Listen now on:
John Legend’s Oscar acceptance speech was a powerful sermon on the struggle America still faces in the slow march to equality. And if it brought you to your feet, put tears in your eyes, or just made you nod your head with a quiet, “right on,” you need to spend some time with Wake Up!
Made in collaboration with the mighty Roots (and, yes, with a guest appearance by Common), Wake Up! was John Legend’s dive back into the golden age of protest soul, when even the most mainstream R&B acts had no problem confronting controversial social and political issues head-on, without apology, restraint, or fear that their careers would be crushed by media or fan backlash. Legend and The Roots picked songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s from icons like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone that (sadly) still had resonance in 2010, taking on racism, poverty, political apathy, government hypocrisy, and the cost of war. The rage of the album’s most incendiary tracks is soothed by songs of comfort and hope, but only slightly.
Listening to it now, in the wake of Trayvon, Ferguson, the New York protests, and the ever-widening wealth gap, Wake Up! is easily and uncomfortably more relevant now than when it was released five years ago. The song “Hard Times” seems to sum up the #BlackLivesMatter movement in its first line: “Cold, cold eyes upon me they stare, people all around me and they’re all in fear, they don’t seem to want me but they won’t admit.”
“The world won’t get no better if we just let it be” from “Wake Up Everybody” is the kind of cry against apathy that the entire pop music community needs to embrace. Even the album’s update of Bill Withers’ tale of a wounded soldier’s re-entry into civilian life, “I Can’t Write Left Handed” becomes a sobering and searing soundtrack to the debate around American Sniper‘s depiction of returning veterans and PTSD. Even better, Wake Up! manages to keep the fire of these songs burning hot, attacking them without reverence and refusing to let them get robbed of their meaning and revolutionary spirit, even as oldies radio stations and well-intentioned tribute concerts conspire to reduce them to stuffed-and-mounted nostalgia. The conviction of Legend and The Roots elevate these songs to anthems with all the power of “We Shall Overcome” and the immediacy of “Glory.”
But while we love what John Legend and The Roots did on Wake Up! and believe that you need to hear it, we also hope this is just the first step. It’s one thing to address these issues through songs written two generations back, but we want Legend’s words at the Oscars, D’Angelo’s confrontational performance of “Charade” on SNL, and the heated politics of his Black Messiah album to drag other artists back into the ring, fighting for their beliefs, igniting debate and uniting their fans to make a difference. We want artists —big artists on big stages—to write songs based on current events, from the standpoint of those experiencing—and suffering from—those events. We want songs that make those on Wake Up! feel a little irrelevant and quaint, just as the protest songs from the early ’60s felt in the wake of the outrage expressed just a few years later. We live in troubled, confrontational and, yes, hard times. When more musicians take their outrage to their audiences, their music will matter more, and music itself will matter more in the process, peeling itself away from the wallpaper status its taken on in recent years and becoming, once again, an instrument of change rather than a distraction from it.