John Legend, Black Pumas and Joy Oladokun put spotlight on music and mental health in concert and open discussion
Sitting at a piano inside a near-empty theater at L.A. Live, John Legend said one takeaway from the past year of pandemic is “that we have to hold each other tight and love on each other while we have each other.”
Before taking the stage for “We Shine Together,” a virtual program of music and conversation presented May 27 by UCLA Health to mark Mental Health Awareness Month, Legend talked about the role music, creativity and social outreach play in maintaining his own mental health.
The Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner was the headlining entertainer at the 2½-hour show that also featured performances by psychedelic-soul group Black Pumas and singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun, along with discussions with UCLA Health psychologist Rhonda Sena, PhD, and psychiatrist Eraka Bath, MD. Proceeds raised from donations during the event will support mental health education and treatment.
In a wide-ranging, pre-performance conversation with Dr. Bath and concert host Zane Lowe, Legend shared his approach to well-being, which includes philanthropy, creativity, time with family and professional guidance.
For Legend, that approach extends both outward and inward. He said he took refuge in music and creativity to cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the civil unrest brought about by the murder of George Floyd. Legend found himself listening to “old-school soul” more than he normally would, saying, “It felt like comfort food.” He also noted that music has always played a role in supporting activism.
“I feel like as musicians, part of what we do is we respond to activists,” he said, citing the work of Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte. “That’s what artists like myself are doing right now — we follow in that tradition. We’re inspired and energized by the work that people are out there doing. We want to contribute in any way that we can. And we want to create music that inspires them to keep going.”
Even before the pandemic, Legend looked for ways to connect with others beyond music. He established his education-focused nonprofit, The Show Me Campaign, shortly after the release of his sophomore album in 2006. More recently, he launched Free America to help end mass incarceration in the U.S., which broadened his worldview by bringing him into prisons and up-close with prisoners.
“We spoke to people who were really kind of the outcasts of society. We spoke with them and interacted with them and hugged them and talked to them, and that helped give me some perspective as well,” he said. “As much as there’s this Hollywood life that we live and we’re in the public eye and there’s all these things that we think are important, there’s so much else going on in the world.”
Another way Legend stays grounded is by avoiding too much engagement with social media, he said: “If you’re hearing too many voices and you’re paying too much attention to what you’re seeing on social media, it can drain your artistry.”
Dr. Bath said it’s a good idea for parents to limit children’s access to social media, as well. “I would delay phones as much as possible,” she said. “And delay social media, if you can.” Young people are susceptible to deriving self-worth through “likes,” she said, something older generations didn’t face. “Our personality development wasn’t linked to this larger enterprise,” she said. “I think that’s going to be one of our biggest challenges.”
Legend performed a selection of songs from throughout his career — along with covers of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” — leading into each track with stories and anecdotes as though he was in front of a packed house.
Black Pumas performed a six-song set, punctuated by discussions between lead singer Eric Burton and guitarist-producer Adrian Quesada with Dr. Sena about how music and creativity support mental health. Even those who aren’t creative professionally can tap into “a mindset of abundance as opposed to a mindset of lack,” Burton said.
“I believe we all have a level of creative power that we can take to whatever it is that we’re doing or that we’re good at,” he said. “It’s about love and allowing yourself to be led by it.”
Singer-songwriter Oladokun opened the program with a selection of original songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Between tracks, she shared her personal experiences with anxiety and self-doubt around “growing up queer in places that were not safe to be queer” and learning to trust her “internal compass” when it comes to mental health.
Oladokun opened up about therapy, self-expression, meditation and hope.
“Doing therapy, for me — again, I grew up in some spaces where I couldn’t fully be myself — so it’s really powerful to just have a person where you’re like, ‘I can say anything to you. This is a safe space,’” she said. “I love my therapist. She gives me a lot of practical tools to deal with when my emotions get out of whack. … I have been trying to love the moment, to own the moment and to trust myself and trust my gut.
“And if I can do it – because I am the most human of humans – you can do it.”