On Juneteenth, John Legend and Alicia Keys performed in the latest installment of Verzuz, an Instagram series for hip hop and R&B stars to square off. Both piano players since childhood (Keys since she was 7, Legend since he was 5), their two-and-a-half hour Friday event showcased skill, heart, and major talent.
Keys and Legend played sitting back-to-back; she at a hot pink piano and he at a black one. They began with a performance of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” then harmonized on the chorus of Legend’s new song “Never Break.”
Throughout the set, they alternated between playing live tracks and dancing and singing alongside their recordings. Of course they played their hits, like Legend’s “All of Me” and Keys’s “No One,” but the real highlights were the personal information they shared. Legend recalled “Ordinary People” as the song that put him on the map. “The day I knew I was famous, 2005, this song had been out for a little while and I got a call from two people I had been looking up to for a long time: Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson on the same day,” he said. “I was like ‘ok I’m famous now.’ It was all because of this song.”
When Keys sang “Girl on Fire” she said, “Every little girl that said they love singing this song made my whole life.”
Verzuz was created by Keys’s husband Swizz Beatz along with Timbaland, and has become a quarantine staple. It’s less a traditional battle and more a show of respect between artists and a walk down musical memory lane. Others who have faced off include Ludacris and Nelly, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu and, of course, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland.
With special attention to the episode’s commemoration of Juneteenth, Legend introduced his Oscar-winning song “Glory” with a history lesson about the holiday.
“There were several moments that you could call emancipation days for Black people in America: Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation in 1862 and it was officially on the first day of January 1863 but the word didn’t get to part of Texas until 1865 and that’s the day that Juneteenth commemorates. They finally found out that they were supposed to be free. They were always meant to be free, God meant them to be free but in this nation they weren’t,” Legend said.
“That’s why we celebrate this holiday to honor our ancestors but also to encourage this country, to admonish this country, that we need to get even more free, more justice, more equality and we have to keep fighting for it,” he added. “I’ve been so inspired watching people march in the streets playing this song that Common and I wrote for Selma, Common and I wrote honoring the folks who were marching in Ferguson at that time. It means so much to me to see this song be an inspiration to folks who are out there trying to get more free, more justice, more equality. ”
The full episode can be watched on Instagram.
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