Unquiet soul: John Legend and the new generation of protest singers in America

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Forty years ago, a generation of African-American protest singers challenged a country tearing itself apart. Now, as America heads back to the polls, can a new crop of musicians galvanise a nation divided over race, recession and the longest foreign conflict in its history?

On the stage of Terminal 5, a converted warehouse alongside New York's Hudson River, the multiple Grammy Award-winning John Legend and Philadelphia's renowned live hip-hop band the Roots are singing about conflict, politics, democracy and the people. "The president, he's got his war, folks don't know just what it's for," croons Ohio-born Legend, the soul and gospel singer who's best known here for his work with old friend Kanye West and for mentoring the young British singer Estelle. "No one gives us a rhyme or reason, you have one doubt, they call it treason," he continues over a sinuous, irresistible groove laid down by the Roots.

Behind the musicians towers a purpose-built backdrop. It's an illustration of an urban street-corner – Anytown, USA. This image also features on the sleeve of Wake Up!, a new album on which Legend and the Roots have collaborated. Above and around them swoop the cameras and crew of movie director Spike Lee. The agit-auteur behind the epochal Do the Right Thing, who has just released his second documentary exposé of life in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, is filming tonight's show.

And what a show it is, a roaring soul revue. The horns and hip-rolling bass of a song called "Hard Times" propel the party atmosphere. "I Can't Write Left Handed", a 12-minute epic about a soldier maimed in an American military adventure far from home, brings the house down. "Little Ghetto Boy" skewers the travails of America's black underclass. This is the pointedly polemical world of Wake Up! – a record that, midway through the presidency of Barack Obama (inset) and in the teeth of the worst recession since the Second World War, couldn't be more timely.

But as to those lyrics, from a song titled "Compared to What", about pointless war and confusion on the street: they were written by Eugene McDaniels in 1969 (McDaniels had success writing for Roberta Flack). He was talking about the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency.

Likewise all the songs on Wake Up!: "Hard Times" was written by Curtis Mayfield in 1971. "Little Ghetto Boy" was created by Donny Hathaway in 1972 to a brief by producer Quincy Jones, who'd been asked to score a period film called Come Back Charleston Blue. "I Can't Write Left Handed" was Bill Withers' devastatingly empathetic 1973 portrait of a wounded grunt coming back from the jungles of south-east Asia. "Bill Withers recorded this song at the end of the Vietnam War," recounts Legend on the album. "As I record this now, America, the land of peace and prosperity, is in the middle of two wars. No matter what the politicians in Washington say we're fighting for, they make the decisions, and our young men and women, they go and fight. And some pay the ultimate sacrifice. War is hell. It always has been. It always will be."

In its original incarnation (a digital EP), Wake Up! was intended to be released hard on the heels of the presidential elections two years ago. But it's now a full album, backed by a significant record-company marketing campaign, and is coming out almost halfway through Obama's presidency, and in advance of the crucial midterm elections. For all the liberal leanings of its makers, the album can't help but feel like an occasionally disaffected street-level audit of Obama's progress – or lack thereof. America might have crossed the Rubicon by electing its first black commander-in-chief, but the country is still in a parlous state – especially for the poor of all colours.

The only original song alongside these thrilling covers of 10 "conscious" soul and R'n'B classics – some well-known, some obscure – is the Legend composition "Shine".

"It has more of an advocacy message, trying to plead the case for education reform in America," Legend says of "Shine" when he, the Roots' drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" [sic] Thompson and I meet on the roof of Terminal 5 a few hours before showtime. Legend wrote the song for the soundtrack to ' the upcoming documentary Waiting For 'Superman'. Made by the director of Al Gore's climate-change sabre-rattler An Inconvenient Truth, "it follows these five kids who are trying to go to a good school in their neighbourhood. But the only way they can get in if is they win a lottery. And it's heartbreaking, the turmoil these families go through. Education reform is one of the key issues in America today.

