January 25, 2012

John Legend at piano
Nine-time Grammy Award winner John Legend spoke at the Bucknell Forum Jan. 24.

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By Heather Johns

Lewisburg, Pa. — Creativity embodies innovation, connectivity, joy and art. But in its soul, said Grammy Award winning artist John Legend, creativity is truth.

On stage in the packed Weis Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 24, Legend spoke with conviction and charm about his own creative journey, his passion for education reform and the potential for college students to make big changes in the world.

"Creativity is powerful. It's what makes people special. We must cultivate it, develop it like a muscle," Legend told the crowd of more than 1,000 people. "I love the idea of making something out of nothing. It's thrilling to take ideas in my head and make songs — make art — out of them."

Referencing Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, as having influenced his own creative work ethic, Legend said, "Creativity takes practice and discipline. You have to really know your craft. Creativity is sparked by dedication, discipline, hard work."

Legend acknowledged the role education played in developing his creativity. "I took art, music and drama classes," he said. "I was in show choir before Glee made it cool. All of those classes gave me the skills and confidence to succeed."

His undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania were a turning point for Legend, an experience in opening himself up to the world. "I learned about history, broadened my world view and appreciated other perspectives," he said.

Legend graduated with a degree in English and got a job at a management consulting firm, where his creative background was considered an asset.

"They hired me because I was creative," Legend said. "They were looking for what you learn from the liberal arts: the ability to communicate, work well in groups and solve problems."

Three years later, he left his job to follow his heart and become a professional musician. That road stretched out five years before Legend earned a record contract from Kanye West, then an up-and-coming producer and the cousin of Legend's college roommate.

As Legend's resources and influence grew, he did some soul searching outside the music business. During a trip to Africa, he saw the extreme poverty of its people and was inspired to start the nonprofit Show Me Campaign in 2007 to help break the cycle of poverty through education.

"Education remains a gift for some," said Legend. "But it should be a right for all."

He urged audience members to use their own creative ability to better the lives of others: "Find your own passion. Follow it. I guarantee you will not regret it."

Legend noted that creativity is related to everything in our world — from art to education, society to politics. "Soul is truth," he said. "Don't be afraid to seek the truth. Creativity is the same as searching for your soul."

John Legend at piano

A question-and-answer session following Legend's talk generated a particularly special moment for sophomore English major Lakiyra Williams. When a friend took the microphone to tell Legend that Williams was celebrating a birthday, he broke into an impromptu a capella serenade of "Happy Birthday."

Afterward, Legend sat at his piano to put into practice what he'd spent the evening describing. While performing a 12-song set list, he offered the audience insight into his creative process.

"The song starts with a musical bit," Legend explained as he played the chord progression that inspired "Again." The chorus comes to him next, and as he constructs the song's chords Legend sings nonsensical words and sounds to build a skeleton of the melody. "Then I write the lyrics, which is like telling a story," he said.

In addition to well-known favorites, Legend played "Dreams," a song from an in-progress solo album that will be released this year.

Throughout the evening, Legend encouraged the audience to sing along as he played the piano, cuing them in with a nod or wave of his hand. As the evening drew to a close, many voices rose from the house to fill the Weis Center with a simple, soulful refrain from Legend's Grammy-winning song, "Ordinary People":

"Maybe we should take it slow/This time we'll take it slow/This time we'll take it slow."

The Bucknell Forum series, "Creativity: Beyond the Box," will conclude on Tuesday, April 3, with a special presentation featuring world-renowned alumnus artist Mako Fujimura and Bucknell President John Bravman. In "Art, Science and Invention" Fujimura and Bravman will discuss how technology and the arts intertwine. The event, to be held at the Vaughan Literature Building in Trout Auditorium at 7:30 p.m., is free and open to the public.

Contact: Division of Communications