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Grammy-Winning Soul Musician John Legend at UPenn Commencement: “A Commitment to Truth Requires a Commitment to Social Justice”

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John Legend: “From the war in Iraq to credit-default swaps to the internet bubble to the real estate bubble, too often we got caught up in the hype and fail to see the real truth…Too often, we become apathetic. We see the lies, we see the obfuscation, the deception. And we fail to point it out. We’re afraid to rain on the parade, afraid to rock the boat, afraid to pursue the truth.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s graduation week on college campuses across the country. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have been among those to deliver commencement addresses, with the President speaking at both Arizona State University and Notre Dame, and the First Lady appearing at the University of California, Merced. That speech came about after a vocal campaign by Merced students and their families. It was Merced’s first graduating class. More than half the students were the first in their families to go to college.

Well, this weekend, I attended the graduation of my niece, Anna Gabriela Escuder, at the University of Pennsylvania. Six-time Grammy-winning soul musician John Legend was the commencement speaker. He graduated from U. Penn ten years ago. Legend touched on many issues, including the importance of commitment to social justice.

    JOHN LEGEND: When I walked onto this campus, I felt like I had traveled to another world, a world that was bigger, busier and, yes, more challenging than the one I was leaving behind.

    Before coming to Penn, like they said, I grew up in Springfield, Ohio, and much of my education had come from my parents, my Christian elementary school and the Pentecostal Church we attended on a regular basis.

    With my grandmother by my side, I learned to play gospel piano, and I absolutely loved singing in the church choir. So, as you might imagine, I heard a lot of sermons. A lot of sermons. Some of them were rousing and inspiring. Some were the perfect cure for insomnia. And almost all of them were very, very long. I’m going to try not to do that today. Sometimes I just wanted them to wake me up when it was time for me to sing.

    But it gave me a sense — it gave me a strong sense of morality, a belief that there was a right and there was a wrong. It gave me a sense that there were two sides to this journey we call life. Good versus evil. Dark versus light. Heaven versus Hell. You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists. Clear choices. Perfect opposites.

    Like many people, I found comfort in that clarity. There’s a certain confidence that comes with being sure about the way the world works. It’s all written in an infallible book, and there’s nothing left to discuss. Mission accomplished.

    But when I stepped off that first plane ride to Penn and then became a freshman here, things got a little confusing. The lines became more blurry with each new person I met, each new class I took, each new concept I learned. That comforting dichotomy of right and wrong was replaced by what professors here would call inquiry, methodology and praxis, or in layperson’s terms, a never-ending series of questions, discussions, analyses and options.

    There was James Joyce telling me “a man’s errors are his portals of discovery,” Toni Morrison telling me that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it,” or even my sociology professor repeating his mantra that “correlation does not always equal causation.” You all know what I’m talking about.

    With each course I took, my mind was challenged to be more critical, more flexible, more fluid, more supple. With each new friend I made, I realized this world was a lot bigger than Springfield, Ohio, and, though I thought I was pretty smart when I got here, I had a lot to learn.

    These experiences helped me realize that the answers to many of the issues we face are not always black or white. The answers very often lie in that gray area. It helped me realize that searching for the truth is a process. It’s a journey. And now more than ever, even more than when I graduated ten years ago, what our country needs, what our world needs, are more people who are committed to the process of finding what my friend Cornel West calls the “unarmed truth.”

    Now, I don’t want to get too preacher-like. I don’t want you all to leave here thinking, “That was a hell of a long sermon! Wake me up when it’s time for him to sing!” But since this is such an important day, I do want to share at least one thought that might be helpful as you leave here: As a nation and as a world, we need more truth. Let me repeat that. We need more truth.

    When you look at the list of crises we face, there is a common thread that ties many of them together. The people who created these crises or allowed them to happen either didn’t look hard enough for the truth or didn’t listen to the voices that could tell them where the truth lived.

    We lost thousands of lives and spent billions, possibly trillions, of dollars fighting in and rebuilding Iraq, all based on the false premise that there were weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al-Qaeda and caused 9/11, all falsehoods that were allowed to poison the debate while dissension and fact-checking came too little and too late.

    We’ve spent trillions of dollars bailing out banks with phantom profits that were selling financial products whose values had no grounding in reality. The fact that some of them didn’t even understand their own product didn’t stop them from getting millions of people to buy into it. Meanwhile, the regulators and the press failed to ask the right questions and bear witness to the house of cards until it had already collapsed.

    From the war in Iraq to credit-default swaps to the internet bubble to the real estate bubble, too often we got caught up in the hype and failed to see the real truth.

