Most celebrity interviews I’ve conducted usually included the runaround from publicists of their client’s ultra-small window of availability. When it came to interviewing Common, he quickly was on board to speak with me, but then the scheduling conflicts arose. For weeks, I went back and forth with his publicist over scheduling a telephonic, and every time we had a date on the calendar she emailed saying, and very apologetically, that Common needed to reschedule. He wasn’t giving me the cold shoulder. He didn’t decide to hop on a private jet to throw himself a birthday party on a private island during a pandemic. Common was doing good. He was traveling the country campaigning for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and perhaps more importantly, talking with people to get out the vote. The week before the election, he decided to continue his yeoman’s work, then, finally, two days after the 2020 election – and while votes were still being counted – we finally connected. Speaking with the 48-year-old Chicago native is a breath of fresh air. For 34 minutes, Common shared how he believes in peace and hope for this country. He exuded a warmth and an unadulterated outlook on life that oozes through the phone and into your ear. And you listen. You listen intently to what this Black man has to say about uniting these divided states of America. Because he’s right.
SPIN: What was it like getting out the vote leading up to the election?
Common: It was powerful, I was really inspired. You got to see people caring about what’s going on. I was in the hoods of Houston and Jacksonville and people were voting, and educated talking, “everybody in this house better vote,” and it was a lot of people encouraged and empowered. At the same time, I felt for those people who don’t feel a part of the process. I want to communicate to them the power of what it can be. It’s gonna take time to change, but you doing something is doing something to change it. Black people in some of these areas are changing the wave.
What did people tell you they want this country to be?
I’m gonna go from the people who weren’t even thinking about voting. I was talking to a brother who just got shot in his eye and he was like, “Man, is voting going to change these murders that’s happening on this block?” I said, “well, it can help.” I started talking to him about creating job opportunities and economic opportunities that will help remove some of the violence.
More than anything, people were talking about healthcare and the criminal justice system, that was something many of us had to experience at some point. Looking to reverse those cases in which people spent a long time in jail because of marijuana is something that people related to. In specific places, some people were looking to make sure the buses were still running. In Florida, some people said returning citizens [from prison] should be able to vote, and that was on the table and then the Republican party took it off. I feel you make the country better by allowing people to feel a part of the process, and even if you committed a crime you served your time. You should be treated like a person, even in prison.
What are the issues that you want addressed?
Economic justice is one. If you’re building a development in the poorer communities, Black and brown specifically, but all poor communities, create jobs for people in this area to work. If you’re talking about supporting small business, then we should get grants to areas where small businesses have the opportunity to develop. It’s important that we develop an educational system where the arts are strong; I would have some type of process where the educational system would include mental health wellness. I would look at the mental health of the whole country: what offenses are criminal and which ones are caused by mental health issues. I would make sure people have healthcare — without health you can’t do anything! And with COVID, we all know what it is to deal with an unhealthy country, and people should have access to lead healthy lives. And, of course, the criminal justice system. I would work with lawmakers to make a criminal justice system that could proceed from a more humane, rehabilitative perspective. Along with that, I would work with police departments to look at how we can improve those relationships, how to deal with people who are unarmed and do not pose a threat; and look at the police from the bottom up — how we get training in place and accountability for officers who have already shown hostility for certain races — they wouldn’t have the job.
The phrase “defunding the police” is misunderstood. How would you make this idea clear for people?
I believe that what would be beneficial in that plight would be to figure out ways to put money into preventative programs. Instead of using all the money for anti-crime measures, give some of that to programs that are helping the youth out. It takes $250,000 to keep a juvenile locked up for a year. It takes $50,000 to send them to school. Your tax money could go to building up the youth, and that’s preventative work. Then, putting money towards police programs — they obviously need mental health support. If they need that type of therapy, then that should get figured out. Bring in specialists who can set up programs that will make better officers in the future. I’m against the police just killing unarmed people. Like the Breonna Taylor situation. I’m against that, but not every police officer is bad. I don’t want to generalize and get into that, because that’s how they’ve done us.
Is there a way to put an end to systemic racism?
Yes! The reason it takes a while is because it was built up for a while. It starts with acknowledgment that there is systemic racism. That was the thing that I was impressed with about Biden. Just him acknowledging systemic racism…not a lot of U.S. politicians addressing it. And obviously he needs the support of Black people, but to say it is real.
