You may not know who John Stephens is, but you’re probably familiar with his superstar persona: John Legend. While he may now have the stuff that, uh, legends are made of, his struggle for success has taken the R&B singer through a long trek of trials and tribulations.
John Legend was in a reflective mood when he sat down with MTV News, recalling his early days. “I would play … all these small places in New York where a lot of young musicians get their start,” Legend said of his music career after moving to NYC in 2000. “[I would do] whatever I could do to get people talking about my music. A couple of years into it, we could get, like, 300 or 400 people to show up at [New York music venue] S.O.B.’s, but at first we were happy to get, like, 50 or 60 or 70 people to show up.
“But that whole grind is just part of how you get discovered, how you develop yourself as a performer,” he added. “I think it makes everything I do now more worth it, because I put in all that time and all that effort.”
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and working as a management consultant, Legend made his rounds through the nightclub circuit in New York, performing under his real name before gaining the moniker John Legend from his peers.
“John Legend is a nickname that some friends started calling me, and it kind of grew into my stage name,” the singer said. ” ‘Legend’ is something that I never would have chosen for myself originally. It grew to the point where more people in my circle would know me by that name than by my real name. I had to make a decision.
“I was just like, ‘You know what? Let’s just go for it. People are going to pay attention and I’m going to either live up to my name or I’m not,’ ” he continued. “My bet was on me trying to live up to the name.”
Despite being a solo artist, Legend said, he never went through the grind alone and acknowledged some of his fellow artists who struggled with him during his early beginnings, including Jazmine Sullivan, Jill Scott, Bilal and Kanye West.
“Kanye was still grinding it out when I was grinding it out,” Legend recalled. “We did shows together. He actually opened for me at one point. It was weird, ’cause people didn’t know him at all. He was really well-known in the [music] business because he was producing for everybody, but no one kind of in the general public knew who he was as a rapper.
“We did a show at S.O.B.’s, and the crowd was definitely getting restless while he was performing,” he added. “It’s hard to play a live show when people have no idea who you are. I knew he was going to be great and was going to be a big star, but at the time, no one knew. Little did they know who he was going to be.”
Two multiplatinum albums and five Grammys later, Legend is prepping to release Evolver in October, with “Green Light” as the first single , and the singer agreed that his hard work has undoubtedly paid off.
“You will not make it in this business and succeed over a long period of time unless you work really hard,” Legend explained. “I had to learn as I went when I was grinding. And it does make you appreciate your success. It makes you realize that it’s really about the work. It’s really about making the best music you can make. It’s really about working hard.
“At the end of the day, there’s only a few major stars in the music business, and then there’s all these people that are aspiring to be that.”
Make sure to watch the premiere of John Legend’s “Green Light” video on “FNMTV” Friday (August 22).