Uplifting. That’s the first word that comes to mind when reflecting on John Legend’s headlining set at the Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival on Thursday night. Uplifting. Glorious. Carefree.
And politically reinvigorating.
That might seem like an incongruous thought, but in between Legend’s anecdotes, dreamy smiles, and frequent on-stage shimmies (he was really feeling himself), the singer reminded us that the struggle for justice continues beyond this feel-good bubble. Twice during the show, imagery from the civil rights movement flashed on a screen behind him — segregated waiting rooms and I Am a Man! Protests — elevating the set from passive fun to something more pressing, more rooted in history.
There were the hits, too. Impossible to resist dance numbers and ballads — Love Me Now, Used to Love U, Ordinary People. Legend looked delightful in his snazzy black-gold blazer, surrounded by an eight-piece band and three back-up vocalists. (At one point, he stripped himself of said blazer as he slow-danced with one fan from the crowd.)
Other highlights included an a capella version of Sam Smith’s Lay Me Down, a funky tribute to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly (it was the song playing when Legend’s daughter Luna was born), and the Andre 3000 collaboration Green Light. By the time Legend performed Save Room, he was so in the zone that he was on top of his piano.
When time came for an encore, Legend performed his magnum opus All of Me solo on the piano, a perpetual dedication to wife Chrissy Teigen. But as his band rejoined him on stage, the singer launched into another call for justice, ending with his Academy Award-winning song Glory (from the Ava DuVurnay film Selma). This time, footage of Martin Luther King Jr. was interspersed with more recent Black Lives Matter and Women’s March protests, leaving the audience with an ultimate message of hope, unity and resistance.