Interview: Common Is Rewriting The ‘Black American Story’

Common is no stranger to controversy. Dubbed a “conscious” rapper early in his career, the Southside Chicago native has used his hip-hop platform to discuss meaty issues within the black community. He often rapped about living in marginalized communities, touching on everything from abortion and misogyny to economic and racial inequality. In his latest work, Black America Again, due in November, he continues this approach, raising questions about some of the many issues that have historically plagued the black community — while simultaneously offering up possible solutions as to how we can combat them.

“History has repeated itself a lot with black people as far as the brutality, not just from police,” he explained to VIBE while backstage at his Second Annual AAHH Fest held on Chicago’s West Side. In partnership with Donda’s House, a nonprofit organization created in celebration of Kanye West’s late mother Donda, Common and his own philanthropic organization Common Ground, put the festival together in order to raise funds for Chicago — while creating an outlet for fresh talent to show off their skills in a community talent show.

Read: Common, Vic Mensa, J. Cole, Jeremih & More Blazed Chicago’s AAHH Fest 2016

As he spoke with VIBE in the media tent, music blaring in the background, the lyricist explained his mission with his eleventh studio album. He emphasized that what has been happening with the recent deaths of blacks at the hands of police is nothing new, but instead a reemergence of the generational oppression that has long impacted people of color. “We were brutalized in the slave days,” he said. “We all know that slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration are problems that have been directed towards black people. That history repeated itself. That’s where Black America Again came from.”

The album, produced by Kareem Riggins and Robert Glasper, features artists, including longtime collaborator John Legend, Syd from The Internet and Stevie Wonder who belts “we are rewriting the black American story” on its title track.

“We’re rewriting the story by what young people are doing out there protesting and speaking up, and it’s not just black people doing it,” Common described. “We’re rewriting the story by acknowledging the incredible things that we have contributed to this country. We’re rewriting the story by empowering ourselves to say, ‘man, this is what we’re going to do now. This is how we’re going to move things and shift things in the right way.’ We’re rewriting the story through the art we do.”

He noted that by emphasizing this shifting of the black narrative, he is in no way saying we are erasing the past that has helped shape us and bring us to this point. Instead, he explained, we’re taking control of that narrative and moving things in the direction we want them to go.

“At some point we’re saying it can’t be any more Terence Crutchers or Alton Sterlings,” he said. “It can’t be any more Laquan McDonalds or Michael Browns or Tamir Rices. It can’t be no more Rekia Boyds. We gotta write a new thing, and when Stevie is singing that, that’s what he means.”

Through the use of powerful visuals that complement his compelling commentary, Common noted that it’s important to tell the story of black struggle, but it is equally important to show black love and black joy. He worked with Arthur Jafa, a cinematographer known for his work in the classic Spike Lee film Crooklyn and Bradford Young who helped with the cinematography of Ava Duvernay’s work Selma (for which Common and John Legend won an Oscar for “Best Original Song”).

Common hopes to bring representations of black life that are just as complex as black people. One of the several versions of the title track’s music video includes imagery of a black boy sitting on his mother’s lap and children swimming and learning together. It paints a picture of black humanity and the innocence of childhood that is often overlooked, especially as viral videos of black pain flood social media and news outlets.

Inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and the Broadway play Hamilton, Common has set out to create a truly impactful work of art that he hopes can inspire change. Through programs like his 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, which sets out to offer jobs to young people in poor neighborhoods, he is making a tangible difference in the community. But he also understands that change can occur through art. He cited the works of Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley as culturally impactful and equally uplifting music that inspired hope and change, especially within the black community, and described that he hopes he can do the same with Black America Again. “This album is revolutionary,” he explained. “It’s cultural, it feels good.”

No official date has been set for the album release, but as of now, you can expect Black America Again to hit shelves sometime this November.