Since the earliest days of his career, Common has been branded a socially conscious rapper. Not because his music was particularly grounded in political posturing, but because he rhymed like a poet and exemplified the antithesis of gangster rap, despite hailing from Chicago's South Side. More than 20 years later, though, Common says he's only now beginning to genuinely grasp the concept of social responsibility. On the song "Home," off his first true protest album, Black America Again — perfectly timed for release on November 4 — he declares himself "rapper-actor-activist," with special emphasis on that last descriptor.
If the last few years have proven anything, it's that he means it: He's been tirelessly outspoken about police violence; won an Oscar with John Legend for "Glory" from Selma (and made Chris Pine cry with a speech about mass incarceration); and has now re-teamed with Ava DuVernay for her vital new documentary 13th, contributing the song "Letter to the Free." Vulture spoke with Common about the new black creative renaissance, working with Stevie Wonder, and why he controversially chose to show Alton Sterling's death in his music video.
When did you make this album? It feels both of-the-moment and representative of the last few years.
It’s funny you say that, because I didn’t really start writing it until early March — but it is an accumulation of things that I’ve experienced within the last few years. That includes being a part of Selma and starting to be more socially and politically active. I completed it in late July, which is pretty fast for me. I had a lot that I wanted to say and felt I had a greater purpose for this album, so I had to allow that fast process to happen.
Is this the most creatively inspired you’ve ever been?
Yes. I reached a point where I’m no longer trying to be the best MC of this era. I’m just trying to be the best me and the most purposeful artist I can be. When things starts to feel like it’s gotta be bigger than you, you don’t get in the way of it. You don’t start overthinking things. With this album, when a certain person wasn’t available to do something on a song, I moved on. Everything that was supposed to happen, every artist I was supposed to collaborate with, it just flowed. This is me at my most inspired.
You’ve worked with legends before, but having Stevie Wonder on the title track must have been especially gratifying.
That’s one of the most monumental moments in my career. He’s one of the greatest voices and musicians ever. Just like people go back and talk about Beethoven, they’ll go back and talk about Stevie Wonder. To be in the studio with him and say we collaborated on something, that’s a blessing. It felt full-circle because I always used to listen to “Happy Birthday” and was just having fun as a kid singing it, but it was also the song that got Dr. King’s birthday to become a national holiday. It’s really an activist song. So to have him on Black America Again, which is a call to action — you know, we created that in 15 minutes. It was a conversation, us sitting there listening to the music, and he asked me the meaning behind the song. Then he listened again and said those words, “We are rewriting the black American story,” that sums up the core of everything I wanted this album and song to be.
The song’s video begins with Alton Sterling’s murder, footage Ava DuVernay said she struggled to include in her documentary, 13th, for which you wrote a song. Ultimately, she felt permission from the families of victims of police brutality was needed to avoid treating black death like a spectacle, but rather historical evidence. Did you have similar reservations?
Well, first, I had never watched those images because they’re real people being killed for no reason. But when our director said we needed to include the footage because it puts people in the mind-set of what we’re really dealing with, I knew it was important. When you see the video now — and we also have some short films that’ll be coming out soon — you see black people staring into the camera and dealing with the pain and joy of being black. Ava DuVernay showing you the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — whose death I’ve also never watched — reminds you that these are human beings that were killed. Someone interviewed in 13th says that: We’re all human beings. When you see Alton Sterling being killed, you have to feel for him as a human being. So I knew we needed to use the footage for that purpose. Black life needs to be recognized as valuable and we need to be seen as human beings as much as every other color and creed on this Earth.
Have you now seen his death because of your own video?
I’ve watched it maybe twice. To be honest, I turn my head most of the time. I hear it, though sometimes I even turn down the volume. I understand why people don’t want to see this. I wouldn’t want to watch it over and over. But even if someone watches it once and it touches them enough to be part of the change, then we’ve done what we’re supposed to do. One of the reasons I wrote this album was because Maimouna Youssef wrote this song about Sandra Bland. I watched her sing a little bit of it and it tapped me emotionally. It sparked me to write “Black America Again” — not immediately — but I couldn’t get it out of my mind that this is a human being she’s singing about. Then seeing Rodney King’s police beating — cause I went to see Straight Outta Compton — and thinking about Eric Garner and Sandra, all that repetition pushed me to say, “We gotta change this.”
Black art tends to thrive the most when black lives are in extreme peril. There's been a spike in black protest music this year because of it. Do you find yourself subconsciously feeding off that energy? We saw you were inspired to remix Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky.”
We’re at a beautiful time when it comes to art because it's such a critical time. It’s usually times of struggle and injustice that people speak from their souls and a raw place. When I look at the music, obviously I have to cite Kendrick Lamar, Solange, and even what Beyoncé did in presenting that visual blackness. It’s not just the artists you’d expect either — when you see Pusha T out campaigning with Tim Kaine and telling people to vote, that’s beautiful. These artists care, no matter what stereotype you had about them being drug dealers or whatever. We all have something to say and express through our art.
You have all these beautiful storytellers, too: Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Donald Glover, Issa Rae — though it’s not protest, it’s important because it shows the roundness of who we are as black people. Not in a way where we have to prove something to you, but taking the platform to say, “This is us.” It allows the world to see our dimensions rather than stereotypes. A lot of the only images you see of black people on the news is in handcuffs. If that’s the only way you know black people, or through hip-hop, you can miss our depth. That’s why it’s so great to have Atlanta, a black superhero like Luke Cage, and 13th. I’m grateful to have written for 13th because it gave me another platform to talk about what’s important.
Plus, it could also get you another Oscar.
Yes! C’mon, hey, speak it into existence. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be very grateful to be in that conversation again [Laughs].
In a few days, we’ll reach another turning point in American history. How are you feeling about this election and the end of our first black presidency?
Obama’s done a wonderful job as a president. He did everything he could do with all the resistance he was getting. I think our country is gonna go in a great direction because people want to speak up for what’s unjust. The younger generation is making themselves present; it’s the movement that we need to change our political structure. I look at the people out there marching — now all we need is the right direction. I’ve been in talks with people who are organizing toward policy change. Hopefully, we’ll get our first woman president and that’ll be a positive direction. But if it happens, we have to hold her accountable, too, which is why young people need to be active. We’ve got work to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.