The rapper discusses his new album, Black America Again, and why artists have an obligation to speak out.
Last week, Common looked directly into The Tonight Show camera and rapped, “Trayvon’ll never get to be an older man / Black children, they childhood stole from them / Robbed of our names and our language, stole again / Who stole the soul from black folk?”
His face and his words were broadcast into more than three million homes that night. Hood up, backed by string instruments and The Roots, his breathless performance of “Black America Again” had an urgency rarely seen on late night television, on news programs, or elsewhere. And since this is The Tonight Show we’re talking about, some of these three million people certainly aren’t Common’s typical audience—they’re not used to hearing his viewpoint or his music. This is an audience tuning in to see Jimmy Fallon play silly games, who would otherwise read and watch programs to which they’re more ideologically aligned (if they do at all).
Common has a new album, Black America Again, coming out today, so in theory, he’s doing late night performances like these to sell a few records. The best way to sell records is to play it safe—to keep your mouth shut, write a verse, chorus, and hook about a breakup and let everyone feel comfortable and unchallenged while spending $$$ on your politically neutral personal brand.
Not Common. In the first verse of the first song on his first album, Common made it pretty clear what he was going to do:
“Now what do niggas do when they got not food / Skibbidy skap and busta bust a rap / So I pick up the pen and then begin the thoughts to get to pumpin / Hopin like all the people let me talk, let me say somethin / Cause nothin for nothin leaves nothin, I got nuthin to lose”
That was in 1992. In the 24 years since, he’s won three Grammys, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award. He’s released 11 albums, acted in dozens of films, and become a political activist for causes both globally and in his home of Chicago. Any artist worried about sacrificing sales or success for speaking their mind should talk to Common, someone who has built a career upon the idea that anyone with a platform has a responsibility to discuss the issues affecting this country.
“We often go through the battle that people won’t accept us or it won’t be popular,” Common told me this week. “But when it’s in your heart, you have to follow your heart and do it. And the fact that you’re an artist that has millions of ears that potentially can reach hundreds of millions of ears and spirits and hearts… Man, why not use that gift to uplift others and to speak up for others who don’t get to speak up?”
As activists have been saying for generations, our voice is the most powerful tool. And on Common’s new album, his voice has lost none of its potency over the years. In fact, given the volatile state of American society and politics, we need that voice now more than ever. That’s actually why we’re getting a new Common album this year rather than an EP (which is what he had originally planned).
On the day the Cubs won their first World Series in more than 100 years, I spoke with Common (although the Chicago native is a White Sox fan, he was rooting for the Cubs) about the new album, the future of hip-hop and how the genre has become our most powerful force of social change.
ESQ: I loved your performance with The Roots on The Tonight Show last week. It’s cool to see you performing that song in front of an audience that might not be familiar with hip-hop or your message. What can these people take away from this?
Common: Well, you know, the one thing that I’ve been experiencing with this song specifically is that you don’t have to be into hip-hop to understand it, to feel it, to comprehend it. A friend of mine describes Black America Again as a monologue, and I think that I look at it sometimes like it’s a speech. It’s something that I’m giving. And I think the words are direct enough and clear enough. I do it in a church or I’ve done it in a classroom, where there were kids who were 10 years old listening and reacting to certain lines and I was like, this is amazing. I think, no matter the setting, the purity that’s in the song and that’s in the heart and how clear it is resonates.
And so do you think a song like that could change somebody’s mind or make them think differently?
Truly, I truly believe that. I mean, the intention and the purpose is to really inspire and activate people to want to be a part of the change and to empower black people. Not only black people, but saying that everybody has to be a part of Black America rising to equality. It’s not just going to be us doing it. It has to be everybody. And as we rise, everybody rises; this country is so many different nationalities and cultures, and if one is being pushed down, there’s no way for the other to live in harmony in life because it’s uneven. It’s not balanced. I think that this song and this album and this movement and the art that we’re putting out and the conversations that we’re having can change lives, and that’s the only reason why I’m doing it. I mean, the major reason why I’m doing it. I love being an artist, obviously, but the purpose of it and the intention of it is to shift the paradigm and improve lives.
The purpose and intention of being an artist is to shift the paradigm and improve lives.
I mean, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for that. Was the intention to have it come out just a few days before the election?
