and his quest for immigration reform

By Daniel Frank


John Stevens was born in 1981 in Springfield, Ohio. Apparently Stevens wasn’t a mythic enough name and so he became a Legend, a John Legend. Like any R&B superstar, Legend has an image, a silky voice, and fans who adore and lap up what he gives or sells them. He seems to be manufactured, an R&B singer, tailor-made for every generation, and yet somehow he comes off as sincere. His rise to fame has supported a newfound voice for activism and caring in America, which Legend, born Stevens re-packages in an enticingly humble allure.

In Arizona, there is a prison, and in this prison there are over a thousand illegal immigrants. The authorities use the prison, not to punish or protect the public—the typical and historical function of prisons—but as a type of holding cell. The police and the border patrol catch them, lock them up, hold them, and then ship them back home. It’s not a surprise that some of them have done this two or three times. Legend thinks this is wrong, and frankly an insult to the good and caring people of America. He has begun a counter strike against a system that criminalizes illegal immigrants seeking refuge or work.

The Man and the Stevens, John Legend
On January 21st 2016, Legend and Latin American pop star Juanes performed Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” It was a one song concert performed outside of Arizona’s Eloy Immigration Detention Center. The concert was in accordance with Legend’s movement to #FREEAMERICA which seeks to provide facts about immigration and human rights. There were a few dozen onlookers in front of the portable stage. Legend and Juanes face away from the prison, Legend at the piano and Juanes standing opposite him playing the guitar. Why do they face away from the prison? Why aren’t they singing to the prisoners who they are claiming to represent? In actuality, they aren’t claiming that, they are actually singing to us about the prisoners. We are the audience and the prisoners are the background, living props to what are laws have done. It’s as if they are saying that we the people are responsible for this mess, and only we the people can change it.

There are several questions that might arise out of Legend’s push towards immigration “awareness,” as I would hesitate to call it “reform.” The most prominent being a suspicion of whether Legend, and celebrities in general, actually care about what they advocate for, or is he, like so many of his famous kind, merely burnishing his image? I propose that this does not matter. How could it not matter? Isn’t what we feel, everything that we describe as inside us, the most important aspect of our lives—numerous self-help gurus and ethicists would say yes. I would say, objectively, what Legend actually feels has little to do with finding a better solution to illegal immigration. It is like the human psyche, an unanswerable question. I more appropriate response would be to ask whether Legend’s effort for change is paying off. Is he making a difference?

The Legend is trying: what are you doing?
Yes, he is, but not in the ways that you think. You might think that what matters is the event itself, the concert and how Legend sang. Was he smooth that day? How was his pitch? Did the audience cry? Did he give the performance his all? Was it truthful? None of that matters, and you would be wrong if you thought it did. What matters is that the concert is a spectacle. By making a spectacle out of the prison we see it in a new light.

We are forced to see the spectacle. This is the basis of all activism, not to actually change anything right in the moment, but to make us see the world anew, and with a greater sense of justice. Legend is in the same shot as the prison and the audience is looking at Legend, so how can they ignore the prisoners and what it means for them to be there? The truth is that we are a “fix it” society. We believe in direct causation. If ISIS threatens us, then kill them. If Immigrants are pouring into the borders, throw them in prison, deport them, and build a wall. Our ignorance about the consequences of our actions is in alignment with the ignorance of its effects on other people’s lives. The idea is not to feel differently, because ultimately that doesn’t change this, the idea is to realign the spectacle and that’s what John Legend has done.

Anyone who flips on the news while Legend’s concert is forced to think twice about what they know about our justice system, and what they know about immigrants. So being a star means to exist in an ongoing spectacle, and any political topic that you allow in your realm is also going to become a spectacle, which is the political goal: awareness of a problem is always the first step.

It's all a spectacle
Who does Legend think he is to have a say in immigration? What ties does he have to this subject matter? After all, he isn't latino, he isn't an immigrant, and he grew up in Ohio. I would argue, however, that Legend is the best image to represent the immigrant imprisonment. There are many artists and activists related to the issue who have their foot in the door, but Legend makes a different kind of statement. He shows us clearly that he cares about something that is not a benefit for himself. He shows us that it doesn't matter who we are, we need to come together and raise an awareness of the injustice around us.It is because Legend is a spectacle.

It is because there are always hundreds of thousands of eyes on him at all times. It is more important that he–who is separated from the injustice–can show us that we–who are also separated from the injustice–should care and understand this problem instead of ignorantly condemning immigrants, who’s motives we do not fully understand. As an activist, we should not be allies. We should be the front lines of change.

©Daniel Frank and the CCA Arts Review

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