The last time John Legend performed “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in Dayton, Ohio, it was for his uncle’s funeral. His aunt had requested that her nephew, the second black performer to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award, sing Simon and Garfunkel’s signature song to help people through their sorrow.
On Sunday, Legend sang it again at a Dayton bar in the wake of more death, a week after a gunman killed nine people and injured dozens in the early morning hours of Aug. 4.
“It’s a testament to how we can be there for each other in these times of grief,” the Ohio native told an audience of victims’ families and community workers on Sunday night at Blind Bob’s Bar, a tavern in Dayton’s historic Oregon District, the area where the mass shooting took place.
But Legend’s visit to Dayton on Sunday was also marked by his urgent call for gun reform against the string of “preventable traumas,” as the artist called on President Trump and lawmakers to enact enhanced safety measures instead of currying political favor with the National Rifle Association.
“My direct message to legislators, to the president, to all of them, is the NRA doesn’t represent America,” he said at a news conference, citing polling reflecting the nation’s strong support of universal background checks and a ban of assault weapons. “How many more people have to be killed for us to realize that this isn’t working? If you claim to represent the interests of the American people, then you need to be doing your job in a way that makes everyone safer.”
During the news conference with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (D), Legend, 40, whose real name John Stephens, said that although Americans may “feel like there’s nothing we can do, giving up is not an issue.” He pushed for lawmakers to turn their “thoughts and prayers” into action.
“We have to be able to live without the fear of being shot. … We don’t have to live like this,” Legend said. “We’ve heard politicians send their thoughts and prayers while failing to act. We’re done with that.”
He added: “We’re tired of bigotry and hate turning lethal because of easy access to guns.”
Legend’s message comes amid increasing pressure for Trump to support legislation to curb gun violence after the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso earlier this month left 31 people dead and dozens injured. On Friday, the president expressed confidence that he could rally Republicans to back measures strengthening background checks, despite the GOP-controlled Senate’s steadfast refusal to vote on a similar House measure. Trump also remained optimistic that he could persuade the NRA, an invaluable ally, to drop long-standing opposition to enhanced background checks.
“I think Republicans are going to be great and lead the charge, along with the Democrats,” Trump told reporters on Friday.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) released a 17-point plan two days after the Dayton killings, calling for increased background checks and a red-flag law that would allow for the court-ordered removal of guns from those deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“We must do something,” he said, echoing the chants of “do something” that drowned him out at a vigil the day after the shooting. “And that is exactly what we are going to do.”
Speaking in the heart of the Oregon District, Legend, who grew up less than 30 miles from Dayton in Springfield, Ohio, spoke of his heartbreaking meeting with a son of one of the victims in the Aug. 4 rampage, adding that the city’s devastation hit close to home.
“But it’s got to hit home every time it happens, because we have to see each other’s humanity, no matter where we live and no matter where these incidents happen,” he said.
Legend argued that tighter gun control is possible, noting that stricter laws were implemented in Australia after a 1996 mass shooting there.
“We’re not some distinct species of human that can’t stop shooting each other,” he said, “but we put too many guns in too many people’s hands and when you put that much death and destruction in someone’s hands, somebody is going to die.”
Legend, who recently slammed the president as “a flaming racist” and “a canker sore on America’s whole landscape” after Trump attacked Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and his district in Baltimore, left out any pointed remarks against the president, instead focusing on stopping mass shootings.
“Every time one of these events happens, we see a strength of the community,” he said. “We’re inspired by everyone’s resilience, but let’s stop requiring that level of strength and resilience from people. Let’s prevent those things from happening in the first place.”
Legend maintained that politicians’ continued support of the NRA was “just escalating the violence, escalating the fact we’re arming everyone to the teeth.”
After shopping in the Oregon District and meeting with Whaley, the city’s Democratic mayor, to discuss gun control measures, Legend performed for about 30 minutes inside the packed bar on Fifth Street on Sunday night, playing hits including “All of Me” and “Ordinary People,” and covers such as “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye and “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles.
By the end of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Legend said he was overcome with the emotions of the past week.
“Sometimes, we need to cry,” he said onstage at Blind Bob’s. “It’s not good for singing, but we need to do it sometimes.”
In a day full of heartfelt pleas, the artist had only a few words left to say before the final song of the night: “I love you, Dayton.”
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