Compared to last week’s Oscars, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rockthe Grammys were relatively quiet. There were some upheavals and “snobs”, like Korean boy band BTS and Justin Bieber, who were nominated but didn’t win any awards. That Louis CK won Best Comedy Album raised eyebrows given his sexual harassment scandal.
Despite all this, a great performance for a great cause overshadowed any controversy. The famous R&B musician John Legend debuted “FREE”, a song advocating peace inspired by the Ukrainian conflict. He also showed pre-recorded video of Vladimir Zelensky as part of the performance.
The legend’s powerful message
Zelensky delivered a captivating, pre-recorded speech which he gave in English while wearing his signature green shirt. He said, in part: “War. What could be more opposed to music? The silence of ruined cities and people killed. . . . Our children draw dive rockets, not shooting stars. Over 400 children were injured and 153 children died, and we will never see them drawing. . . . Our musicians wear bulletproof vests instead of tuxedos. They sing for the wounded in the hospitals. Even to those who cannot hear them. But the music will still break through. We defend our freedom. To live. To like. Appear.”
The performance of the legend included two Ukrainian musicians, one playing a traditional Ukrainian instrument called a bandura, and another singer performing a verse from the song. Additionally, a Ukrainian poet named Lyuba Yakimchuk delivered a poetic verse inspired by the Lord’s Prayer dealing with the war in Ukraine.
“FREE” was inspired by an African-American spiritual called “Go Down Moses” and references war and the plight of homeless refugees. In “FREE”, the chorus reads, “There is a God / And I’m just saying, Lord / Rain, freedom / Rain, until we’re all / Free / Free / Until we’re all free.”
john legend wrote on Twitter“I know I can’t end any war with a song, but I had to write this song as my prayer, my contribution to the choir of voices calling for peace and freedom for all.”
Who is John Legend?
The legend is known for starring in The voice, working with Ye (Kanye) West on his acclaimed debut music, other artists like Alicia Keys, and for his own original music. As a pianist, singer and writer, he is world famous. He’s won multiple Grammys for R&B music, an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and even an Emmy Award for playing Jesus in the rock opera. Jesus Christ Superstar.
The legend grew up in church singing gospel music. His grandfather was a pastor and his parents were very involved in the church throughout his life, especially musically. While he continues to tap into those roots and says he taps into the Bible’s message of love, he has said in interviews that he doesn’t consider himself religious.
That being said, Legend regularly uses his talents and wealth to serve “the least of them”. He is known for his philanthropy, performing for the good of others, advocating racial justice and loving the poor, which Jesus commanded us to continue after his death (Matthew 25:40).
The beauty of brokenness
Legend’s songwriting shows how artists can harness layers of beauty from brokenness. He, in part, redeemed slavery through African-American spirituals honoring God while layering his message on the plight of refugees fleeing and fighting against Russian authoritarianism.
In Art and Faith, Modern artist and writer Makoto Fujimura writes about how art can redeem brokenness. He uses the analogy of assembling pottery in an ancient Japanese technique called Kintsugi, who repairs broken pottery with gold. The craftsmen exercising the Kintsugi are not content to repair it; something definitely new and beautiful arises from the brokenness. The legend illustrates this well through music.
Songs don’t always have to include superficial lyrics or self-glorifying testaments. While there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun, it’s refreshing to see a short, carefully crafted song that uses a spiritual old man (who himself was born out of the parody and suffering of Afro -Americans under slavery), a biblical story about freedom from oppression, and the proclamation that God is real, all tied to the fight against a modern manifestation of evil.
This biblical song stood in stark contrast to the often twisted and selfish displays of culture at an awards show like this.