With the album Wake Up!, nine-time Grammy winner John Legend and hip hop / neo soul band The Roots collaborate to produce an invigorating reworking of socially conscious music from the 1960s and 70s. Covers on the album include among others “Wholy Holy” by Marvin Gaye, “Little Ghetto Boy” by Donny Hathaway, “Hard Times” by Baby Huey & the Babysitters, “Compared to What” by Eugene McDaniels, and “Hang On In There” by Mike James Kirkland.
The collaborative effort was inspired by the 2008 U.S. presidential election, which simultaneously aroused hope and optimism and exposed deeply ingrained frustration and resentment within America. In an interview with The Guardian, Legend said, “It’s still very contested what it means to be American, and who gets to stake a claim to being American. All these things are real civil rights issues that are being contested right now.”
Though some believed the election of an African American president signified a “post-racial” period, it many cases it revealed the discrimination that still lingers in America. In the same interview, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots recounts:
I was doing grassroots campaigning for Obama, and I would phone Democrats to make sure they’re registered. I would use another name, so they didn’t know what race or color I was; some of them were completely honest about how they felt, thinking that it was a white guy calling. You’d ask who they were gonna vote for, and sometimes you’d get an answer like, ‘I would never vote for him, because I think he’s a Muslim and he’s gonna destroy the country.’
The music may date back forty years, but the content reveals a striking parallel to the issues facing the country today. The songs speak of a people painfully frustrated with the war, poverty, and discrimination confronting them. One of the songs covered, “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” by Bill Withers, offers a portrait of a wounded soldier coming back from Vietnam. At the beginning of the track, Legend narrates, “Bill Withers recorded this song at the end of the Vietnam War. As I record this now, America, the land of peace and prosperity, is in the middle of two wars. No matter what the politicians in Washington say we’re fighting for, they make the decisions, and our young men and women, they go and fight. And some pay the ultimate sacrifice. War is hell. It always has been. It always will be.”
The album includes one original composition, “Shine,” written by Legend, which advocates education reform in the United States. Legend said in an interview with The Independent, “I see Wake Up! as a pro-peace record. A pro-love record, a pro-engagement record. A pro-let’s-get-our-shit-together record.” In the album’s single “Wake Up Everybody!” featuring Common and Melanie Fiona, Legend urges people to wake up and take action to change the world we live in.
Wake Up! injects refreshing insight and passion into the current environment of commercially-geared music, skillfully reigniting the flame of protest from the 60s and 70s that has dwindled in recent decades.