Compared to last week’s Oscars, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, the Grammys were relatively quiet. There were a few upsets and “snubs,” like the Korean boy band BTS and Justin Bieber, who were nominated but didn’t win any awards. That Louis C.K. won best comedy album raised some eyebrows considering his sexual harassment scandal.
Despite all of this, a beautiful performance for a great cause outshined any controversy. The acclaimed R&B musician John Legend debuted “FREE,” a song advocating for peace inspired by the Ukraine conflict. He also showed a prerecorded video of Vladimir Zelensky as part of the performance.
Legend’s powerful message
Zelensky delivered a riveting, prerecorded speech that he gave in English while wearing his iconic green shirt. He said, in part: “The war. What is more opposite of music? The silence of ruined cities and killed people. . . . Our children draw swooping rockets, not shooting stars. Over 400 children have been injured and 153 children died, and we will never see them drawing. . . . Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded in hospitals. Even to those who can’t hear them. But the music will break through anyway. We defend our freedom. To live. To love. To sound.”
Legend’s performance included two Ukrainian musicians, one playing a traditional Ukrainian instrument called a bandura, and another singer delivering a verse of the song. Additionally, a Ukrainian poet named Lyuba Yakimchuk spoke a poetic stanza modeled after the Lord’s Prayer addressing 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 says: “There is a God / And I’m just sayin’, Lord / Rain down, freedom / Rain down, ’til we’re all / Free / Free / ‘Til we’re all free.”
John Legend wrote on Twitter, “I know I can’t end any wars with a song, but I had to write this song as my prayer, my contribution to the chorus of voices calling for peace and freedom for all people.”
Who is John Legend?
Legend is known for starring in The Voice, working with Ye (Kanye) West on his earliest acclaimed music, other artists like Alicia Keys, and for his own original music. As a pianist, vocalist, and writer, he is world-renowned. 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.
Legend grew up in church singing gospel music. His grandfather was a pastor, and his parents were heavily involved in church throughout his life, especially musically. While he continues to draw from these roots and says that he pulls from the message of love from the Bible, 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 these.” He is known for his philanthropy, performing for the benefit of others, advocating racial justice, and loving the poor, something Jesus commanded us to continue after he was gone (Matthew 25:40).
Beauty from brokeness
Legend’s songwriting shows how artists can use layers of beauty from brokenness. He, in part, was redeeming slavery through God-honoring African American spirituals while overlaying its message onto the plight of refugees escaping and fighting against Russia’s authoritarianism.
In Art and Faith, modern artist and writer Makoto Fujimura writes about how art can redeem brokenness. He uses the analogy of piecing together pottery in an ancient Japanese technique called Kintsugi, which repairs broken pottery with gold. Craftsmen exercising Kintsugi don’t merely repair it; something definitively new and beautiful arises from the brokenness. Legend exemplifies this through music well.
Songs don’t always have to include superficial lyrics or self-glorifying testaments. While nothing is wrong with a little fun, it’s refreshing to see a short, thoughtfully crafted song that uses an old spiritual (which itself was born from the travesty and suffering of African Americans under slavery), a biblical story about freedom from oppression, and the proclamation that God is real, all of which is connected to combatting a modern display of evil.
This biblical song stood in stark contrast to the culture’s often twisted and self-serving displays at an award show like this.