John Legend looks back at past year’s challenges in Duke speech

"Once we recognize our interdependence, our mutuality, it’s clear that love is precisely what our society needs.”

Multi-talented entertainer and philanthropist John Legend delivered the commencement speech to Duke University’s 2021 graduating class this Sunday. The singer began with an appreciation for the opportunity, saying, “this is the first time I’ve been in front of a live audience, hearing live applause since last February, fourteen months ago.” 

In his speech, Legend spoke candidly about the difficulties the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to the campus community of students and families. 

“Your class lost a lot: some lost job offers, some lost loved ones, and all of you lost a whole year [of] those little moments that make college so special,” said Legend. “I feel your pain. You’ve lost something that you won’t get back. I won’t sugarcoat that. It sucks.”

John Legend gives a commencement speech to the 2021 graduating class of Duke University on May 2, 2021.
Photo: YouTube

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The “All of Me” singer didn’t miss the opportunity to impart wisdom as he implored the graduating class to remember the lesson of interconnectedness this time in history has taught us. 

“…We all had to slow down, social distance, cover our faces, stop filling our days with maximum productivity and simply keep each other safe, keep each other alive, care for one another,” said Legend. “And this perspective you gained will serve us all because while that competitive drive that got you here can be an incredible gift, it can get in the way, too.”  

In addition to COVID-19, Legend also spotlighted ongoing movements for racial justice. He reflected on his own work to reform the criminal justice system largely through the organization he founded, Free America. Legend used his work with the organization as a personal example of the ongoing learning he needed to do in order to effect change. 

“The first thing we did was listen and learn. I met with people currently incarcerated and their families. I met with survivors of crime, district attorneys, corrections officers and state legislatures, civil rights activists,” said Legend. “These folks knew a lot more than I did and I had to listen to them with an open mind and a humble spirit. And then, focus on amplifying their voices. Only then could we effectively support crucial reforms.” 

Legend, whose name is John Roger Stephens, became the first Black man to reach EGOT status in 2018 after winning an Emmy for his production of “Jesus Christ Super Star Live Concert”. (Whoopi Goldberg became the first Black woman to do so in 2002 after earning a Tony Award for producing “Thoroughly Modern Millie”.)

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On Sunday, Legend also received an honorary degree from the university alongside other luminaries, including civil rights lawyer Barbara Arnwine and Harvard University professor and African American studies scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

In his closing remarks, Legend highlighted his overarching message to the class: “once we recognize our interdependence, our mutuality, it’s clear that love is precisely what our society needs.” 

To hear Legend’s commencement speech in full, watch below:

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