"The message is more modern and a little bit more nuanced than some of the other songs on the album," the 31-year old literature graduate continues. "But it's still on the theme of giving voice to people who don't have a voice. People who are disenfranchised, and saying we need change and [to] make things better."

Wake Up! began life in that heady summer of 2008, in the thick of the most gripping US presidential election in living memory. The Democratic primaries rolled through the Roots' home state of Pennsylvania. George W Bush, having served his two terms, was definitely on the way out. But it was by no means certain that Democratic frontrunner Obama would beat Republican candidate John McCain to become America's first black president. Longstanding friends Legend and Thompson began thinking of recording a handful of old-school political songs.

Some of their peers had already stepped forward. Black Eyed Peas' leader Will.I.Am had recorded "Yes We Can", a viral video that set to music the speech Obama gave to the January 2008 Democratic Primary in New Hampshire. "I was inspired... to think and dream," Will.I.Am tells me. "That's why I chose Obama over Hillary [Clinton]. He sparked my imagination."

Legend was one of a roll call of like-minded stars – alongside the actress Scarlett Johansson, the model Amber Valletta and Bob Dylan's son, Jesse – who featured on "Yes We Can". In the two days immediately preceding the decisive Super Tuesday Primary, four million people watched the clip.

"It was the fastest-moving piece of content in the history of the internet," Will.I.Am adds. "I think I hit a nerve in the emotion of people. And I think I married the right emotion with the emotion of the speech... You don't send that party emotion out at a time when America's in a bad place, when there's nothing to celebrate. Dude, you got to make people cry with this song... It should cry like 'Blackbird' by the Beatles. The chord progression should cry..."

Seal – British-born but long based in America with his wife Heidi Klum and their four US-born children – was another member of the black music community who was moved to campaign for Obama in 2008. He recorded a version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come", and performed it at an Obama rally in Los Angeles. "I felt so strongly about the cause, and I held so much hope for him as a person," he told me later. "It was really important to me that I met [Obama]. Because I do have a vested interest in this county – American kids – and I want them to be proud of their country as I'm proud of my country."

Legend and Thompson's idea snowballed. Instead of a quickly released EP, tagged on to the end of the campaign for Legend's 2008 album Evolver, they would take their time, find the right songs, and do more of them. They decided to call the album Wake Up!, partly in homage to Arcade Fire's rousing indie-rock anthem of the same name.

"Especially at the time we started the record in 2008, there was a shift in the country – in two directions," recalls Thompson. "It was volatile and hopeful at the same time. Intense in each direction." Nearly a decade older than Legend and the son of "post-civil rights parents", the drummer pulled together the album's song selection. "So I was trying to search with a fine-tooth comb for songs that were under the radar but really strong and potent with their message. I thought it was also important to show the full dimension of the emotions that America was going through – not just black Americans, but all Americans. So we had to show every aspect of the feeling in the country. Some people are hopeful, some feel victorious, or spiritual – or angry."

Inarguably, those emotions have hardened in the two years since Obama's victory. As Thompson concedes, the state of the nation "is gonna get worse before its gets better. One man can't clean up a drunken frat house over a weekend before mom and and dad come round. Especially when there are people coming by the house consistently to mess it up even more! I did feel that the elation would die down after the first six months."

At next month's midterm congressional elections, for all the seeming successes of the administration – on healthcare reform, withdrawal from Iraq – the Democrats are expected to do badly. As are the Republicans, at the hands of candidates from the right-wing Tea Party movement that sprung up in the wake of Obama's victory and the collapse of mainstream Republicanism. But Legend and Thompson deny that Wake Up! is deliberately being released this month to capitalise on – or even catalyse – socio-political events.

"Until now I never even thought about that," says Thompson. "But we've noticed that the songs' relevancy has taken on even more intense meaning in 2010, more than 2008. Times are getting even more desperate than before."

