John Legend emphasized the power of love in his Commencement address to the Class of 2021.
Legend is the first African American man to reach “EGOT” status, as Legend has received Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. President Vincent Price joked that offering John Legend the honorary degree from Duke would make him the first ever “DEGOT.”
Legend started off by recalling the first time he came to Duke, when he performed at the Last Day of Classes concert in 2004 with Kanye West.
“In those days, I’d play piano and sing the hooks with Kanye and hope people would notice me,” he said. He released his first album “Get Lifted” that same year, noting that today he realized that “maybe it’s thanks to Duke that [his] career took off.”
Legend remembered feeling “pretty indifferent” in 1999 when he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. After four years of hard work, he didn’t understand the “point of all of [graduation’s] pomp and circumstance.”
“Being together is the point. Being joyous is the point. Celebrating is the point,” he said. “There are so few moments to enjoy this right of passage, to just revel in our accomplishments with the people we love. Today is one of those moments.”
He discussed the things the Class of 2021 lost during this last year, from job offers to loved ones. He noted that while they didn’t get to experience all of the special moments at Duke that they could in previous years, there were still many lessons to be learned.
Legend said that in order to succeed along the path that brought the graduates to where they are today, they needed to have a “constant drive to push harder, reach harder, do better, try to be perfect or close to it.”
“But over the last year, you were forced to pause, to see yourselves not just in competition with one another but in community with each other,” he added.
Many believe competitiveness is a zero-sum game, Legend said, citing the fact that “in order for Duke to win, [University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill] must ‘GTH,’” referencing Duke fans’ cheers of “Go to hell, Carolina!” He also referenced the Black Lives Matter movement, noting that “so many people heard Black Lives Matter and assumed it meant that other lives couldn’t matter also.”
Legend discussed how the notion that someone else must lose in order for one to succeed “has poisoned our democracy from the beginning.” This way of thinking, he said, keeps many without voice, power or opportunity, “all because of fear that if those people do better, someone else would have to lose.”
“Our nation is at its best when we realize that we all do better when we all do better,” Legend said.
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Legend acknowledged that some may be wondering why he was “bringing [them] down” on their graduation day.
“I’ve been hearing ‘shut up and sing’ my entire career,” Legend said. However, he noted, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect on the times in which we live.”
Legend asked graduates to remember how dependent everyone is on each other and to use what they’ve gained from Duke to build communities “where everyone can live up to their full potential.” He said that there were three ways graduates could make this kind of change.
‘Learning cannot stop today’
The first lesson Legend discussed was that “learning cannot stop today.” He recalled growing up and reading about civil rights advocates throughout history, who later became his heroes. When he began learning about criminal justice, he “thought the problem was with individuals, not the system,” now acknowledging that it is “a direct result of policies that target people of color.”
After spending years learning about criminal justice reform, Legend started FREEAMERICA, a campaign to “reform the unjust criminal justice system,” he said. In starting the project, Legend discussed listening to incarcerated individuals with an “open mind and humble spirit” in order to focus on amplifying their voices. Some of the policies they discussed were working to decriminalize drugs, finding alternatives to incarceration and restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.
Legend described the campaign as “some of the most gratifying work of [his] life.”
Next, Legend said that many believe change starts with the “go big or go home” mentality, but he noted that “some of the most important work you can do starts at home.”
He discussed how municipal, county and school board elections determine much of the everyday encounters of people’s lives, noting that “most of the reforms we hope for will come from local elected officials.”
Legend added that most local nonprofits and organizers know their communities very well and what they need to fight homelessness, violence and other widespread issues. He encouraged the Class of 2021 to learn the same things and “engage in the real, tangible bettering of [their] community” after they graduate.
“Some of you are about to move to a new community, each with its own historical context and background,” he said. “I hope you’ll learn about your new homes—past, present and future. Find its change makers and boundary breakers.”
The power of love
Lastly, Legend called upon the Class of 2021 to “think about what it actually means to feel and show love for [their] neighbors.”
“Once we recognize our interdependence, our mutuality, it’s clear that love is precisely what our society needs: to look out for each other, to take care of each other,” he said.
To love the people one doesn’t even know, Legend said, “means letting go of fear.” It means ensuring that everyone everywhere can access a COVID-19 vaccine; it means ensuring that everyone is safe from the consequences of climate change, especially in communities that are already under-resourced, he explained.
Legend paraphrased Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian visual artist, activist and academic: “Love means that your liberation is bound up with mine and mine with yours.” He then paraphrased political activist and philosopher Cornel West: “Love in public takes the shape of justice.”
‘We will be sure’
Legend talked about how after the Civil War, white people “feared the power of the Black vote” and attempted to disenfranchise them with poll taxes, felony disenfranchisement and literacy tests.
Today, Legend said, restoring the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people requires constitutional commitment in a lot of places, with most needing a popular referendum and Florida needing a 60% vote.
With the help of Legend and FREEAMERICA, Florida passed the amendment with 65% of the vote and restored the right to vote for 1.4 million Floridians.
“Only love can give you the power to take on these kinds of odds,” Legend said.
Legend concluded by singing lyrics from his song “Glory,” which he recorded with American rapper Common.
“Class of 2021, when we live with this kind of love, when we lead with this kind of love, one day, one day, when 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, glory.”