Common experiences inform rapper’s new album Black America Again

Inspired by Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin and more, Chicago MC 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 wasnt 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 theres certain things that just have to be changed by policy, and theres 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 Im 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 DuVernays 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 films 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.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Common and John Legend perform the Oscar nominated song Glory from the film Selma at the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood in 2015. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Commons effort has translated directly into his music with the release of Black America Again. The albums title track drives directly at these issues. Over a sullen, piano-driven beat, Common raps: The new plantation, mass incarceration / Instead of educate, theyd 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 policemans psyche they dont look at that other individual as a human being.

A Bigger Picture Called Free was inspired in part by a visit to the Cook County jail in Chicago, while Common was working on America Divided, a series for Epix.

It just felt like these are the people who are overlooked, he said. Even those who did commit a crime, when theres a problem, you gotta work to heal it. If theyve been a part of a cycle that consistently sends people back and forth to prison, what can we do to stop that cycle?

Common said he wanted not just to rewrite the black American story, but to reconsider what it means to be a black American, in relation to the oppression and pain that has so deeply etched itself on the communitys history.

Where Ive evolved more than anything, he said, is that I used to be like, This aint our country. But man, this is our country. We helped build this country. We were born here citizens of it and we want equality for our families the same way that everyone else does.

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