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May 18, 2023

John Legend, who performed some of his earliest concerts in Philly, to be honored with mural in Northern Liberties

The new art adorns The Fire, a bar which has hosted artists like Amos Lee, Santigold and Dr. Dog since opening on Girard Avenue in 1999

Arts & Culture Murals
John Legend Mural City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program/Alloyius Mcilwaine/Steve Weinik

John Legend will be honored with a mural dedicated outside of the Northern Liberties bar and music venue, which hosted the singer in the earliest days of his career while attending the University of Pennsylvania.

Before John Legend became the first Black man to achieve an EGOT — earning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards — he was a young crooner sitting in the crowds, and later, performing, at small music venues throughout Philadelphia. 

The earliest days of Legend's two-decade music career were spent in tiny concert spaces like The Five Spot in Old City, and performing at open mics alongside artists like Jill Scott and Jazmine Sullivan. It wasn't until producer Devo Springsteen introduced the young singer-songwriter to Kanye West that Legend's stage name and star power began to rise. In the 22 years that have followed, Legend has become an internationally-recognized musician with a bevy of hits and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In a tribute to his oft-forgotten Philly roots, an image of Legend now dons the facade of The Fire, a bar and music venue where the singer performed two decades ago.

The mural, "Legendary Performances," was painted by Philly-based artist and clothing designer Alloyius Mcilwaine. It will be formally dedicated during a ceremony at the music venue, located at 412 W. Girard Ave., on Thursday, May 25. While Legend is the focal point of the project, Japanese opera singer Yasko Fujií, who also performed at The Fire early in her career, is also honored in a smaller section of the mural. 

The project is meant to speak to the power of music to connect people and communities. The mural, made in conjunction with Mural Arts Philadelphia, the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, Penn Treaty Special Services District and the city of Philadelphia, features kudoglyphs, Mcilwaine's artistic signatures that symbolize positivity. 

"Not only did I get to paint incredibly talented artists like John Legend and Yasko Fujií for the mural, but I also got to immortalize a venue with such a rich history," Mcilwaine said in a press release. "When I spoke to some of the local artists that regularly perform at The Fire, they told me that it was one of the only places where they felt like they could express themselves and get their music out to a broader audience." 

The Fire opened in 1999 when owner Karen Lauria Saillant, an opera singer and vocal coach, took the pool table out of her husband's bar and replaced it with a small stage where her students could perform. In addition to Legend, The Fire has hosted several emerging talents that have since become mainstream musicians, including Amos Lee, Iron and Wine, Jason Mraz, Dr. Dog, Santigold, Cold War Kids, Tegan and Sara and Maroon 5. 

The Fire, which bills itself as Philly's only woman-owned music venue, has hosted a weekly open mic night for more than two decades, including one that Legend performed at just three years before he won his first Grammy Award in 2006. 

"Ever since its inception, The Fire has had one overarching goal: to provide bands and musicians writing original music with a wonderful opportunity to flourish and be supported," said Saillant. "It is a small, intimate space to explore your musical art. The Fire endeavors to be an open-hearted place for people to express themselves through music and with music." 

Legend graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 and later moved to Boston, but he traveled back to Philly on weekends to perform while writing and recording original music. He released two albums independently before he was signed to West's record label. He performed regularly at The Fire from 2003 until 2005, when he began to receive national acclaim for his debut studio album, "Get Lifted."

Since then, Legend has released eight studio albums in addition to "Wake Up!," a collaborative album with soul covers he recorded with The Roots in 2010. He has returned to Philly several times since the beginning of his career, becoming the second artist to perform at The Met Philadelphia when it reopened as a concert venue on North Broad Street in 2018. 

"Philly was the epicenter for that (neo-soul)," Legend told the Inquirer in 2021. "The Roots, and that whole scene around them. I was a young kid, you know, in my formative years, going to those open mics. I was an audience member and then later a participant, and that was so crucial to my development as an artist. My inspiration to pursue this. All of that wouldn't have happened if I wasn't in Philly, probably." 

The mural will be dedicated in a ceremony on Thursday, May 25 from 2 to 4 p.m. at The Fire, featuring food, drinks, live music and a tribute show with Legend's greatest hits. The event is free to attend.