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Q&A: John Legend on Race, Common, Sam Smith, ‘Blurred Lines’

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John Legend poses for a photograph during the SXSW Music Festival on Saturday, March 21, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)

John Legend poses for a photograph during the SXSW Music Festival on Saturday, March 21, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)

Mesfin Fekadu, ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — John Legend says he’s concerned that the “Blurred Lines” verdict could set a scary precedent for artists creating music inspired by others.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, the Grammy winner said understands why people say 2013’s biggest hit song by Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke sounds like “Got to Give It Up,” Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit, adding: “I said that when I first heard it, too.”

But he said he doesn’t agree with the jury that determined the performers copied elements of Gaye’s work.

“You have to be careful when it comes to copyrights, whether just sounding like or feeling like something is enough to say you violated their copyrights,” the singer-songwriter told The Associated Press on Saturday before performing at the South by Southwest music festival. “Because there’s a lot of music out there, and there’s a lot of things that feel like other things that are influenced by other things. And you don’t want to get into that thing where all of us are suing each other all the time because this and that song feels like another song.”

Williams, with whom Legend has worked in the past, and Thicke also were ordered to pay nearly $7.4 million to three of Gaye’s children.

“I think we have to be careful about that, and I’m a little concerned that this verdict might be a slippery slope,” Legend said.

Legend also spoke about collaborating with Sam Smith, whose debut album earned him Grammys for song and record of the year last month; his collaborator Common’s recent comments about racism that sparked some backlash; and mentoring budding artists with for the AXE White Label.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

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AP: Are you working on a new album?

Legend: A week from Monday I’ll start. I’m going on vacation next week because I need it (laughs) and then I’ll really jump in the studio to start writing again.

AP: “All of Me” was such a huge hit. Is there any pressure as you head into the next album?

Legend: The pressure I put on myself isn’t, ‘I have to make another ‘All of Me.” It’s just I have to write great songs. I want to make a better record than I made the last time. I want to grow. I want to discover new things about myself creatively.

AP: You and Common won an Oscar for “Glory” from (the movie) “Selma.” Where did you put it?

Legend: It’s sitting on my piano in New York at our apartment there.

AP: Common received some backlash for his comments about ending racism on “The Daily Show” last week. What are your thoughts?

Legend: Oh yeah, I heard a little bit about it and I understand what he’s saying because I do believe that part of us ending racism is us seeing each other’s humanity and learning to love each other, even if we look different or worship differently or live differently. But I think it’s not enough for us to extend the hand of love. I think it’s important that that goes both ways. It’s important also that we look at policies we need to change as well.

It’s important for us also to fight for certain changes that need to happen. And one of those issues that I really care about is education. But also another one is incarceration, which is what I talked about at the Oscars. And mass incarceration is a policy that’s kind of built up over the last four decades and it’s destroyed families and communities, and something we need to change. And it’s fallen disproportionally on black and brown communities, especially black communities, and it’s kind of a manifestation of structural racism. So when you think about that kind of thing, it’s not enough to say we need to love each other, you have to go behind that and say we need to change these policies, we need to fight, we need to protest, we need to agitate for change.

AP: What was it like working with Sam Smith on the charity single “Lay Me Down”?

Legend: It was great. I love Sam. I think he’s one of the most talented new artists out right now, and our voices work really well together. And we both love soul music and wanted to make a really powerful song together, and we were able to do that — and do it for a great cause. And I’m excited for all the traction the song has gotten; it hit No. 1, my first No. 1 in the U.K.

AP: Have you been to SXSW before?

Legend: I’ve performed here many times, just different types of events. There’s always something going on. The first time I played here was actually for Starbucks, outside of Starbucks in 2005 for my first album. I’ve come back for different purposes different years. I’ve done a show with Kanye here.

AP: What was it like mentoring budding musicians?

Legend: I love it. It’s something I’ve always done anyway. A lot of it has been informal; some of it is me signing artists like Estelle or executive producing artists like Stacy Barthe. It’s always been a part of what I like to do, and I benefited from it as well. Kanye signed me and has mentored me, Stevie Wonder has mentored me. All kinds of people have given me great advice over the years, so I like to pay it forward as well.

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Online: http://www.johnlegend.com/us/
http://sxsw.com/
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Art

Terrance Kelly, Brother Ben Lead Creative Arts Classes for Elders at West Oakland Senior Center

The Emmy Award-winning conductor and choir director Terrance Kelly leads a special choir class focused on gospel, jazz, blues and world music alongside Paul Daniels of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and the St. Columba Church.

