding to George Floyd’s homicide. So regardless that no Democratic politicians ran on it, they had been saddled with it anyway. So it goes to indicate you that it would not matter to some extent, these far proper forces and the established order forces, established order defenders are going responsible Democrats, going responsible no matter slogan they’ll each time they need to. And they are not going to let the reality be any form of barrier for them in going after them. And not solely did Joe Biden not defund the police, he funded them much more than they had been funded earlier than. And if anybody continues to be blaming him for an activist slogan, then, you realize, they are not doing it with any form of sincerity or honesty. They’re being disingenuous. And I do not know the way you battle that as a result of it is not true. Like they’re accusing him of one thing that is simply not true.

I need to simply swap topics for a second. You and your spouse, Chrissy Teigen, who’s well-known as nicely, have two youngsters. And you had a 3rd youngster and also you misplaced that youngster through the being pregnant. And she’s written and talked about how devastating that was to all of you. We have this debate occurring now concerning the Dobbs resolution overturning Roe. And I’m questioning how your expertise of getting misplaced that youngster performs into as a result of there’s this notion that by some means individuals are making informal choices.

Yeah. And, you realize, anybody who’s handled being pregnant is aware of none of that is informal. None of that is is frivolous. And it is so intimate and it is so private. How do we would like our governors and our legislators, most of whom are males on this room with a physician and with this one who’s coping with their being pregnant? Why do we would like our authorities concerned in these choices? Someone made a considerably humorous industrial just lately. I assumed it may need been nearly too tongue in cheek about it, however they had been primarily saying, you realize, would you like Governor Abbott within the room serving to you resolve what to do together with your being pregnant and— no! And having gone by way of that state of affairs with my spouse, primarily anybody who would have a miscarriage must be investigated. If you resolve they weren’t allowed to have an abortion, then anybody who had a miscarriage in any case of that trauma, in any case of that ache, in any case these tears we went by way of to then have the native D.A. or an area legislation enforcement do an investigation and ensure the miscarriage was authorized by the state and never only a common run of the mill abortion. To have the federal government resolve whether or not or not the lifetime of the mom was sufficiently in peril for them to make this intimate resolution that they make between themselves and their physician, to have the federal government concerned in that dialog in any method is so offensive to me. It’s nasty. It’s evil. It shouldn’t be even a dialogue. The authorities shouldn’t be concerned. And I imagine, you realize, I perceive individuals which are like, nicely, what about after six months? What about after eight months? But for those who noticed Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who’s now Secretary Pete, I feel he had a terrific response to that. And he was saying mainly, anybody who will get to that stage of a being pregnant, they wished to have the newborn. They normally have a reputation for the newborn.

Got the room arrange. Yeah.

Yeah, they’ve a room arrange. We had a reputation for Jack. We had been about 5 – 6 months in. Anyone who makes that gut-wrenching resolution at that time within the being pregnant, they’re solely doing it as a result of they’ve a critical motive to do it, whether or not it is the well being of the mom or the well being of the kid. And they do not need to do it. They wished to maintain that child. Why would now we have the federal government are available in and do a postmortem to ensure it was authorized? It’s insane. I feel the federal government ought to come fully be out of the abortion dialog. I do not care about six months, three months, eight months. It must be between the one that’s pregnant and their physician, their household, if they need them to be concerned.

This has been pushed, clearly, by not completely, however by the evangelical motion. You’re an individual of religion. How do you course of that and the way you consider that and the position that they’ve performed in our politics and conservative voices inside your individual, inside your individual church group?

Well, I’m not an energetic church member anymore, so I do not need to say that I’m part of a specific church group, however I grew up in a Black pentecostal church. But we additionally had a variety of interactions with White evangelical church buildings in my group. And in actual fact, I went to a Christian faculty for 2 years that was run by an evangelical church in my group, a White evangelical church in my group. And so I’m very conversant in, you realize, the group with the tradition of the White evangelical church. And now we have to be clear that that may be a political motion as a lot as it is a spiritual motion. And in a variety of methods, it is a racial motion simply as a lot as it is a spiritual motion. So we will by no means exclude White from our descriptive dialog concerning the evangelical church. Because the White and the evangelical are doing a variety of work in that dialog. So a part of the rationale for the conservatism in that group is a racial conservatism. They’ve been in opposition to a variety of the advances for Black and Brown individuals in our nation, however they’ve additionally been in opposition to advances for girls in our nation. They’ve been in opposition to advances for the LGBTQ group in our nation. So they’ve in a number of methods stood in opposition to progress in our nation. And I simply disagree with them. I disagree with them on a number of ranges. And I do not imagine that they need to be capable of use their religion as a method of imposing their beliefs on the remainder of the nation. We had been judiciously and properly by our founders devised as a nation the place the federal government did not root for any specific faith, that the federal government did not attempt to set up any specific church or any specific denomination or any specific faith. And we should not let the spiritual views of some dictate the behaviors of your complete nation.

