Bringing ‘Underground’ to the Surface

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Grammy-, Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning singer/songwriter John Legend is looking to hit the right notes on TV, serving as executive producer of WGN America’s antebellum drama series, Underground, which depicts the “Underground Railroad” used by 19th-century African-American slaves to escape the South for the free states and Canada (premiering March 9). He also produced the title song. The 37-year-old Legend discussed his move into television, along with his Get Lifted production company, as well as diversity on the small screen with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead. An edited transcript follows.

MCN:What drew you to theUndergroundproject?

John Legend: We were happy to join a team that was already in place with [show creators] Joe [Pokaski] and Misha [Green] and an amazing cast. We’re just happy to help bring the story to light because that’s what producers do — we collaborate with great creative people. I think it’s such a powerful and riveting show and I want people to see it.

MCN:Did you have any apprehensions about moving into the television arena?

JL: [Get Lifted partner Mike Jackson] convinced me that because of who I am and what I do this would be a great opportunity to have an impact in the business, since I’m already plugged into the creative community and Hollywood. I’m an English major who loves to read and consume great stories, as well as great TV and film, so I can use my influence in the community to help bring great stories to light.

MCN:You also had a big hand in directing the music for the show. Since this is a period piece was it difficult to create and match music to the time in which the story takes place?

JL: We used contemporary music, and while we also used period music, we didn’t want it to feel stuck in that era. We wanted to connect it with current popular culture and make it feel like it was coming off the walls of a museum and feel more present and alive. We all went into it with that vision — we didn’t want it to feel staid and stiff, and feel like you were doing a homework assignment to watch it. We wanted it to feel alive and full of action, suspense and thrills. So the music helped us do that.

MCN:Do you think younger viewers will gravitate to the series given its historical nature?

JL: We’re trying to make this relevant to anybody who’s watching it — black, white, Latino, Asian, young or old. We’ve been removed from slavery now for several generations, and we know a little about it from history books, although I think our history classes don’t do a good enough job of telling the stories. We think the power of the story itself and the characters, as well as the storytelling by the director and the music, will connect it to a younger generation. We didn’t slap in new music just to make it cool for the kids, but we really tried to make the music feel organic to what was happening in a given situation.

MCN:Do you think the increased amount of multicultural-themed shows on television helps the overall appeal and interest in the show?

JL: It’s clear that you’re able to see a lot of people of color on television right now in various roles and time periods, and I think the success of shows like Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and other shows where we’re seeing black people in positions of power doing things behind and in front of the camera shows Hollywood and the powers that be that it’s important to tell diverse stories, and creates a climate where it’s easy for us to get this type of show on the air. We’re really starting to see a diverse range of content — not just black and white, but also Asians, Latinos, people of different eras and different countries. You’re seeing a lot of subcultures that are being explored in great television shows, and this is an important story and time period in American history, and we’re excited to get this story on the air.

MCN:What other projects are you working on?

JL: We’re producers on a movie Southside With You, which premiered at Sundance. We’re also working on a couple of documentary projects, not to mention I’m working on a new album and expecting a baby [with wife Chrissy Teigen].

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.