    Too often, in business and in government, people are rewarded for having the answer that the person they report to wants them to have: “Yes, sir. We can provide mortgages to people who have no down payment and can’t afford the monthly payments.” “Yes, sir. We should buy the cheapest possible toys from factories with low safety standards and not worry if it poisons our children.” “Yes, ma’am. I can write a legal brief to justify torture.”

    Too often, we become apathetic. We see the lies, we see the obfuscation, the deception. And we fail to point it out. We’re afraid to rain on the parade, afraid to rock the boat, afraid to pursue the truth.

    Now, while your education here at Penn does not require that you are a spokesperson for any particular cause, you now have the resources and skills, the privilege and, yes, hopefully, the passion to pursue the truth, to be witnesses of today and for tomorrow, to speak truth to power and to speak the truth on behalf of the powerless.

    Sometimes there isn’t a single answer. But there is always the truth. Now, I don’t assume that the truth is commonly found. Like its bedfellows of democracy and justice, I believe it is quite rare to find. It is born through process. It is gained through questioning. It is found in listening. It’s about accepting that complex problems require complicated solutions.

    A commitment to truth also requires what Patricia Hill Collins calls a “politics of empathy.” I would say that a commitment to truth requires a commitment to social justice.

    When we develop a sense of empathy, when we become listeners, when we become witnesses to the truth, it requires that we turn down some of the noise and clutter of our daily lives and stop to think about the way others live. And when we do that, we can’t help but care. And that caring leads to action.

    For instance, if we take the time to think about it, if we take the time to really bear witness to the truth, then none of us can accept that more than one billion people around the world struggle in extreme poverty, trying to live on less than a dollar a day.

    What does it mean to live on less than a dollar a day? Well, just think about your daily purchases. How many Starbucks frappuccinos and bottles of water and iTunes downloads and sandwiches from Wawa, or wherever y’all buy sandwiches now, how many could you buy with one dollar? Less than a dollar a day means, if you are a parent, you watch your kids die preventable deaths. If you are a child, you often can’t get an education, and even if you do, you sometimes go to school hungry. If you’re a grandmother, you may not have clean drinking water or shoes on your feet, or you may be forced to care for your orphaned grandchildren.

    Once you bear witness to the truth of how these people live, can you accept that? Should we accept that?

    Searching for the truth, in many ways, is the same as searching for your soul. Since I am touted as a soul singer, I’m often asked to define what soul is. Well, it’s hard to define, but I’m sure that soulfulness and truth are very closely related.

    Soul isn’t about a particular race. It’s isn’t about a particular genre of music. Fiona Apple can be soulful. The Beatles can be soulful. Bruce Springsteen can be soulful. Lil Wayne can be soulful. Frank Sinatra can be soulful.

    Soul is about authenticity. Soul is about finding things in your life that are real and pure, the things that you know are at your core, the things you were put on this earth to do, the moments when sound and silence come together.

    Sometimes I find these moments on stage. Sometimes there’s that perfect moment when the crowd, the music, the energy of the room come together in a way that brings me to tears.

    I’ve also seen soul in my philanthropic work, in the face of a little girl in Tanzania who, despite having every challenge you can imagine, looks at me with bright eyes and confidently tells me she will be a teacher someday. And I believe her.

    I see soul in the inspired focus of the grade school students at Harlem Village Academy, where they name their classrooms after the universities that they envision themselves attending years down the road. And yes, there was one named after Penn, ad that’s the one I visited.

    I even saw soul in a certain candidate for President of the United States, someone who had the courage to be honest with the American people and believed that we, after years of being misled and presented false choices, were ready to hear the truth in all its complexity and nuance.

    And looking out across this wonderful crowd here, I think I see some soul in you. I believe that you, the class of 2009, graduates of this prestigious institution, the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, you have soul power. Yes, you do. No matter what careers or hobbies you pursue after leaving here, do them with soul.

    You are empowered to be great leaders. You are equipped, in your jobs, your hobbies, your relationships, you are equipped with the ability to think critically, to listen attentively, to navigate the gray areas, to read between the lines, to bear witness and to lead in the pursuit of truth. You have knowledge. Knowledge is power.

    And as my late grandfather would say, or as the freedom fighters of the civil rights movement would sing, if you know the truth, the truth will set you free. The truth will set you free someday.

    Class of 2009, your someday begins today.

    Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Grammy-winning soul musician John Legend, delivering the commencement address this last Sunday night at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated from Penn ten years ago.

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