You mentioned when Donald Trump was elected that you just thought that it was a backlash to the Obama years?

And the place do you suppose we are actually?

I feel we’re within the midst of one other backlash. And I feel a variety of that crime dialog has been an enormous manifestation of the backlash. So, you realize, after George Floyd, there was a so-called reckoning the place everybody, you realize, modified their social media avatars and and a variety of corporations put out statements and lots of people employed DEI officers and all these different issues. And then we had, you realize, a variety of conversations round this nation’s historical past of racism. And then a variety of of us had been upset that that dialog occurred, that it made sure of us really feel responsible about what their ancestors did or what their forefathers and moms did. And we have seen a large backlash not solely within the crime dialog, however we have seen it with all this nonsense about CRT, all the removing of books and objects from the curriculum in a variety of states and communities. We’ve seen critical backlash on a number of ranges to the so-called racial reckoning. And I feel we’re nonetheless experiencing that backlash proper now.

And what’s the pathway ahead, do you suppose? You supported, I do know, Elizabeth Warren for president in 2020?

I feel the pathway ahead is us realizing that the truth that we’re of various races is our power as a nation, the truth that we’re a various nation the place of us come from all around the world to attempt to reside the American dream is a power of our nation, it is not a weak spot. It makes us higher. And if we’re capable of see one another, respect one another, acknowledge the truth that we could also be completely different in some methods, however take a look at that as a power after which govern ourselves accordingly. We can turn out to be a greater nation. My pal Heather McGhee wrote a terrific guide referred to as “The Sum of Us,” the place she talked a lot about how us having racial resentment maintain the nation again has price everyone. And her metaphor all through the guide, in fact, is the general public pool. So fairly than desegregating the general public pool in a variety of these communities, they simply removed the pool. So this public good that was benefiting all types of oldsters and that might have been out there to everybody as soon as it needed to be desegregated. They would fairly do away with it in order that they did not have it, than make it’s out there to everybody. So I feel that form of mentality, that zero sum mentality the place we’re competing in opposition to different races and never pondering we will all succeed collectively and develop collectively, that is what’s holding us again. And the one method we get by way of it’s if we see one another, love one another, care about one another, empathize with one another, and resolve that we’re higher off once we work collectively to make our communities safer and stronger and more healthy. And, you realize, that is the form of work that I’ve been making an attempt to do across the nation.

Everybody who’s listened to this can have the identical query. So I’ve obtained to ask it. Way again when, whenever you had been musing about your future, I feel there was some musing additionally about enjoying a management position past music, working for workplace, maybe president, maybe one thing else. You’re a strong advocate. Do you ever take into consideration that? Do you ever take into consideration, hey, possibly I ought to step away from the piano for some time.

I don’t need to run for workplace. I undoubtedly do not need to do it now. I do not envision myself eager to do it sooner or later. I did once I was a child. I did need to be president and I wished to be a number of issues.

Now you realize what it is like and also you suppose possibly not.

Exactly, I do know sufficient individuals to have been president, one specifically, that I’m good. I do not want that in my life. You know, I really like what I do. I really like my day job. But I additionally love the work we do politically and philanthropically. And I really feel like I’m capable of make a huge impact by way of the work that I’m doing and. I like the way in which that I’m doing it now and I do not need to run for workplace. Part of it could be simply my very own selfishness and self-importance. Like, I like the truth that half the nation is not rooting for my failure each day proper now. And I do not look ahead to the concept of half of my nation rooting for me to fail and seeking to destroy me. I respect anybody who’s keen to place themselves and their household by way of that, however I simply do not need to do it.

I’ll inform you, John, I do not find out about them rooting in opposition to you to fail, however I would not guess in opposition to you to fail based mostly in your unbelievable life and story. And thanks for all of the contributions you’ve got made.

Thank you, David. It’s such a pleasure speaking with you. And it is actually been a pleasure. And I really feel like hopefully individuals can be taught from my story and interact with among the issues we talked about right this moment. And we will all develop collectively.

Let’s hope. Thank you. Great to be with you.

All proper, David, take care.

Before we log off a phrase concerning the crew that makes this podcast attainable. You know, I’m the genial entrance man, however I rely every week on the beautiful analysis of Miriam Annenberg, the technical help of engineer Jeff Fox and producer editor Hannah McDonald and Megan Marcus, and the luxurious crew at CNN Audio. And I need to supply a particular because of my intrepid government producer and proper hand Allyson Siegal. Brilliant, insightful and delicate, her partnership and counsel has meant extra to me than I might ever adequately categorical. Finally, because of all of you, our listeners, for taking these journeys of discovery with me every week. I look ahead to sharing extra of them within the months and years to return. And possibly we’ll even hit a thousand.

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