Springfield’s John Legend talks gender roles, growing up black in Ohio

John Legend performs on stage during a concert following the ribbon cutting for the new John Legend Theater in Springfield. Bill Lackey/Staff
John Legend performs on stage during a concert following the ribbon cutting for the new John Legend Theater in Springfield. Bill Lackey/Staff

Grammy and Oscar-winning singer and Springfield native John Legend believes children are exposed to gender stereotypes from an early age that leading to problems, especially for young boys.

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Legend recently sat down for an interview with NBC Think ahead AXE's Senior Orientation — an event aimed at teaching high school senior boys about inclusive masculinity — where he discussed how children are exposed to stereotypes early in life and feel pressured to conform.

“Society gives you all kinds of cues as to what’s valuable, what’s considered masculine and feminine,” Legend said in the interview. “But as a kid you’re not really understanding it as such, you’re just seeing it as this is what boys are likely to do and this is what girls are likely to do.”

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Boys tend to internalize a lot of their emotions, Legend said, but black boys in particular face intense pressure to conform to what people perceive black men to be.

“I think we’re expected to be even more masculine than other men are,” he told NBC. “Some of this expectation we put on ourselves, I think, to some extent. But it’s also driven from other people, as well as from the broader phenomenon of hyper-masculinity.”

Legend said growing up in Ohio, where sports are placed under a bright spotlight, made him feel less valuable because he wasn’t a good athlete and focused more on the arts. His sense of awkwardness only increased as he grew older as he progressed through school quickly and entered college when he was only 16. But because of his upbringing, he said he was able to embrace what it was he wanted to do and become who he is today.

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Legend said keeping an open mind and being willing to accept different outlooks is what can help young men struggling with their own viewpoints.

“Well, I think part of it is to learn, to listen, to pay attention to other people and not only learn from books and from outside media, but also listen to your classmates. Listen to women. Listen to people who are different from you and develop a sense of empathy for the things that they’re going through. I think we should all be humble and we should all listen to each other and learn from each other.”

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