Yeah. I mean, initially when I was writing it, it was originally going to be an EP and we were going to release it in the summer. But as the project started to develop and became what it became, it was like, “Man, this is an election year. This music needs to be out and heard at that time.” And these times are creating music like this. Obviously it’s not only my music—it’s a lot of people and artists out there speaking up. And I’m talking from visual artists to writers to music artists. If you look at these times, people will go back and study these times and be like, “Man, Kendrick Lamar dropped this album, Lorna Simpson did this artwork, Kehinde Wiley did this, Rashid Johnson did this artwork, and Ava DuVernay did this documentary called 13th. There’s a lot of things happening. Barry Jenkins did a movie about a black kid that was gay and was fighting it because he couldn’t exist. These are powerful stories and really high-level art being released at this time. I think that the times have created some of that, and I think it speaks to the times.
And speaking of Kendrick and Chance and Vince Staples making such powerful music this year, what do you think hip-hop’s role is in an election year like this and when we need music like that?
I think hip-hop has always been a voice and expression of what we are thinking, what the younger generation is thinking, what the people who come from the urban areas are thinking. It’s still that voice, but it also has changed. I know hip-hop has shaped my thoughts as I was growing up, so it should also offer ideas and concepts and information that everybody may not have. This is our true form of information and inspiration, and it speaks to us and opens things up sometimes. So hip-hop can play that role and lead us towards what we might need to be doing politically and remind us—as we’re singing in the song—that, yeah, we do need to be part of the movement. And it give us those thoughts of seeing why we’re going through these struggles, which is very important as we move through them.
I’ve talked to people about what protest music looks like today. Do you think that hip-hop has kind of taken on the role that folk music once had as the champion and the grassroots movement for protest music?
I have to say, from my knowledge, folk music spoke to the times, but there was also some soul music speaking to the times, too. You had James Brown and Marvin Gaye and other artists, too—like Earth, Wind & Fire and Nina Simone. These artists were speaking, along with some of the folk artists—obviously Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, those artists that tell stories that spoke to the times and said things that were socially relevant. I think hip-hop truly has been the voice of this time period in speaking of the times, speaking up. You’re just starting to see hip-hop artists really participate in the political campaigns and using their voices to say, Get out and vote. Chance set up places where people could register at his concerts to vote. Hip-hop is not only just saying it, but there are artists out there doing it.
You’re just starting to see hip-hop artists really participate in the political campaigns and using their voices to say, Get out and vote.
I think what always impresses me the most about your music is that it can be a good vessel for change and a pointed critique of politics and society, but it also remains so positive. It’s not dark, it’s not depressing. How do you maintain that balance?
By surrounding myself with things and people that stay hopeful. And, also, just having perseverance and fighting and knowing like, “Man, our people have been through so many things.” Like, black people. And people who have come up in this country. I think about what women have been through and how they’ve been targeted. And there’s people of all different nationalities that deal with struggles. But I see what has risen out of that—like, just some of the greatest human beings. If you look at the families that have come and still have hope and are still doing well in situations that seem like they would destroy anybody else. But they make it. So that inspires me, too, because I see other people who are willing to overcome that, and I know that I can overcome it. I also want to say people, by nature, are good people. Like, a lot of people, when you get to the core of them, are good. The people that put out a lot of negative vibrations, sometimes it’s just them but sometimes it’s something they’ve been through. So it’s like, man, how do we get to the healing of that? And if we get to the healing of that, things will be more in harmony.
Another rapper who’s so good at that is Chance, who’s also from Chicago. I know you’ve praised his music before.
Yes, I’ve praised his music. I respect his music. Not only respect it—I really like it. I enjoy it. His music is spiritual, he talks about God and his relationship with God, and he’s not afraid to do it. And, man, that’s very commendable and admirable of him, to see a young dude in the hip-hop game where there are so many people doing things and saying things. And even if he raps with those guys and can do song about smoking weed or blah blah blah, he can still talk about God, he can talk about his relationship, he can talk about being a father. And I think that’s the humanity that I love seeing come out of artists, out of movies. I’ve seen it come out in people and it comes out through the heart that they express, and Chance just has it. He’s gifted and one of the greatest artists we have of this generation.
We were kind of talking about hip-hop music as protest music, as a vessel for change. Do you think artists have a responsibility to speak out about issues, given their influence and reach?
Yes. If you know better, then you do better. And you know you do it if you’ve got the platform. And if you know, if it’s in your spirit and your heart to do it, then it should be done. We often go through the battle that people won’t accept us or it won’t be popular. But when it’s in your heart, you have to follow your heart and do it. And the fact that you’re an artist that has millions of ears that potentially can reach hundreds of millions of ears and spirits and hearts… Man, why not use that gift to uplift others and to speak up for others who don’t get to speak up?