The Roots and John Legend interview

October 2010

An edited version of this piece ran in the Guardian's G2 section on October 20, 2010. This is the first version as submitted on September 20, 2010.

The Roots and John Legend: photograph courtesy of Sony Music

"We spoke on it first," says Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, drummer and leader of hip hop band The Roots, explaining the genesis of his group's collaboration with John Legend, "and then I guess the second part was doin' my headache..."

The imposing ?uestlove tails off briefly, his fingers pausing for a moment in their relentless progress through a rack of secondhand seven-inch vinyl in the basement of a Greenwich Village record shop. "I'm sorry!" the 39-year-old musician and DJ chuckles. "I was readin' Chaka Khan titles!"

"I was thinking, 'He's about to explain'," laughs 31-year-old Legend, who's stood at his latest musical partner's elbow, but has chosen not to avail himself of the opportunity to do a quick spot of record shopping.

It turns out that, before his unending search for new records derailed his train of thought, Thompson meant "homework", not "headache". But his multitasker's confusion is quickly dispelled; and, listening to Wake Up!, the album his group and Legend release next month, echoes of the conversations they shared, and investigations of their musical and political heritage they undertook, ring out clearly.

Apart from one song, Shine, which Legend - born John Stephens - wrote for the soundtrack of a new documentary about America's dysfunctional public education system, the record is a collection of cover versions of tracks from soul music's most heavily politicised era. These are songs of protest, angst and inspiration soaked in the argot of the civil rights movement, written as the optimism of the 1960s gave way to the '70s of Vietnam, Watergate and racial tensions of a subtly different kind.

Played with reverence that gives them the ring of authenticity, these new versions still have an immediacy and urgency that belies the songs' vintage. Indeed, ?uestlove deserves a gold star for his homework: every song chosen sounds so relevant it could have been written last week. From the Curtis Mayfield-penned Hard Times, and its reportage of lives lived on the margins of solvency in a cold-shoulder America, to I Can't Write Left-Handed, Bill Withers' tale of a disabled veteran returning home after a distant war to rebuild a shattered life, these are songs that don't require any rewrites for a 21st century audience.

America may have elected its first black leader, but the splits in US society seem to be widening by the day. Even in New York, the world's most cosmopolitan city, where Legend lives and the Philadelphia native ?uestlove spends most of his working life, issues of race, culture and religion are as combustible as ever. A few blocks away from the record shop, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations are taking place about the proposed opening of an Islamic cultural centre close to the site of the World Trade Centre; days before our conversation, a cab driver was stabbed in the neck after his assailant had first established he was Muslim. 

Wake Up! poses some vital questions. If the songs still make sense today, does that mean the issues that gave rise to them are as loaded and intractable as they were 40 years ago? Was Barack Obama's 2008 election victory the culmination of generations of improvement in America's race relations, or has the advent of a black president intensified long-simmering resentments?

"It was a big triumph to elect a black president of America," says Legend, "but, that being said, I think it revealed a lot of the tension and resentment that other people might feel. It's still very contested what it means to be American, and who gets to stake claim to being American. Obviously in New York there's a battle over that right now - which religious groups get the right to worship in certain areas, and who has to be sensitive to another, who has to be accountable for the sins of their most extreme members. All these things are real human rights, civil rights issues that're being contested right now in 2010."   

The record isn't prescient by accident. Both men worked for the Obama campaign, and initial discussions over what songs to record took place in 2008 - when, despite a campaign that riffed on hope and optimism, there was plenty of evidence of the chasms separating black and white in America.

"I had thought this was the beginning of the post-racial period," says ?uestlove, "but during the primaries my eyes began to open. I was doin' grass-roots campaigning for Obama, and I would phone Democrats to make sure they're registered. I would use another name, so they didn't know what race or colour I was; and some of them were completely honest about how they felt, thinkin' that it was a white guy callin'. You'd ask who they were gonna vote for, and sometimes you'd get an answer like, 'I would never vote for him, because I think he's a Muslim and he's gonna destroy the country'."

"Every kind of xenophobic comment they could've said about Obama has been said, either during the election or since," Legend says. "Even if you don't agree with him he seems like a pretty decent guy, but some of the things people say about him - that he has a plot to destroy the country, or he's a Muslim Imam from Kenya who came to subvert American democracy and capitalism - are pretty amazing."

Those who are only aware of Legend via his chart hits, or of the Roots from the "day job" they took up in March last year as house band on the NBC TV show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, may be surprised to hear them collaborating on a song like Mike James Kirkland's 1972 track Hang On In There, with its repeated refrain of "This is my country - you can't make me leave/But you can't make me love the way you treat me". But both artists have a history of social and political engagement. On albums such as their 1999 Grammy winner Things Fall Apart or this year's How I Got Over, the Roots tap in to the same traditions of critique and commentary that connect Public Enemy with Stevie Wonder. Legend, too, though identified more with the pop-soul of Ordinary People or Green Light, has also recorded songs with overt political sentiments, most notably If You're Out There, his pre-election hymn of Obama-inspired optimism.

"If I'd had my way, we'd have done The Parasite," says ?uestlove, referring to a 1971 song by Eugene McDaniels which described the Pilgrim Fathers as "ex-hoodlums and jailbirds with backgrounds of crime" and caused Richard Nixon's aide Spiro Agnew to call McDaniels' label, Atlantic, to protest. "But I figured Hang On In There is probably as close as we can get to expressing a different side of how America feels. It's easy to do 'This is how bad life is,' but Hang On In There really deals with the emotion, with how some of us are really upset."

"Hang On In There is really about who's American, whose country is it?" Legend sums up. "Even though blacks have had a very difficult relationship with America, and have had the best and worst of America, we still feel like we are American. This is our country too."

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