Season Finale! We’re ending on a high note with Grammy-award winning musician and social justice advocate, John Legend, who joins us to talk about using his platform to fight for racial equity, and his personal connection to reforming the criminal justice system and upholding the voting rights of formerly incarcerated folks.
Resources from the episode:
- Learn more about changing the conversation on incarceration through the FreeAmerica initiative.
- Check out the FreeAmerica + New Profit partnership, Unlocked Futures, that funds social entrepreneurs with a connection to the criminal justice system.
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John Legend & Julian Castro
Julian Castro 00:01
Over the course of the season of OUR AMERICA, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to some truly inspiring people from the confines of my closet recording booth. I met some of these folks on the campaign trail, like the father and son duo fighting for paid sick leave in Nevada, the couple in Flint, Michigan, holding politicians accountable for the damage done to their communities health, and Arletta Swain the 93-year-old affordable housing advocate in small town Iowa.
Others I’ve admired for quite a while, like Dan Rather, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams, who joined me to talk about protecting the right to vote in her home state. And across our country. And in just the past couple of months, I’ve learned so much about the impact of COVID on communities of color. From those affected firsthand.
This week marks the final episode of this season’s journey to better understand our America. And we’re ending it on a high note.
Julian Castro 02:19
Musician social justice advocate John Legend joins us to talk about using his platform to fight for racial equity, and his personal connection to reforming the criminal justice system and upholding the rights of formerly incarcerated individuals.
This is OUR AMERICA. I’m your host, Julian Castro.
John, thank you so much for joining me. You know, I just wanted to start off by telling you how impressed I’ve been with your activism over the years.
You have used your voice in a number of different ways to make an impact on some of the most pressing issues that we’re facing as a country. When did you begin to take an interest on the issue of criminal justice reform? And how we treat people who have been incarcerated? You know, where did that interest come from?
Well, it started with me experiencing it personally, not myself. But my mother had been in and out of jail when I was younger, she had a drug addiction problem. I had friends and associates from my neighborhood that had been in prison, one of my close high school friends spent quite a bit of time in prison when he was younger. So many black and brown people in this country have that experience. So many of our neighbors, our friends, our family members have gotten caught up in the criminal legal system. And we know that there’s nothing inherently criminal about us.
John Legend 04:14
There’s nothing inherently violent about us. But society has been structured in a way that these outcomes keep happening in our communities. And some of these folks are guilty of the crimes they’re accused of. Some of them weren’t guilty. Some of them were coerced into plea bargains had the threat of bail or longer sentences held over their heads. And they were forced into deals they shouldn’t have taken, but for whatever reason. We are the most incarcerated country in the world. That’s not just a set of numbers, that’s people’s lives. It’s a choice by our society, to invest in cages, to invest in the apparatus that goes around building cages.
All the security, all the expense, all of the resources that go into securely keeping people locked up in cages is expensive. And it’s a choice because the more we spend on that with finite budgets, the less we spend on more edifying parts of our society, inputs that will help people live more healthy lives, more productive lives, our schools, our arts programs, our community programs, our health programs, all of these elements of society suffer when we spend so much money on policing, jailing, and imprisoning people. And black and brown people have borne the brunt of that investment of us making the decision as a society, that we’re going to spend so much energy, money and time on law enforcement, and not on making life better for people so they don’t commit crime in the first place.
So they have opportunity in the first place. So they have an opportunity to get a good education, go to a good college and get a good job. So they are able to build wealth and contribute to society. We’re not investing enough in those things. And it’s to the detriment of those same communities that were saying later, well, if you commit these crimes, and we got to lock you up for 20-30 years, or whatever it is, it’s just a terrible cycle.
Julian Castro 06:27
Last summer, throughout our country, we saw protests in the streets, led by Black Lives Matter, after the murder of George Floyd, focused on ensuring that would happen to George Floyd doesn’t happen again. We know that it has happened, you know, maybe with different circumstances, but that police violence, particularly against black men and women is far too common. And you’ve been a leading voice for criminal justice reform, but also for ensuring that we improve law enforcement that we reimagine public safety. Can you talk to me about that?
Well, absolutely. One, the bare minimum is that there should not be any killings of unarmed people who don’t pose a threat to the police, that should not happen. And when it does happen, there should be a system in place that holds these officers accountable, make sure that they don’t have the opportunity to do that ever again. But also holds them accountable for the harm that they caused to that person, to their family, to their community, and into the idea that the police are there as a public service, hired by the people paid for by the people, to protect all of the people not to protect white people from black and brown people, but to protect the entire community, including black and brown people.
