April 18, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

John Legend ‘Never Break’ speaks to resilience in hard times

When John Legend wrote and recorded “Never Break” for “Giving Voice,” he never intended to release the song before the film. The documentary, directed by James D. Stern and Fernando Villena, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, after which Netflix decided on a December release — almost 11 months later. Then the world began to spin a bit differently, and Legend realized it was the sort of song people needed to hear sooner rather than later.

“Obviously, the year started out with the pandemic. We didn’t know how bad it was going to get at first,” Legend says. “And then we saw what happened with George Floyd and how upset and frustrated so many Black Americans felt seeing another example of our lives not being valued. And then my own personal issues with my wife and the loss of our pregnancy. It was just like situation after situation was calling for this song, and I just needed to have it out in the world.”

That led to Legend including the song on his latest album, “Bigger Love,” which was released in June.

The EGOT winner, who won an original song Oscar in 2015 for “Glory,” has his own film production company, Get Lifted Productions, and notes that when conversations with filmmakers arise, he’s often asked if he can contribute a song. In this case, “Giving Change” chronicles the annual August Wilson Monologue competition, an endeavor that gives thousands of high school students from across the nation a chance to perform on Broadway. Sometimes it makes sense for Legend to participate in a film, especially when a story such as this inspires him.

“We came up with something that I think was about how inspired we were by the young people,” he says, “but also more broadly about the idea of resilience, the idea of commitment to something greater than yourself, and the idea that despite whatever challenges you might face, that love and unity and togetherness and resilience can help you get through all of it. And, boy, did we need it.”

Collaborating with Benjamin Hudson McIldowie, Nasri Atweh and Greg Wells, Legend reveals he has an unconventional means of crafting his songs. Whereas others may come up with a fully fleshed-out lyrical idea and then put music to it, he’s pretty much the opposite. He’ll first land on a core lyrical idea, and the music will then help him write the rest of the lyrics.

“So, I may have [the lyric] ‘We will never break,’ as an idea, and then I think of a way to musically say that, but then I don’t write the rest of the lyrics usually until I come up with the rest of the music,” Legend says. “It’s usually maybe the germ of a lyrical idea that inspires a musical composition. And then the musical composition, I usually mumble a bunch of melodies over that chord structure and then let the melodies help dictate what the lyrics should sound like and how they should fit into the song.”

“Glory,” which Legend has performed consistently since its inclusion in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film “Selma,” has taken on a life of its own since its release.

“There are always going to be situations in our lives and in the United States and around the world where a song like ‘Glory’ is going to be meaningful,” Legend says. “And I recently saw a version that some young people did in Detroit that was really powerful, and it took on its own life there. I’ve seen people covering the song all around the world, and each artist, each performer, each life that touches a song brings a different perspective to it. And it’s really powerful. And it’s really, I don’t know, it’s very fortifying for me. It makes me feel like we put something out in the world that’s really meaningful, and it encourages me to keep writing.”

“Never Break” too could take on such significance outside its theatrical origins. Legend performed it at the 2020 Democratic National Convention in August and then dedicated an emotional performance at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards to his wife, Chrissy Teigen, only a few weeks following her miscarriage.

Although Legend has been able to deliver socially distanced performances on numerous outlets to promote his album and, more specifically, “Never Break,” he definitely misses performing in front of an audience.

“There’s something about that human connection and feeling each other’s presence and hearing the audience respond and all those things,” he says. “We miss it. At least I do, as a performer. And as much as I get joy from writing a song, putting out ‘Bigger Love’ last year, there’s still an incomplete feeling that I haven’t been able to go out and tour those songs in front of an audience. And I very much look forward to that.”