Inspired by Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin and Others, Rapper Common Explores Themes of Police Brutality, Mass Incarceration and African American Identity


Common has long occupied his own space in hip-hop. “Woke” before “woke” was a thing, the Chicago MC has been the prototype and paragon of the so-called “conscious” rapper since the early 1990s. With his 11th studio album, Black America Again, released after a quarter-century in the game, he feels he is covering new ground.

An unabashedly political record, it contains names and themes that have defined racial politics in modern America: Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration.

“There was a time when I really wasn’t interested in the political structure,” Common told the Guardian this week. “I looked at it as distant and I really believed in creating change at the grass roots.”

But as he “evolved and learned more”, he said, he began to notice that “there’s certain things that just have to be changed by policy, and there’s bigger powers that are around us that control those policies”.

The South Side rapper has always taken lyrical inspiration from the politics and performance of black culture. The Corner comes to mind, a tribute to street-corner socializing in black neighborhoods from his 2005 album Go.

“I knew about the social black structure just within our neighborhoods,” he said. “But now I’m working to become more politically educated and as I do, hopefully become able to be more effective in this light.”

A part of this political education, he said, came from his involvement with Ava DuVernay’s award-winning 2014 film Selma, about the civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965. Common won an Oscar for his performance of the film’s original song, Glory.

“After all these years of creating, I got a much bigger platform because of Selma and Glory,” he said. “I felt like at that moment I was really being charged to do more.”

The R&B singer John Legend, who co-wrote and performed Glory, made a similar pivot. In 2015, Legend began touring prisons, performing for inmates and lending his name to progressive reform groups.

Common’s effort has translated directly into his music with the release of Black America Again. The album’s title track drives directly at these issues. Over a sullen, piano-driven beat, Common raps: “The new plantation, mass incarceration / Instead of educate, they’d rather convict the kids / As dirty as the water in Flint, the system is.”

Stevie Wonder sings over the outro, cramming syllables into a refrain – “We are rewriting the black American story” – that might sound awkward sung by anyone else.

Common feels the idea of rewriting the black American story was central to the album. “I really feel like writing the new story is about us expressing who we are as human beings,” he said. “When you see young men being shot down in the street, unarmed, somewhere in that policeman’s psyche they don’t look at that other individual as a human being.”

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Source: The Guardian | Jamiles Lartey