So hopefully, we move to a place where that is really true. There was a lot of controversy around using the word defund, when it came to talking about the police, but what it really was a conversation about what are our priorities as a community? How much do we want to spend on this element versus this element. And when you choose to spend it on more policing, you’re necessarily saying less on this. Sometimes there are alternatives for public safety, like community organizations that work to de-escalate violence, who have more of a connection to the community than the police do. Sometimes it’s mental health supports, because so many of the people who commit crime are also dealing with mental health or addiction issues.
John Legend 08:36
Speaking of addiction, my mother had addiction issues. A lot of times people who are struggling with that don’t need to be in jail, they need to be in health care facility that will help them deal with their addiction. So whatever you spend so much of your resources as community on policing, jailing, imprisoning people, then something’s got to go, something’s got to give. They’re always telling us we don’t have enough money for arts program in our schools. I know how important arts programs are to young people, when we are getting rid of them, and say, we can’t afford them. But we can’t afford more guys with guns. It’s a choice every time. And I’m saying choose the health, safety and edification of the community.
And it will necessarily require you to shift some money, shift some priorities in your budget. And I think that’s an important conversation that every community has to have. And I think it’s on a community level really, it’s not really a Joe Biden issue. It’s really an issue of your mayor, your city council, your community coming together and saying, how do we want to keep each other safe? How do we want to keep each other happy and connected and loving each other and, and supporting each other and helping each other? How do we make our budget reflect those priorities, those values?
Julian Castro 10:03
We just interviewed Colorado State Representative Leslie Harris about the Denver Star Program, which sends out mental health experts instead of traditional cops, when people are having mental health episodes, and it’s been wildly successful, and yet in the November election since then you have the right wing using the slogan of “defund the police” as a hatchet against progressive Democrats. Are you hopeful that we can have a constructive conversation across the aisle despite this?
You know, right after the election when we were still counting votes, and people were still not sure if Joe Biden had even won the election. We were still counting votes and waiting for everything to come in because of mailing ballots and all these things. But by the time everything was counted, we won the Senate. in Georgia, they tried to make Reverend Warnock out to be a radical, they tried to make Jon Ossoff out to be a radical, they won Georgia. We hadn’t won Georgia in decades. We won the house, we lost some seats in the house, granted. We won the presidency by 7 million votes. So what about defund the police caused us to lose anything? It’s not clear, the evidence is not clear.
So that narrative started to take hold, when I don’t even know that it was an accurate narrative in any way. And I still believe it was important to move the conversation from reform, to defund, because it expands the imagination about what actually needs to be done. And we need a more disruptive conversation around what to do about these issues. And I think the activists on the left, who moved the conversation to more progressive territory, did a service to the country. And I think it will play out in communities. As these decisions are being made to experiment with things like what happened in Denver experiment with diversion programs like San Francisco has done. Experiment with restorative justice practices like other communities have done, I think it will move the conversation to communities experimenting with those things.
John Legend 12:14
And we’ll learn from each other. And a lot of the work I’m doing now is around cities. We’ve started an initiative called “The Equitable Recovery Initiative”, where we’re gonna have fellows working in city government, in cooperation with the mayors and the city government. The mayor’s invited us to do this, work with them to make sure the government has an equitable lens, and an equity lens in these community conversations, when they’re setting budgets, priorities and implementing policy in the community. And part of the city’s job is to make sure people feel safe. we’re suggesting that there are other ways to do that, then just more and more people with guns.
In an effort to change the national conversation about the criminal justice system, John founded “The Free America Initiative. He also started “The Unlocked Futures Project” to provide financial support to formerly incarcerated individuals, operating mission driven organizations. Could you tell me a little bit about those projects and how they work?
So Free America is kind of the umbrella for all the criminal justice reform stuff we’re doing. Our mission is to reduce incarceration dramatically. And we are doing all sorts of things, to educate the public, to advocate for policy change, to fight on behalf of so many people who have been marginalized and within Free America, one of the programs is an initiative that we started with Bank of America and New Profit. New Profit is essentially like a venture capitalist, but for nonprofits, so they invest in nonprofit ideas that they think could be really powerful. They use their resources to help train nonprofit leaders, and advise them on how to be the best they can be and be the most effective they can be.