To end it, you’re gonna have to change the mindset, the hearts of people, and also change the policy. There’s this program in Chicago called Chicago Cred run by [former U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan, and he was taking cats off the street that were shoeless, been shot at, and been shot. And these dudes are working, doing construction, doing development around the city, they’re productive! When people are afforded opportunities, they are usually going to be productive. Because the majority of people don’t want to be on the street getting shot at, trying to survive selling dope. Who wants to do that? But the system has to create economic justice, lift up new leaders that develop and bring programs into the poor communities and give them the hope that they can do something. And then we have to get rid of this system that says, “Oh you’re Black? Go to jail.” The prison system is a part of systemic racism.
This election showed us that our country is more divided than we thought. Is there anything this country could get behind to bring us all together?
I think we can get behind saying we want harmony in this country, we want peace. I saw Trump supporters in Arizona and they don’t look happy. I performed at the rally for Biden/Harris in Houston and the Trump supporters were there protesting. If you got somebody you want in the race, vote for them and spread love. I think a cognitive vision of harmony and peace would be something, because I guarantee if we sat down 10 Republicans from Ohio and 10 Democrats from Ohio, I would say 80% would say it’s been rough times these past four years.
When are you going to run for public office?
My public office is this microphone and being able to speak and meet with people and figure out what I can do to go out and serve them and help them. I see congresswomen Ilhan Omar and AOC and Ayanna Pressley, people running that truly represent something. I’m seeing Kamala Harris and Biden. I wasn’t Biden crazy when he was vice president, but I see somebody who has been learning and taking things in and evolving and is showing through the things that he’s saying and the things on his list to change about this country. Politics can work. We got to break down the structures that kept us separate.
Even though we’re seeing all these red states, it’s great that all these people went out and voted. If you voted for Trump, it’s cool, you expressed yourself. Just because I disagree doesn’t mean I have to be at war with you. And that’s what I’m hoping we can get to in this country because people deserve greater lives. This country has so much potential and fruitfulness, and it’s a beautiful place with wonderful people. I met people in Ohio when I was in Yellow Springs at Dave Chappelle’s concert, and I met a dude that I never would have thought I would connect with. This Ohio white cat might’ve been a Trump supporter and we were chatting, and he said, “We got more in common than we don’t.” I felt emotional about that. More people want good, that want that same thing. We weren’t born blue or red, we were born human. We all got hearts.
You have a new album out, A Beautiful Revolution. What was the inspiration behind making it?
I was really wanting to create music that would uplift, that was powerful and inspiring, to get us through these times of anxiety and despair, to give you a charge like we are gonna rise, we are rising! I wanted it to be the soundtrack to the revolution, and the revolution is not a physical overthrow of the government, it’s changing the way we think and changing the way we act towards ourselves and towards others. The revolution has self-care in it, it has love for your community and love for strangers. And that’s what I call a beautiful revolution, based on a quote from Assata Shakur where she’s talking about revolution is giving love to your partner. That’s dope!
In making A Beautiful Revolution, I wanted to say some things, but I also wanted to make people dance, and feel good, and you know when you sing certain Marvin Gaye joints you feel good, but when you listen to KRS [One] it’s like, this dude was breaking down beef, eating beef and how it’s not good for you. I was singing it in high school, not even thinking about it at that level, still eating beef, but I was learning, and I wanted to do that with this album.
What music have you been listening to during the pandemic?
Pretty much just ‘90s hip-hop, along with jazz and gospel music. I work out to ‘90s hip-hop, and that’s all I played every day, and it reminded me of the spirit and energy of that music, what that music meant to me. Whether it was Black Moon or Pete Rock and C.L., Tribe, Gang Starr, Brand Nubian, KRS, PE [Public Enemy]. This music had a spirit to it that was pure, and they were saying something, and they were making it fresh.
Who’s someone that we should be listening to today?
An artist by the name of Noname. She’s from Chicago, really dope MC, super poetic, she was on a few of Chance’s songs early on. She’s really talented.
Does anyone have a better beard than you these days?
Nah. Mine is versatile. It has a lot of good qualities, and I can use it in different ways, where I can look real raw and rugged, or if I want to do the Marvin Gaye look it can do that too.
Is there someone you’d like to permanently remain six feet away from?
Ummm. It’s kind of too obvious, Donald Trump… I’ll say Mike Pence.