Wednesday, May 20, 2009

John Legend's Graduation Speech

The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter John Legend spoke at the University of Pennsylvania yesterday, delivering this year's graduation speech for the College of Arts and Sciences, a school he graduated from in 1999. (You don't see me, but I'm seated two rows behind him on the stage. I was one of the faculty members responsible for shaking the hands of graduates as their names were announced.)

Legend crafted a thoughtful and heart-felt speech that was clearly both personal and political. He talked about his first trip on an airplane, a trip his 16-year-old self took to Philadelphia to start his stint at the University of Pennsylvania.

He argued for the academic conceptions of "truth" that he learned as an undergraduate, conceptions he considers a lot more rigorous and weighty than what gets passed off as truth in the contemporary public/political sphere.

Legend invoked sociologist Patricia Hill Collins's notion of a "politics of empathy" to flesh out his own commitments to social justice.

He challenged the students to hold fast to the methodological and epistemological lessons they learned in their Penn courses. He dared them to think internationally by putting their own relative luxuries in conversation with the material disadvantages of human beings in other parts of the world. He asked students to redefine "soul" as a framework for operationalizing more holistic engagements with our social world and more empirically verifiable/falsifiable truth claims based upon such engagements.

Legend proffered soul as an apt scaffolding for the substantive stuff that truth should be made of. He thinks of soul and truth as directly related, even mutually constitutive.

As a soul singer, people sometimes ask him to define soul. And according to Legend, it isn't reducible to race or a conventional genre of popular music. Anyone can be soulful, he says in the speech, just as long as the person is "authentic," "real and pure," trying to find fleeting but fecund moments "when silence and sound come together" so profoundly and unpredictably that it might bring tears to one's eyes. And those eyes will always see the world just a little bit differently as a result.

Anthropologist Kathleen Stewart has a short book that tries to describe a similarly soulful or soul-filled conception of life/truth, and she would probably argue that the fleeting moments that Legend describes, moments she considers saturated with "ordinary affects," are everyday occurrences that usually go unnoticed or underappreciated. They are moments that some of us have to train ourselves to see. If not, we glimpse examples of Legend's existential truths for a brilliant second only to have them vanish into irretrievable and inarticulable oblivion just as quickly.

I would probably call what Legend's really going for here, the form of soulful truth he's suggesting, a logic of (and plea for) sincerity, not authenticity, though the two are (as Lionel Trilling once put it) cognate ideals, related attempts at accessing reality. I have my own quirky formulation of things, granted. And it is different from Trilling's. But that discrepancy (which I won't unpack now) doesn't change my take on Sunday's speech. Legend demonstrated an example of just what he was trying to recommend. It was a speech filled with soulful truth. And he didn't have to sing a single note.

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