NEW YORK — When John Legend penned his current single, "Show Me," he said the meaning behind the track was largely symbolic, but more so in an abstract kind of way.
"It was a call to God," he said Monday night in front of a packed house of students in the Roone Arledge Auditorium at Columbia University.
But after watching Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs — a noted economist and director of the university's Earth Institute — discussing his recent book, "The End of Poverty," on TV, the song turned into a call of action for him.
Legend launched the Show Me Campaign last year, and after gushing about Dr. Sachs' book, the two partnered for the Poverty Action Tour, a moderated Q&A forum discussing global poverty with a musical set by the singer afterward.
"When Katrina hit and there was all this discussion about what America does with our poor and does for our poor, I started thinking more broadly about the issue of poverty," Legend told MTV News before the event. "Fortunately, at the time I was thinking about it, I saw Professor Sachs on television talking about his book, and it made me want to get his book right away, and I ordered it on Amazon. I read it while I was traveling, and I was excited by the idea that I could do something. I wanted to be involved. I actually talked about how it was my favorite book I had read recently in an article. And I think Dr. Sachs' people saw me talking about it and reached out and said we should all get together and see what we could work on together.
"It's truly important because you have these wake-up moments, and then you need to follow up that moment of excitement with some action," he continued. "I think the book helped me go from the inspiration to actually doing something."
After his initial meeting with Sachs, Legend took a trip to Ghana to visit the village of Bonsaso and view the poverty firsthand. Through his first trip and a series of others that followed, Legend said he's realized the fight against poverty isn't too vast to get involved. It's not about numbers, indexes or politics.
"Knowing what I knew about the faces of those kids that I saw there and the issues they were going through," the singer explained, "and that we could do something about it and that I could help, then my question was, why wouldn't I help? What good reason do I have as a human being with power and a sense of empathy and morality, why wouldn't I do something? So that was the inspiration for me.
"You see all these things that make you feel desperate or sad, but you realize changes can be made, and it doesn't take a lot of money on our part to make a change in people's lives," he added.
According to Sachs, something as simple as bed nets to protect millions of children against malaria is reasonably attainable.
"These are things a few years ago that seemed utopian," he told the audience.
By Sachs' estimate, the Pentagon spends $1.5 billion for the equivalent of 22 hours of work. He said roughly 3 million bed nets could be purchased with that amount of funding.
"[I'm trying] to get the Pentagon to take next Thursday off," he joked.
The questions from the estimated 1,300 students and faculty in attendance ranged from returning to "that Kennedy idealism" to women's reproductive health to holding elective officials accountable.
Legend then ended the 45-minute discussion by calling global poverty a "defining cause" of our generation and challenging the students to support bipartisan efforts to help the tasks at hand.
"I'm trying to say things that are well-researched," Legend said before taking the stage. "And I'm not saying these things as an artist; it's become a part of my life now."