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Ben Tucker, a.k.a. Brother Ben, leads “Straight Outta Oakland,” one of the new classes offered by Stagebridge and held at the West Oakland Senior Center. Photo courtesy of Stagebridge
Ben Tucker, a.k.a. Brother Ben, leads “Straight Outta Oakland,” one of the new classes offered by Stagebridge and held at the West Oakland Senior Center. Photo courtesy of Stagebridge

By Julius Rea

Stagebridge and the West Oakland Senior Center have partnered to offer two incredible classes to be held at the West Oakland Senior Center (WOSC), starting this month. Created for elders, these opportunities will bring out the joy in celebrating Black culture and Oakland history.

The Emmy Award-winning conductor and choir director Terrance Kelly leads a special choir class focused on gospel, jazz, blues and world music alongside Paul Daniels of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and the St. Columba Church.

Inviting both introductory singers and experienced vocalists, “The Community’s Choir” offers a special chance to work with these two Oakland-based musical voices. Also, students are not required to learn to read sheet music. This class will be held Fridays, 1 – 2 p.m. at WOSC.

In 2005, Kelly received the Local Heroes Award from KQED Television for his directorship of the Oakland Interfaith Youth Choir and was also honored at the Gospel Music Awards. In 2013, he was awarded the Dr. Edwin Hawkins Excellence Award. He currently serves as Minister of Magnification at Oakland’s Imani Community Church.

Ben Tucker, a.k.a. Brother Ben, will teach “Straight Outta Oakland,” a class inspired by the history and culture of West Oakland. He will lead students in developing a showcase of five-minute stories. Focused on telling personal narratives in a clear, concise manner, this class will be a bridge to mapping and crafting one-of-a-kind journeys. The class will be held Tuesdays, 1 – 2 p.m. at WOSC at 1724 Adeline St., Oakland, CA 94607.

A retired University of California administrator, Tucker has been a community-focused storyteller for several years while taking classes at Stagebridge. He has performed at the San Francisco and Berkeley Marsh Theaters, Oakland Main and San Francisco Bayview libraries, and many senior centers and schools. Brother Ben is also a singer and author.

Students who are registered members of the West Oakland Senior Center will be offered the classes for free. Those who are not members can register today at www.stagebridge.org. For more information on these classes, call the West Oakland Senior Center directly at (510) 238-7016.

Julius Rea is the director of marketing and communications for Stagebridge.

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Art

REVIEW: Ishmael Reed’s Play “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” Comments on Black Artists and White Sponsors

[Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist, Jean-Michel] Basquiat rose to fame in the neo-expressionist art movement in the 1980s and [Andy] Warhol, one of his mentors, had gained renown for Pop Art and drug use in the 1960s. They died within a year of each other, Warhol at age 59 in 1987 and Basquiat died of an overdose at age 27 in 1988.

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Detective Mary van Helsing (Roz Fox), left, rescues Jennifer Blue (Kenya Wilson), one of the victims in the continuing exploitation of Blackness. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Detective Mary van Helsing (Roz Fox), left, rescues Jennifer Blue (Kenya Wilson), one of the victims in the continuing exploitation of Blackness. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

By Wanda Sabir

Ishmael Reed’s current play, directed by Carla Blank, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” at Theater for the New City until January 9, explores Black culture and white exploitation in the relationship between the Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.

Basquiat rose to fame in the neo-expressionist art movement in the 1980s and Warhol, one of his mentors, had gained renown for Pop Art and drug use in the 1960s. They died within a year of each other, Warhol at age 59 in 1987 and Basquiat died of an overdose at age 27 in 1988.

There are so many analogous parallels, both fictional or mythic and actual that it is amazing that the play only has one intermission.

In his play, Reed postulates that the older, white artist presented himself as a benevolent father figure. While under the influence of drugs, a willing Basquiat allows Warhol to install him in a basement where Basquiat churns out art like an assembly worker.

Reed’s premise here is that Warhol had gotten away with a crime.

The cold case is reopened by two forensic scientists, Grace and Raksha, (Monisha Shiva and understudy Kenya Wilson) who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. As the contemporary team investigates, time shifts back and forth as what happened to Basquiat had perpetuated with other captives.

Slave owners used cocaine — which Basquiat used excessively — to increase productivity among the captives, Reed says. Just as slavery was once legal, the Warhol machine also had legal protection, money and power.

Reed’s writing is crisp and sharp as are the actors who deliver and deliver and deliver some more. Carla Blank’s direction is also on point as the diction and storylines unfold clearly in nuanced layers.

