Common recently released his 11th album Black America Again. It's his first album since 2014 Nobody's Smiling and since he won the Oscar for best original song at the 2015 Oscars for "Glory," his collaboration with John Legend from the critically acclaimed film Selma. Much of Common's past material on critically acclaimed albums like Like Water for Chocolate (2000) and Be (2005) speaks to social and political realities and Black America Again is no different. (The best of Common's discography was recently highlighted in a CBC Music Essentials post.)
Working primarily with longtime collaborator jazz musician Karriem Riggins, Black America Again features contributions from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Robert Glasper and the aforementioned John Legend. Tracks like "Letter to the Free," "The Day Women Took Over" and the title track are timely, speaking to issues of racism through the topics of mass incarceration of African Americans and police brutality, while also suggesting ways to move forward. Given the fact that we spoke on Nov. 11, three days after the U.S. election, the album's themes take on an even more urgent relevance.
Your last album Nobody’s Smiling focused on your hometown of Chicago. You’ve spread the scope on your new album to the whole United States. Can you talk a little bit about the focus from that record to this one?
Well, I think in between, different things happened. One was Selma, the movie that I was a part of. Just having that experience was really life changing for me. Obviously getting to do "Glory" with John Legend and going out and performing that song it just... I started to just feel like, man, this socially aware music, it has a place right now with so much going on. ... I’ve done socially aware music before, but I felt like just between Nobody’s Smiling and now there’s so many things happened. Whether it’s been the killings of young black men like Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher and Michael Brown, to me learning more about mass incarceration to just looking at the society as a whole, and I just was inspired by these times to write things that are meaningful to the times that we’re in at the time. And also, it felt like that there was a wave of art that was really like kinda lifting the vibration in a way of creativity. Like Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, that book and Hamilton the play and Kendrick Lamar’s album [To Pimp a Butterfly] and people just are like more open to consciousness to a certain degree. I think different angles that inspired this are different things that have happened since Nobody’s Smiling. I feel more inspired as an artist, I feel more free to be an artist because like I said, there are more people open to consciousness and to just creative things. There’s people putting good art out there, just in general.
The first time I saw you performing songs from this album was at the White House for a Tiny Desk NPR concert. I have to ask, with the things that have occurred this week, how has that processed with you? What’s your take on the way the country is going given what has happened this week [in the election?]
Well, I think what we’re getting to see is the racism, it came to the surface. It existed even obviously when Obama was in office and this is a direct response to some of that in itself. This didn’t just spring up in 2016, it’s been here. It was there in 2008 and 2012. It was there in 1865 and in 1960. This is not something that America hasn’t experienced as far as racism goes. I just think we all felt like we had come further and we were past it, but I think what we’re seeing now is we’re going to have to deal with the racism on a level that’s intelligent. We’re going to have to deal with the classism in a way that’s intelligent and strategize and organize and really, man, we gotta move closer to God, man, like, speak out our spirituality along with like organizing within our communities. We know that black and Latino people will be under attack socially in this country in some ways more outwardly than it’s been [in the past]. But mass incarceration has been here since the '90s you know, so we’ve been under attack. You know, the lack of job opportunities has been here. We still have violence within the communities that we have to deal with too. So I think, well, definitely no one wanted to see — a lot of people didn’t want to see Trump as president, but with that being said we’ve still got more challenges and more work to do. I look at it like, we gotta work harder now, we gotta organize more, we gotta be at a greater level. And we gotta remember who we are. That this is not just a black and white thing either. And I think that you’ll have people from all nationalities standing up for righteousness and justice and within our communities. Black people, we gotta embrace each other and truly love each other and support each other and work diligently to raise each other up.
It sounds like on this album you were more direct lyrically than you have been on more recent projects. Would that be accurate?
Very much so. "Black America Again" — I had never done a record like that before. Like the album itself and the specific song. Like, usually I would play with the words more, but this was like, just direct. I wasn’t like 'OK, let me just be the clever MC.' It was like 'No, I have some things that I need to say and they have to be direct and to the point and I’ma bring it up cos it’s the truth.'
Is ["Black America Again"] the record that started the process for this album?