John Legend 14:23
And then, of course, Bank of America has plenty of money and resources and they have a lot of experience also with funding small businesses, and advising them and you know, giving them the support that they need. So we decided together that we were going to invest in people who are often the lowest priority when it comes to investing, invest in people who are formerly incarcerated or otherwise affected by the criminal justice system. People who are starting new for profit and nonprofit ventures. They have an idea they have ingenuity; they have that can do hustlers spirit. But they often don’t have the support they need. We wanted to give them the opportunity to get that support, and invest in their ideas.
They’re hiring people, they’re employing other people like them, a lot of whom may have been incarcerated themselves. And they’re contributing to society in a powerful way. That means they are extremely unlikely to have a recent of ism problem, but also the other people they’re hiring are also extremely unlikely as well, because they’re given an opportunity to participate in society. And they don’t have to do it in a way that’s illicit or underground or black market, they can participate in the economy in a productive way. And so we’re giving them that opportunity.
And again, this comes from experience, like I have family members and friends who when they come out, they don’t know what to do. It’s hard to find housing, some places, you can’t vote, some places, you can’t get a loan, there’s so many barriers that we put up in front of them. But then we expect them not to commit crime when they get out. And it’s like, well, you’re cutting off all the legitimate sources of income and stability that I have, what do you think is going to happen? And so we want to create enough opportunity, so that people feel like they have a purpose, and they have a way to feed their families and contribute to society.
Julian Castro 16:20
Well, and you’ve been very vocal about voting rights for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Talk to me about how you view that?
Well, first of all, I come at voting rights in the sense that they are rights, not privileges. And there should not be any additional hurdles to voting other than being a citizen of this country. So you are a citizen. You live here, you’re affected by the laws here. You pay taxes here, your family lives here and pays taxes here. There are all kinds of reasons that every citizen who is of age, should be able to vote, full stop. That’s what I believe. I believe that we’re better off when our democracy is as representative as possible. That means as many voices are heard as possible, we put as few barriers in the way as possible. And we have to understand these felony disenfranchisement laws. They were all Jim Crow laws; they were all specifically intended to infringe upon civil rights of black people. Most of them happen once black people were freed from slavery.
The amendments were written that gave us voting rights. They were trying to find all kinds of ways to make sure we didn’t exercise those voting rights. One of them was felony disenfranchisement, they figured we’re going to target black people, for law enforcement more disproportionately, we’re going to have an unfair legal system from beginning to end, whether it’s jury selection or the judge, or just the way people are treated, and more likely, we’re gonna get locked up. So one of our strategies to make sure black people don’t vote is to enact felony disenfranchisement. That’s the root of these laws. And that’s a corrupt route, we should get rid of them, get rid of these laws that disenfranchise people because they committed a crime. I believe, once again, voting is a right not a privilege, and it should be available to every adult citizen.
Julian Castro 18:30
When recently, Representative Cori Bush introduced a legislative amendment in the House of Representatives to do just that.
Absolutely. And it last, but we’re gonna keep fighting. And a lot of it’s going to happen on the state level. There’s a bill up for conversation in Oregon right now. And there’s, it’s gonna be looked at all around the country, and I think we’re gonna make some more progress on it. We fought hard for the amendment and Florida that was successful, over 60% of the state. In an election where Republicans won the statewide offices, over 60% of the state voted for restoring the rights of people who have been convicted of felonies once they had served their time. And I know it’s more of a leap for some people to say, well, not even once they’ve served their time, but while they’re serving their time, they should also have the right to vote. I know that’s more of a leap for some people, but I’m trying to reorient people’s thinking about that. I’m trying to suggest that voting isn’t something you deserve or earn, it’s something that is a right for everybody. I’m gonna keep fighting for that.
You are a supremely talented and successful artists who’s also become quite an activist. That in and of itself is something that is not too common among people who have achieved your kind of success in the entertainment industry. Oftentimes people don’t want to rock the boat by being politically active and potentially putting their career at risk. But you also haven’t been afraid to be partisan. In 1990 when the us senate race in North Carolina was going on, Harvey Gant was running against Jesse Helms, the incumbent senator, and Michael Jordan was asked whether he was going to get involved in that race. And he famously said, “Well, Republicans buy sneakers too.”
Julian Castro 20:28
And although he later said that he was saying that in jest, he assiduously avoided getting involved in partisan politics. You’ve been on the opposite end of that, to me, that shows a lot of courage. Can you talk to me about what made you take that leap from helping to create that unforgettable? Yes, we can video in the Obama oh eight campaign, to political activism since then, walk me through your thinking and the tradeoffs. Were you ever told maybe you shouldn’t be that vocal?
