Anyone who knows me will tell you that music has played a big role in my life. Back in school I sang in the Chord On Blues acapella group and played in the University Symphony, a string quartet, and a Dave Matthews cover band. I eventually started a jam band called The Ally, touring around the country and performing to young, dreadlocked hippies (I made several unsuccessful attempts at dreadlocks myself).
One day, while we were recording The Ally’s first album at The Studio (a JV between The Roots and acclaimed producer Larry Gold), I was warming up on the violin in the corner when an African American man came up from behind and asked my bassist and guitarist, “Yo who dat playin’ the violin?”
“Oh that’s John Yohan Kimbo… he just came straight off the boat from Korea. Yeah he’s ok at the fiddle, but he doesn’t speak any English.”
“Oh for real?” He replied, walking closer towards me. I caught him out of the corner of my eye, turned around and threw my hand in the air to give him a high five.
“WASSUP MY MAN! I’m Kimbo… nice to meet you!”
He must have jumped 3 feet into the air, but after regaining his composure he asked if I might be down to play on a record sometime. That gentleman ended up being renowned producer Rodney Jerkins and the album I was to play on was the platinum record Full Moon by Grammy Award winning R&B singer Brandy.
Now back on campus, there was another John who also sang and played instruments in various musical groups. His last name was Stephens, and he also had a platinum record to his name for his piano performance in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. He was talented and likable, and though we weren’t close, we had some close mutual friends (including Nihal Mehta from Eniac Ventures, Vijay Chattha from VSC and John's former manager, Paras Shah from Code and Theory).
John Stephens graduated a year before I did and moved to New York to become a management consultant, continuing to perform during nights and weekends. While at Penn, Stephens’s roommate was a music producer who happened to be Kanye West’s cousin. Some time after Stephens moved to New York, Kanye offered to produce his first solo album. John quit his job, changed his last name to Legend, (yes this is John Legend we’re talking about), went on a sold out tour with Kanye and Usher, and won 3 Grammies that year.
Way to make a guy feel unaccomplished!
A few years ago, Penn President Amy Guttmann told Barack Obama in conversation that John Legend is a Penn alumnus.
“Yes I know that, Amy. He reminds me of it every time we meet.”
Nice to know that even Legends still wave the Penn flag.