'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Common ('13th')

The Grammy- and Oscar-winning rapper discusses the evolution of his voice (musical and political), Fox News haters and how mass incarceration became a focus of both his activism and his latest Emmy-nominated song.
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Common

"The biggest blessing is the platform that it creates," the rapper and activist Common says of the widespread awards recognition that his music has received over the past few years, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The 45-year-old, whose first album was released 25 years ago, continues, "To win an Academy Award [for writing, with John Legend, the song "Glory" for the 2014 movie Selma]]? To get an Emmy nomination for "Letter to the Free" in 13th? The things that we get to talk about, the people that we get to reach, the lives that we get to change — that's the most important thing for me."

(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 174 episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Emma Stone, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Reese Witherspoon, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Taraji P. Henson, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Moore, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Helen Mirren, Denzel Washington, Brie Larson, Aziz Ansari, Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Warren Beatty, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Sting, Tyler Perry, Amy Schumer, Jay Leno, Mandy Moore, Ricky Gervais, Kris Jenner & Jimmy Kimmel.

Common was born Lonnie Rashid Lynn and raised on the South Side of Chicago. He found his calling when hip-hop blew up in the 1980s and he saw people around him rapping and break-dancing. "I related to it so much," he remembers, noting, "I initially got into music because I was a break-dancer." As his voice matured, he began rapping, as well, and soon adopted the moniker "Common Sense," something his mother always had urged him to use more of. At just 19, his first album, Can I Borrow a Dollar (1992), was released and put him on map with the underground hip-hop community, but not with the masses as he had hoped. He named his second album Resurrection (1994), feeling as if he needed to come back from the dead — and he did. On the back of the controversial single "I Used to Love H.E.R.," which suggested that hip-hop was losing its purity and which enraged Ice Cube and other West Coast rappers, it proved a hit.

Meanwhile, the rapper, who had been raised with a great "belief in God," was "reading a lot" and beginning to realize that "music has an impact." His already existing positive outlook and his growing social conscience combined to steer him in the direction of making "conscious music," music that informs and enlightens those who hear it. One bump on the road was having to change his stage name, after a group from California that also called itself Common Sense sued him. He reluctantly dropped the "Sense" — "That was the period I lost my hair," he says, noting he was "stressed out" that his music identity would be lost — and began going simply as Common. With the benefit of hindsight, he says he's happy the change happened, since Common reinforces the way that he sees himself: as a man of the people.

Common's fourth album, 2000's Like Water for Chocolate, proved his biggest hit yet. On the back of the single "The Light," it went gold, he won a Grammy for best rap solo performance and his public profile changed entirely. "It was a totally different level," he explains. "It was going from an underground artist that other artists appreciated and getting some critical acclaim, to mainstream people knowing the song, at least." Shortly thereafter, he and a younger, up-and-coming rapper from Chicago, Kanye West, began working together. In 2003, Common was featured on Kanye's breakout album The College Dropout, and in 2005 Kanye was featured on Common's album Be, which eventually became his second to go gold.

Also in 2003, Common began to get into acting, first with parts on TV (starting with Girlfriends in 2003) and then films (beginning with 2007's Smokin' Aces). "After the album Like Water for Chocolate," he recalls, I hit kind of a creative ceiling musically, and I really felt that there was something more for me to do, creative in another way, to dig into the divine aspect of art and expressing myself, but I didn't know what it was. I started working on trying to play instruments, and it just didn't feel natural. But I went to my first acting class, and I felt like the heavens opened up. I was like, 'Wow, I never knew that I could express myself in this way.'" Common soon was appearing in roles and films of increasing significance, and winning strong notices for his contributions.

In 2012, having come through a period of being relentlessly slandered by Fox News, generally, and Bill O'Reilly, specifically, with suggestions that he had supported "cop killers" and therefore should not have been invited to read poetry at the White House, as he was in May 2011 ("That was obviously to bring down our president, Barack Obama, and our first lady, Michelle Obama," he says now), Common entered one of the most fruitful chapters of his career, which continues to this day. That January, he attended the Sundance Film Festival and met the fast-rising filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who was there with her film Middle of Nowhere. They hit it off and, not long after, she cast him in her next film, Selma, as James Bevel, a radical member of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s inner-circle.

DuVernay also welcomed a music contribution from Common for Selma's soundtrack. He reached out to John Legend about collaborating on a song called "Glory," Legend sent back his proposed chords and chorus, and then Common, shortly after leaving his father's memorial service, set to work adding rap lyrics. "I was in a real open-hearted space," he says, and finished his work within a week and a half, lyrically tying Selma to more recent race-related confrontations, specifically, Ferguson. "We made a period piece feel like now," he says. "Glory" cracked the top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was awarded Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and Academy Awards. Common looks back on his Selma era as "life-changing" and "life-enhancing," and adds, "There's no other movie or song that I would want to receive my first Academy Award for than Selma and 'Glory.' It gave me more responsibility and work to do."

Legend's portion of the Oscar acceptance speech for "Glory," in which he noted that "there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850," had a profound impact on Common that is visible even in footage of the moment. "It shook me, it really shook me," he acknowledges, "and from there I started to seek out more information," including Michelle Alexander's 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. And when he later learned that DuVernay's next film would be a documentary about mass incarceration, he reached out to her and pleaded for the chance to contribute a song to it. "I just wanted to write something that was emotional, something that was spiritual, something that was moving ... and gave information but also was hopeful," he says. The result was "Letter to the Free," a portion of which he first sang to DuVernay at a White House celebration to which they both were invited near the end of the Obama administration. "She couldn't deny it," he says with a chuckle, adding, "She ended up changing the ending of the film because of the song 'Letter to the Free.'"

Even with his music being recognized left and right, Common's focus remains firmly on activism (he jetted off from our recording to a rally in Sacramento) and bettering himself, both as an artist and as a person. "I know I have to grow," he says. "I'm gonna work and give 150 percent, 360 degrees of me, to grow to become a great actor — but I do believe I can be a great actor," he says. "I love theater and I really would love to act on Broadway, and write for Broadway, and write music for Broadway and produce for Broadway." And, in response to a question about the Donald Trump era, he says, "No government is greater than the people, no government is greater than God," adding, "What I've observed is it has awakened a lot of people to want to do more. The pain and the hatred that exists in America — as it's surfaced, people who want to see good in America and want to see love have surfaced, too." He closes, "Whatever your passion is that's spreading love to yourself and other human beings, we have to pursue that with all that we got right now."

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