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Common has always been one to incorporate activism into his music, but perhaps one of his most moving works is the haunting “Letter to the Free” from his 2016 album Black America Again. He turned that song into an affecting visual, debuting a longer version on Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The black-and-white piece — which was filmed in a jail just outside of Queens, New York — features Common’s song presented by the rapper himself, along with singer Andra Day, their collaborator Bilal and other musicians playing everything from flute to xylophone to bongos. The clip also features a symbolic black box, which Common explained in a conversation with filmmaker Nelson George after the premiere: “It represents the infinite thing about blackness and blackness can’t be defined in time or space.”
In their discussion, George and Common addressed the differences in hip-hop as activism now, with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, versus when Common’s career was just kicking off.
“I definitely have to first say that it was music in the late ‘80s and ‘90s that was truly reflective of a movement. It was the movement of black empowerment, black love, consciousness, just being aware. It was all of the above,” he explained. “Obviously, things go through evolution, it changes. I don’t think, right now as a whole, we have that in hip-hop. At that time, the majority of the hip-hop was a pro-black movement — Big Daddy Kane, Mo D, N.W.A had stuff that was saying something too. I don’t feel like we have that as a whole in hip-hop, I don’t think hip-hop is the place we go to listen for that voice of a revolution or to say, ‘This is how we’re changing things.’
“But there are artists that do it, like Kendrick Lamar. I also think that Chance [the Rapper], though he may not speak in black consciousness, he has a consciousness about him, self-awareness and a spirituality,” he continued. “I don’t want to overlook that, because spirituality was something powerful in hip-hop. … I also believe that I do my best to put my spirituality and belief in the creator before anything because, that in itself, no matter where I go, if I carry that with me, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Along similar lines, an audience member asked Common his thoughts on the timelessness of art and the effects politics has on hip-hop, especially in the Donald Trump era. “I think this era we’re in now can be just as tough as the Reagan era in many instances, but the artist is speaking up — they feel it and they feel it in their spirits. One thing that we had in hip-hop that you have from that ‘80s era is a lot of people were kind of educated politically to a certain degree, socially and politically. I think even in this crucial era, the music can be more powerful if the people are passionate about it and they really do care.”
George added, “Often artists respond with some of their best work, because it touches their friends and their community in a way that’s inspiring. Anger, as much as love, inspires art.”
After the conversation, Common took the stage once more for a performance of powerful tracks like “The People,” “The Light” and “Letter to the Free,” and also premiered a new political-tinged song called “Black Kennedy.”
A version of this story first appeared on Billboard.com.
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