John Legend expertly sums up the U.S.'s problem with mental health and mass incarceration


John Legend has become a prominent voice for social activism in recent years, throwing his support behind San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest, creating anthems like "Glory" inspired by the movement for black lives and launching an advocacy campaign to end mass incarceration in the United States. 

In a cover story for Gotham magazine published Thursday, the R&B hitmaker revealed why these issues hit so close to home, and how the practice of incarcerating people with mental illnesses and drug addiction problems persists to this day.

"I've seen personally what drugs and depression can do to your family because I had that issue with my mother," Legend told the magazine. "What we end up doing is locking up a lot of people for their drug issues and their mental health issues, and what we really should be doing is trying to find ways to help them. 

"You don't want to get in a situation where you're trying to excuse every bad action someone does," he added, "but at least try to understand the roots of the problem so you can do something to solve it."

Legend knows first-hand how incarcerating a family member can negatively impact a child growing up. Last year, he wrote an essay for Time magazine describing his experiences with his mother being arrested multiple times throughout his childhood. 

"As a teenager growing up in Ohio, I watched my mother disappear into more than a decade of drugs and despair after my maternal grandmother — a person who filled our whole family with love — passed away," he wrote. "My mother's addiction didn't just tear her life apart; it tore me and the rest of our family apart, too."

"We as a nation have become overly punitive."

"We as a nation have become overly punitive," Legend continued. "If you compare us to most developed countries, we lock up way, way more people and for longer amounts of time, and when you actually look at the human toll of incarceration and the pain it causes to the individual and to their families, what are we getting out of that? 

"Every dollar we spend on incarcerating people is a dollar we're not spending on improving their schools, improving healthcare in their community, improving safety in their community in other ways that would prevent crime," he said.

Legend's Free America campaign uses various creative tools to tackle the United States' status as the most heavily-incarcerated country in the world — namely by using powerful interviews and digital storytelling to show how such high rates of arrests and imprisonment impact families. 

It's one small step toward raising awareness about an issue that's crippling communities and families facing hardships from addiction and mental illness — though it's a big step in the right direction for an artist as mainstream as Legend.

"It might a bit idealistic, but I actually feel like I can try to convince people of things on Twitter by a well-reasoned argument," Legend explained, speaking about why he engages with commenters critiquing his worldview. "I want to have a conversation with them."

Read the full interview here.