I get told that all the time, first of all, mostly on Twitter. But, the bottom line is, I know that if I speak out in a way where at least you know, 40% of the nation disagrees with me a lot of it on partisan grounds. But sometimes they actually disagree with, you know, whatever I’m saying, I know that carries some cost. I know that fewer people may listen to my music, because I can’t separate my politics from my music. And I understand that that’s a possibility. But I also am so interested in these issues. I’m so passionate about them. And I care so much about them. And I have such a unique opportunity to say something and be heard, and have an impact, to elevate issues that people might not be thinking about to amplify the voices of activists and organizers.
And truthfully, there’s a rich tradition of artists also being political, and some of my favorite artists, some of the most successful artists in history, spoke out, they spoke out about the Vietnam War, they spoke out about civil rights. They spoke out about women’s rights, they spoke out and I think people want their artists to be honest, I look at so many great examples of artists who were willing to speak out. And they may have lost something from it. But they also gained fans I think from it. Fans want you to be authentic and be truthful and to fight for something to stand for something. I think it’s worth it for me to stand for something. And I don’t know how I could not do it honestly, just in my bones.
Julian Castro 22:39
You found a way to integrate your music with your activism. And last year, you released an album called “Bigger Love” that came out right around Juneteenth, only about three or four weeks after the murder of George Floyd, as people across the country were marching and protest in support of black lives. Could you talk to me about merging your great talent, your musical work with your activism?
It was interesting because like you said, it was released right after the killing of George Floyd and the protests that ensued. So that means I didn’t write those songs with that recent event having happened. I wrote them in 2019. I wrote them before the pandemic. So a lot change in the world, between when I wrote the songs, and when they were put out. But what I said back then was it’s important for black artists to express the fullness of who we are as human beings. Talk about our love lives, talk about joy, talk about our families, but also talk about our pain and our struggle, and our resilience. I tried to make music that tells a full story of what it’s like to be human.
That means talking about issues that are happening in the world today, politically, but also means talking about the people you love and the people you care about and what they mean to you. For me, love is not just individual, it’s not just familial. It’s not just on a local kind of neighborly basis. It’s the idea that we love publicly, which means we believe in the idea that everybody’s life means something that everyone has value, and that when something bad happens to a person we don’t know we at least can muster some empathy for them and care about them as human beings.
Julian Castro 24:31
Just recently, Joe Biden said that there’s real reason for hope when it comes to overcoming this covid 19 pandemic, the American rescue plan is passed. And in states across the country, legislators are working on improving our criminal justice system. How are you feeling as we get into the spring of 2021?
I’m hopeful I really feel good. Honestly, I’m a naturally optimistic person. So even in the worst of the Trump years, I was optimist think that people are going to get fed up and fight for a change. And you look at the enormity and the breadth and the targeted nature of this COVID bill where it’s really focused on the needs of the working class and the poor and the middle class in a way that the CARES Act was not. If you look at the amount of resources that have just been enacted and directed toward people who need them in this country, I just feel like we’re in a really good place as a nation. We have a lot of work to do. But this is definitely a strong start to the Biden administration. It makes me very hopeful.
Over the last year, COVID has tested our collective patients and the leadership ability of our president, its burden the many immigrant workers who sustained us throughout the pandemic, and put their families at risk in the process. As a country, we experienced firsthand the impact of hateful speech and the threat it poses to communities of color and our democracy. On top of that, an unprecedented attempt to undermine our democracy has made it really tough for some people to stay hopeful. When we started this podcast back in September, we promised to bring you the voices of those in our country struggling to reach their dreams.
Julian Castro 26:21
I found hope in them, in their perseverance, their determination and their optimism about what our country can become. I hope they’ve also inspired you. Today, as more people become eligible for vaccines. And as the Biden-Harris administration works to undo the damage caused by the Trump years. There’s plenty to look forward to, then plenty of work that still needs to be done to make OUR AMERICA a more equitable, just America for all. And together. We will. So thanks for joining me and keep fighting the good fight.
OUR AMERICA is a Lemonada Original. This episode was produced by Matthew Simonson. Jackie Danziger is our supervising producer. Our associate producer is Giulia Hjort. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Julian Castro. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me on Twitter at @JulianCastro or in Instagram at @JulianCastroTX.