"There's a backlash against the diversification of America. There's a backlash against Muslims," adds Legend, pointing to the controversy over the "Ground Zero mosque" – plans to build an Islamic centre in New York a few blocks from the World Trade Center site – "and against the fact that we have a black president, against Mexican immigrants. There's a fear, a frustration, that is perpetuated by ignorance.

"You see that in a lot of the conversations that are out there. I think part of that is explained by the economy, when so many people are unemployed and frustrated with their personal situation. Understandably, they want to find a scapegoat, someone to blame. And even though the president has only been in office for 18 months, they wanna blame him... Unfortunately, some of that gets conflated with identity politics, and xenophobia, I would say."

The perhaps naïve idea – and ideal – that Obama's election would lead to a post-racial politics in America is not the experience of black American musicians. "With the ascendancy of Barack Obama, there's been a rise of incredibly virulent right-wing language," says the activist and singer Vernon Reid. "Almost a throwback to 1920s and 1930s imaging vis à vis Obama and his family. Really hateful, weird shit is going on." (In April this year, a Republican gubernatorial candidate reportedly sent an email containing video footage of dancing African tribesmen, labelling it "Obama Inauguration Rehearsal".)

Reid is a member of Living Colour, a black rock band from New York who in the 1980s were one of the few such acts making what might be called protest music. Reid recently performed at London's Barbican – alongside the Roots' Thompson – in Tongues on Fire, a poetry-cum-music show that was a tribute to early 1970s radicals the Black Panthers. And he thinks the symbolism of the Panthers' protest is just as vital 40 years on.

"There are elements of the Tea Party, and of the far-right of the Republican Party, that are deeply racist. And there are also, I think, elements of the Democratic Party that are deeply uncomfortable with Obama's ascendancy. '

"He's tried to take a very centrist line, but the reaction to him has been incredible. He's been accused of being a socialist, a non-American, a Muslim... There is a really dark strain [of opposition] across the country. There is unrestrained bitterness and rage at him. But if he really was the leftist radical everyone is claiming him to be, we'd be in a lot more trouble."

Sharon Jones, lead singer with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, was born in Georgia in 1956. Her veteran, Brooklyn-based band are frequent collaborators with Mark Ronson. On their own records, they're a thrilling mix of "old" and "new" American soul, and they've long performed a cover of Woody Guthrie's vintage protest song "This Land is Your Land". Having grown up in the Deep South, Jones remembers the really bad old days. "I was there when I couldn't go into restaurants if it said 'Whites only'," she says. "I thought I'd never get to see this, a black man in the chair. But also, it's made some of the racism stuff rear its head back up. All the other presidents get in, nothing happens inside of a year or two years. With Obama he supposed to do a miracle – oh, cos he's a black man it's supposed to work straight away?"

But Jones acknowledges the power of protest songs as part of the civil-rights movement – one of which anthems, Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free", is also featured on Wake Up!. "All those protest songs in the 1960s, I felt them. And I guess that's why nowadays I can talk the way I talk and I feel the way I feel about things. We have come a long way. Black people have just been able to vote here for the past 50-something years – people need to wake up, and get their butt out there and vote. Only 50-something years ago we were not even considered human beings."

The consciousness-forming protest music that most impacted on Ahmir Thompson was Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and NWA's "Fuck tha Police". "I came right of age during both those periods," nods Thompson. "To be a 16-year-old in 1988 and a fan of hip-hop was probably the most life-changing experience.

"My parents were definitely post-civil-rights parents. And a lot of those ideas were instilled in me as a young kid – you've got to fight to get your education. So my parents kept me off the streets – I was interested in music really early so they developed that. They pretty much had me in any type of extra-curricular activity to keep me off the streets. As a result, of the 33 childhood friends that I grew up with between 1973 and 1989, I'm one of four people still alive and not in jail."

