WASHINGTON — Grammy award-winning singer John Legend surprised a high school choir Tuesday at the Kennedy Center to help start a program encouraging young artists to confront social issues with their art, in honor of the late Marvin Gaye.
The project, "What's Going On ... Now," echoes Gaye's lyrics and asks young people to express how things have changed in the four decades since Gaye's hit album, "What's Going On."
Students can upload videos, photos, poems, music or any recordings of creative expression to the project's website to answer that question.
Gaye's groundbreaking 1971 Motown album tackled difficult social issues such as war, drug addiction and poverty, and asked audiences to reflect on the times. His 1972 performance at the Kennedy Center in his hometown was a historic comeback for Gaye – his first live performance in two years since the death of his singing partner and friend Tammi Terrell. It's also believed to be the only time Gaye sang his entire "What's Going On" album in concert.
Legend, 33, will recreate Gaye's performance in two concerts in May with the National Symphony Orchestra and other performers. They will also incorporate recordings submitted by students. The Kennedy Center will feature user-generated content on the project's website, and two young participants will win a free trip to Washington for the concert.
Legend surprised a show choir Tuesday from Washington's Duke Ellington School of the Arts while they were rehearsing for a performance of "What's Going On" at the Kennedy Center. Many of the students' jaws dropped as Legend sat down at the piano to sing with them.
Legend said Gaye's tunes were part of his childhood because his parents were big fans. But that memorable album almost never happened. Motown founder Berry Gordy initially was against it but got on board when it started to sell.
It takes "a bit of boldness" for artists to take on social issues and political issues like Gaye did, Legend said.
"Music right now ... especially in hip hop, no one really wants to talk about poverty," he told The Associated Press. "And if people did make (such music), would the audience respond in a way that would encourage more people to make it?"
More often hip hop is about celebrating black wealth and success, he said, because people want music to be an escape, to be inspired.
Legend's recent album "Wake Up" with The Roots was more gritty and political and was successful in its own way, he said, but not like an album of love songs.
As Legend sang with the students, India Reynolds, 17, a member of the choir, said they all sang backgrounds a little softer to hear his voice.
"If `What's Going On' came out yesterday, it still would have been a hit," she said. "He wrote that album so that people would listen."
Many of the same issues Gaye wrote about still linger today, such as war, violence and unemployment, she said.
"Using my craft to help people notice them is an honor," Reynolds said.
The Kennedy Center has partners in seven cities for the project, including Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Fe, N.M., and the Chicago-based Digital Youth Network. The center created curriculum for teachers to bring the program into their classrooms, or students can join on their own.
Darrell Ayers, the center's vice president for education, said engaging students with digital media integrates literacy and artistic literacy with lessons about history and issues of the day.
It's also a way for young people "to realize the impact the arts can have, not just to make you feel good but to make people think about things."