I love the scene in Act 2 where the ghost of Richard Pryor — appearing as a shadow puppet danced by actor, Kenya Wilson — tries to prevent Basquiat from going up in chemical flames like the late comedian had.

Pryor’s ghost speaks to the art of selling out to Hollywood, another type of killing field for Black art and artists. We sense Pryor’s regret that he didn’t stay with people who loved him. It’s hard to tell friend from foe when engulfed in f(l)ame(s).

Reed’s characters also convey the prevailing attitudes by police that allow the wealthy and famous to get away with everything from theft to murder, a very real problem on and off the page.

Roz Fox’s Detective Mary van Helsing is a cool sleuth who goes looking for the missing appetizer, “Jennifer Blue” (actor Kenya Wilson) despite legal disinterest. She is our hero. Don’t worry, this is a spoiler, but there is so much going on here, you will probably forget I told you.

In “Slave” we see too often how historians are propagandists who lie to keep the empire solvent.

Remember Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in “1984”? I am reminded also of Jimi Hendrix (1970) and his demise—yes to a drug overdose. . . Fuquan Johnson (2021), Shock G (2021), Juice WRLD (2020), Billie Holiday (1959), Whitney Houston (2012), The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (2006), Michael Jackson (2009).

Since it is Ishmael Reed, we can actually have a happy ending.

The late bell hooks wrote in “Outlaw Culture: ‘Altars of Sacrifice: “Re-membering Basquiat’,” that the young, yet masterful artist “journeyed into the heart of whiteness.

White territory he named as a savage and brutal place. The journey is embarked upon with no certainty of return. Nor is there any way to know what you will find or who you will be at journey’s end. . . . Basquiat understood that he was risking his life—that this journey was all about sacrifice [. . .]” (36). this and his refusal to allow the dominant culture to tell our story, the 99%, the percentage who matter.

How difficult it must have been for the artist to have his say as he dangled from a purveyor’s noose. Herein lies Black genius. Herein lies the tragedy. Ishmael Reed’s ability to cultivate success for the past 60 or so years stems from his artistic eReed’s research is impeccable—I lose track of some of the names, like the artist who boycotts with other Black artists a museum that sets out to exploit them.

Reed is certainly prescient as is the Theater for The New City’s Artistic Director Crystal Field. As confederate monuments are toppled throughout the nation and reparations are a very real possibility, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar” certainly sets a precedent. “Slave” is a challenge and a wakeup call to those who have not been paying attention to the right thing. “Slave” says, change the channel. What did the Last Poets say about the Revolution?

The play is streaming through Jan. 9, 2022, at Theater for the New City. Streaming tickets are just $10+ small fee. For in person ($15.00) and virtual tickets visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35441/production/1091241

You can learn more about Reed on my radio or podcast interview here.

We had a conversation with many members of the cast January 5, 2022 on Wanda’s Picks Radio Show podcast. Tune in (subscribe): http://tobtr.com/12046944

 

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Bay Area

IN MEMORIAM: John Madden, Oakland Raiders Super Bowl Winning Coach, Dies at 85

“We all know him as the Hall of Fame coach of the Oakland Raiders and broadcaster who worked for every major network, but more than anything, he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

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John Madden.
John Madden.

By Bay City News

John Madden, who won a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders and went on to be a television commentator and namesake of a popular football video game series, has died at the age of 85, the National Football League announced on Dec. 28, 2021.

No other information about a cause of death was immediately released.

Madden, who grew up in Daly City, led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl victory in 1977, then went on to highly successful careers in TV and video games, and was recently the subject of a documentary titled “All Madden.”

“We all know him as the Hall of Fame coach of the Oakland Raiders and broadcaster who worked for every major network, but more than anything, he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

Madden’s death prompted widespread reactions on social media from those who knew or admired him.

The Raiders, who have since moved to Las Vegas, wrote “A brilliant coach. A loyal and trusted friend. A Raider.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote, “Tonight we mourn John Madden — he redefined the role of a sports broadcaster — his voice as recognizable as anyone who ever did the job. He hoisted a Super Bowl trophy with CA’s own Oakland Raiders. Our thoughts are with his family as we mourn this incredible man.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf wrote, “I join all in mourning + honoring SuperBowl-winning coach John Madden. He was a great personality who truly loved #Oakland. When his grandson played at O’Dowd, John was as enthusiastic about the Dragons as any NFL team. We will miss him!”

San Mateo County Board of Supervisors president David Canepa wrote, “RIP John Madden. A 1954 graduate of Jefferson High School in Daly City and Super Bowl winning coach for the Oakland Raiders. He did so much for Daly City!”

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