He marvels at the conceptual brilliance of Public Enemy. Chuck D famously saw rap as "CNN for black people", and

designed his band to operate on several levels. He wanted a "minstrel character", who was the cartoonish Flavor Flav; an "educated/statistics" focus – Professor Griff. Then there was the "preacher" – Chuck. And finally the "silent figure", which Thompson describes as the scariest of them all – Terminator X. "So, Flav's the pawn – he'll attract your attention, yell 'Fire fire!'. Then once PE got your attention, they'd hit you with the message.

"And that's exactly why Public Enemy conquered. It was a brilliant plan. And hip-hop, as far as that Afrocentric period is concerned, from 1987 to 1991, made me more aware, made me want to read more books, and made me actually consider life beyond what I was being taught."

Thompson identifies the period post-1992, after the release of Dr Dre's ground-breaking album The Chronic, "as the age of irony, where black American music was less political. A lot of that had to do with the Clinton administration. This false feeling that we were finally victorious. 'We made it!' Back then we actually accepted the idea that Clinton was the first black president. Then you had black kids celebrating the good life – and it was reflected in the music, things like the Bad Boy movement."

Bad Boy Entertainment, the label founded in 1993 by the musician, entrepreneur and brand whirlwind Sean "Puffy" Combs, helped usher in the bling era. As Vernon Reid, decrying the "bitches, guns and money" obsession of most contemporary hip-hop, says: "At one point soul and rhythm and blues were the emotional and moral centre of what was happening in music. They affected everything – what went on in jazz and in rock'n'roll and country music. Along the way that got lost."

Thompson explains that it was left to white alternative rockers to speak for the underclass. "Kurt Cobain was the figure who personified the nihilist, realist attitude. That was a shift change. Before Nirvana you mainly associated white artists with the privileged good life."

With the notable exception of Jay-Z – another loud Obama supporter – the lyrical rot in hip-hop, thinks Legend, continues. "Hip-hop is much more party music than anything else at this point," he says.

Indeed, perhaps the most establishment-rattlingpolitical statement from a hip-hop artist in the past decade didn't come in song. Kanye West's 2006 statement, during a live televised concert in aid of victims of Hurricane Katrina, that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," caused a culture-quake.

"The Roots have been making songs with political messages for years, but Kanye said it in such a succinct, public way," agrees Legend. But, chips in Thompson, many artists, black and white, noted the backlash against the Dixie Chicks after the country trio's Natalie Maines told a London audience in 2003 that she was embarrassed to come from the same state as Bush. "I think that really rendered... I won't a say lot of people silent, but it did sort of keep people at bay from really wanting to step on the front line and to be the first to take a stand."

Aloe Blacc, a young soul artist from Los Angeles who tours the UK next week, has no such qualms. His song "I Need a Dollar" is enjoying lots of buzz online. He began writing the song in 2005, after he lost his "corporate job" as a business consultant. "At the time I was listening to music that had this real call-and-response feeling – field recordings of chain-gang workers in the United States. So the style and essence of the song is somewhat church- or gospel-derivative," he says. "And the lyrics come from personal experience – losing my job, having friends who are addicted to alcohol and substances and having tough times in general."

John Legend and the Roots would go along with that. The soul songs of Wake Up! talk about issues, and facts, and themes of universal relevance. And, in their robust tunefulness and utterly joyful rendering, they're more party than preachy. They are primed to get under your skin. And into your consciousness.

"I'm pro-Obama," says Legend. "But I don't see this record as pro-Obama. I see it as a pro-peace record. A pro-love record, a pro-engagement record. A pro-let's-get-our-shit-together record. It doesn't matter who's the president when it comes to this record. This record is just a message that we believe in and we want people to hear."

Vernon Reid, meanwhile, has a more pressing concern. "It is very important that a popular artist such as John Legend is taking on any kind of discussion. That is a positive thing. I just wanna see some messages. But I also wanna hear great songs. I don't wanna hear well-intentioned crap! That," he laughs, "is the worst!"

'Wake Up!' by John Legend and the Roots is out on Columbia Records on 18 October

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