At 32 years old, John Legend has won nine Grammy Awards, performed at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, and launched his own nonprofit organization, the Show Me Campaign, which works to eliminate poverty and encourage educational reform. But he would not have accomplished all of that without the help of his high-school guidance counselor, who encouraged Legend to dream big and and apply to Ivy League schools.
"If you have people like that in your life that are able to set those kinds of expectations for you and say you can do things bigger than your small world is, then it can really be transformative in your life because it will make you think bigger than you originally thought," the singer told iVillage recently.
Music was another factor that connected Legend to his school. Thanks to the confidence it gave him, he excelled academically and was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 16.
"(Music) made me look forward to going to school and feel like I had a personality that people wanted to pay attention to and care about," Legend explains. "The fact that I sang and was on stage made me more confident and made me communicate with people in other ways."
And Legend is helping a new generation of kids find their own mentors through his work with P&G GIVE Education's "School the Nation" campaign to combat the alarmingly high student dropout rate in the United States. On July 31, GIVE Education brandSAVER coupons appeared in newspapers around the country with discounts for P&G products. For each brandSAVER coupon that consumers redeem, P&G will donate two cents to Communities in Schools (CIS), the nation's leading dropout prevention organization.
iVillage spoke to Legend about why he's so passionate about his charity work around education, his upcoming album produced by Kanye West and who he'd love to do a duet with.
Did your parents encourage you to put education first?
Absolutely. It was important in my house. They didn’t say it, they just showed by example. They made sure we were reading when we were very young. They made it a house where education was something that was very important.
You were homeschooled on and off as a child. How did your homeschooling experience affect the rest of your educational trajectory?
I think it gave me a bit of a head start because when I came to public school, I handled my fears because the independent study and individual attention that my parents gave me helped me a lot.
Were you nervous about going off to college at such a young age?
When I first got to Penn, I felt like a fish out of water. I was 16, I was from small town, I just definitely didn’t fit right away with everyone.
How did you connect with the other students?
I think music was the main way. It made me feel like I was a part of something. I joined an a cappella group. It just made me feel connected to the whole campus.
What has driven you to work with so many different charities?
I’ve always felt the desire to speak out and find ways to give back. I have a particular interest in social justice and helping people who don’t have the advantages in life; they get overlooked. Most of the work I do is involved in that.
When did you become involved with the GIVE Education campaign?
I got involved with Harlem Village Academies in the last couple years. The more I got involved with them, the more I started to understand a lot of issues that were going on in school reform. It made me want to have my voice heard because I felt like there was an opportunity to help a lot of kids have a better school experience and have a better chance in life. I didn’t want to let that go to waste.
What makes the GIVE Education campaign different from the other charitable causes you’ve supported?
I think it’s great because it’s so broad-paced in that Proctor & Gamble is such a huge company and they reach so many households. I felt like the reach of this campaign would be really important and significant. It’s a great organization that we’re supporting, CIS, they do great work and it’s proven to be successful. I felt like it was the right combination of circumstances for me to be proud to be part of something that was going to really help people.
What do you think is the best way that parents can support their children’s education?
I think there are a lot of things. Reading is very important; it’s such a key to being successful in school, so anything parents can do early on to get their kids reading is really important. Just letting their kids know that it’s a priority that they do well in school. Interact with the teachers, interact with the administrators at school. Hold them accountable and be aware of what’s going on there. I don’t have kids so I’m not the best person to give advice to parents I think, but I think I do know that every school that I work with, they try to encourage parents to get involved and they know it really makes a difference.
Does your charity work influence your music?
Certainly. I think my last album (Wake Up!, a collaboration with The Roots) was influenced by a lot of work I do.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
I’m working on my next album. Kanye (West)’s executive producing it. We’re going to finish it this fall and put it out early next year.