John Legend spoke, sang, and received a standing ovation in front of more than 3,000 fans at Salem State’s Rockett Arena on Tuesday night. The singer-songwriter’s appearance was part of the Salem State Series, which has drawn names such as Bill Belichick, Cory Booker, Maya Angelou, and Tom Brady to the college.
Legend’s event started with an honor; the Grammy- and Academy Award-winning star picked up the inaugural Salem Advocate for Social Justice award. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll praised Legend for his education-centered Show Me Campaign and for his #FREEAMERICA campaign, which focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline.
Legend told the night’s moderator, WBZ’s Lisa Hughes, that the United States must admit that it can learn from other countries when it comes to issues such as education and incarceration.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t love our country,” he said, “it means we want it to be the best.”
Legend also said that people who want to get involved with social justice should take the time to do research. That’s how he started his own work, he said.
“When you get involved with an issue, you have to do the homework,” he told the crowd. “Passion is not enough.”
Hughes also asked Legend some personal questions during the night, including his favorite feel-good song (his answer was Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”), and what it was like to be an actor in “La La Land,” directed by Harvard grad Damien Chazelle.
“I was spoiled by being a part of ‘La La Land,’ ” Legend said, noting Chazelle’s best director win at the Oscars. “That sets the bar kind of high for me.”
Legend — who had a piano onstage — also performed a short set, which included his single “Love Me Now” and his megahit “All of Me,” which he turned into an audience sing-along. He promised fans they’d get more music when his tour stops at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion in Boston on June 19.
Legend’s trip to Salem was one night after the MET Gala in New York City, where he appeared with his wife — model, author, and “Lip Sync Battle” cohost Chrissy Teigen.