In all truth I think it started with this record that didn’t even make the album called "The God in Me." That started it. But "Black America Again," when that record came, it just felt like really, 'Wow, this is becoming more of a higher purpose and it’s bigger than us.' [Selma director] Ava DuVernay said something to me when I played her some of the album in May. She said, ‘Man you’re making music for ‘We.’ Like this is ‘We Music’ and I never looked at it like that. I mean this music is not about me. In hip-hop, it’s easy for us to just talk about ourselves. 'Yo, I do this and I do that.' But this is like, ‘Hey y’all this is what we’re going through’ and I felt like the voice was being used for a purpose that was bigger than me being a dope MC.
You mentioned Ava DuVernay. What role do films play in your creativity now. You do have a number of films ready to come out and you’ve worked with Ava not only on Selma, but your [Black America Again song "Letter to the Free"] was also featured in [her latest documentary] The 13th. How important is film in what you want to represent in your artistry?
Well, I think anytime I’m working in film, I’m probably not the creator of the story usually, you know I’m a part of the story. It’s a different type of collaboration because the visionary, Ava, started filming The 13th two years ago. She was the seed for that in the beginning, but it just so happened that I was inspired by The New Jim Crow [by Michelle Alexander]. I was inspired by that book and I was able to meet up with Ava creatively. She is tackling a subject that I just like wow, I’m becoming aware of more, becoming more educated and becoming more passionate about. What I’m saying is that working on film is great because sometimes, those artists, whether its the director or the writer, they take me to somehere I may not have already been going. Or, like in the instance of The 13th, it allowed me a greater platform to talk about [it], it’s tied in together. Not only do you get the story told in a documentary, but you also get a song to accompany it and to me that’s like a tag team in a way creatively to really give the people something that they can digest and then process it. So more than anything, these films and these filmmakers that I’m getting to work with, are inspiring me to go into new places and do new things and then bring it back to my music at times, and I love writing songs for films because sometimes that film is on a subject matter that I never thought of.
You worked with Karriem Riggins for a long time but this is the first time you’ve worked with him as a producer for a whole project. What was was that process like?
Yeah, I’ll say it’s been amazing to me. He’s been such an inspiring artist and it really is about the music. We both love J. Dilla and that influence comes through and it’s like [Karriem] has his own sound, his own way of focusing, but he’s such a musician. We’ve known each other for a long time on the music side. We’ve known each other as friends too. He’s another artist — I got to read Between the World and Me I got to see Hamilton, I had even seen the Sistine Chapel, but Karriem is one of those artists too that just reminds me of just being at a high level of art. He’ll play me some Mulgrew Miller, a pianist and a jazz musician. Karriem will go from that to a Gentle Giant sample and it will be like this dude just reminds me of the greatness we can achieve as artists and working with him like you said, he did songs or produced a song here and there. He was the first person to start my band, so I think everything that we had evolved on individually, we were able to come together in this sphere to create something that was meaningful and powerful to us and inspiring to us and I think we both felt like, man, we're grateful that J. Dilla taught us different things.
This album is kind of political, it’s addressing a lot of issues that are pertinent to people’s lives every day in terms of social issues, but you also consistently find ways to talk about love. Why is it important for you to have that component of love on records even though you are addressing larger political social issue at the same time?
Well I think, you know, love is one of the components of getting socially balanced. For us, getting in the better world that we talk about is not only going to happen through political structure. Some of it is just love, like loving ourselves, loving our God, loving our women, you know, our communities enough. And being able to love enough to forgive. So love is important in relationships you know, family is super important. If you have a companion, a partner and you're going through something and you’re able to come home and discuss it with them and you’re able to support each other and uplift each other, those things are valid towards us getting balanced and going out into the world and achieving great things. So it’s part of when you create art and music or an album, even if it has a certain focus, which you noticed, like Black America Again. [On] Black America Again, the story is well-rounded. Some of it is on "Joy and Peace, "The Day Women Took Over." That’s it. On "Joy and Peace," some of it is the spirituality of God. Some of it is the love song like “Unfamiliar,” some of it is like “Pyramids,” just MCing. So, I want to bring all those elements and love was one of them because that’s the natural thing I feel that has always been a part of life that has been a bright spot that we can acheive if we feel it. Love is really the most important thing we can give in the world towards social justice and towards bettering the world.
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