Photo: Brian Bowen Smith
Common Opens Up About 'A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 2,' Social Justice In The Mainstream & The Unceasing Spirit Of J Dilla
More than a year after the murder of George Floyd, social justice has perforated the mainstream like never before. It's on our bookshelves and shop windows; corporate America hires diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officers; media representation has taken center stage. This might spark suspicion: Where was the POC hiring spree before an innocent man was murdered in public?
But to Common—a three-time-GRAMMY-winning conscious rapper just as famous for his music as his rallying for social equity—we need not assume the worst of people; it's just human nature. Sure, those posting slogans so as not to get yelled at will always exist, but sometimes it takes global trauma for people with busy schedules to open their eyes and take notice.
"Everyone was going about their business, and I've been one who went out about my business," Common tells GRAMMY.com over the phone. "But when things get drastic, sometimes you pay attention to it: 'Man, this can't happen. This is not good. This is inhumane.' The inhumanity of what people saw last year has changed people's thoughts." You can't say we don't live in a different world now, and it all started from within—which Common's new album is all about.
A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 2—which follows 2020's Pt. 1 and just arrived September 10—inverts the purview of its call-to-arms predecessor, homing in on how external change flows from within. This understanding permeates its best tunes, like "When We Move," "Set It Free" and "Star Of The Gang."
When he recently performed the former song on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" with Black Thought and Seun Kuti, an infectious sense of brotherhood radiated through the TV screen. And it's that spirit of conciliation, he says—not yelling and screaming—that will catalyze true change.
Read on for an in-depth interview with Common about how he learned to freestyle, the humanistic vision behind A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 2 and how he keeps J Dilla's spirit aflame every day.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Nice to meet you, Common. How are you feeling?
I'm just really inspired and feeling happy and excited about the new album. I just did an L.A. Leakers freestyle on their station. You've got to check it out if you get a chance. It's these DJs and they call themselves the L.A. Leakers. They have a segment where they have people come through and do freestyles. It's getting a lot of buzz, so I'm happy. I'm getting a lot of good calls from friends at home.
There's nothing like when your friends that you grew up with get inspired and sparked about what you're doing. It's a good feeling.
Do you remember when you learned to freestyle? How did you train your brain in that way?
I don't know if it was training. I guess there's a practice to it, but I really just dove into it and started doing it and realized it's something I love to do and fun in the way it made me and my friends feel—people that were around.
I was actually thinking about it the other day: "When did I start actually freestyling?" I don't know the actual time period, but I do remember being in gym class in high school—probably around my sophomore year—and freestyling with one of my classmates and friends who used to beatbox good. He would always have songs and ideas that were real vulgar. I would kick these other rhymes—and I would say some wild stuff too, sometimes—but it was just fun.
That's when I remember actually freestyling more and more. My name is Rashid, so they'd say, "Rashid, kick a freestyle!" I would get into it, and they'd freestyle with me. That's when I started working on the craft. I don't remember where and when it started.
I imagine it's like unlocking part of your brain, or stopping the overthinking part.
The word "free" is in it because you truly have to have a free mind and spirit to do it. I've been around people who aren't super-great rappers, but they're great freestylers because they're able to be spontaneous and say fun things and not take themselves too seriously.
I think that was one of the things for me: Understanding that it's OK to mess up. It's OK that it's not perfect. It's OK to have a couple of bars that ain't as dope as the other ones. There's a freedom in letting go and letting your thoughts come out and express yourself in that raw [form]. You don't have a lot of time to think.
Honestly, the things we love about certain aspects of music: James Brown and those guys, some of that was just the feeling of the music. They were playing it and taking in what was in the moment. One of my favorite artists, John Coltrane—what he's doing is improvising in certain moments and just playing what comes to him and what he feels.
I think that's what great vocalists do. Ultimately, that's what freestyling is. It's a feeling.
Now that you mention it, I imagine the roots of freestyling go back to early American folk and work songs—extemporaneous vocalizations.
Yeah! Now that we're talking about it, it's funny: You're making me want to think about "When did people start coming up with songs right on the spot?"
It is something you see artists in other genres of music do sometimes. PJ, who I worked with on this new album—she worked with me on A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 1—I've never seen a vocalist come up with so many songs in a moment. She basically could be a cypher, freestyling. She has that type of ability.
I definitely see people in other genres. I've seen Erykah Badu do it at a performance, but she also raps, too. Erykah can rap. I think PJ can, too. In this era, I think people who do it have some sort of hip-hop connection.
Before we dive into the new album, I've got to ask: Who do you think is the greatest freestyle rapper of all time?
[Considers the question carefully.] I actually think that Lupe Fiasco is up there.
Because I heard him freestyling and I was like, "Yo, this dude is incredible." It's really special what he was doing. I think he's one of the greatest freestylers I've ever heard.
Is the magic of a master freestyler the idea that they can spill out something that seems carefully written? Or does it have more to do with a raw, rough-and-tumble quality that can't be preconceived?
I think it's saying something where it's like "Man, did he write that?" The rawness is going to be there.
And let's be clear: If we're talking about freestyling in front of a crowd, you want to keep it simple. You want to have something that people can hear. You don't want to go over their heads. But if you're doing it for a radio show or something, you want to have some lines in there because people are going to go back and listen. People that love hip-hop study lyrics. They listen to the lyrics and play it again and say, "What did he say here? What did he say there?"
To me, the highest level of freestyling is being able to not only have the raw element but be able to say something clever where they can feel like, "Damn! How did you come up with that with a nice simile or a good metaphor within the freestyle?" I've been around people who can kick a story in a freestyle, which is amazing.
Even though you've been doing this forever, do you feel like you have a ways to go as a freestyle rapper?
Bro, I definitely feel like I could get better. I have a ways to go. I know that I could get better. I want to evolve and grow and expand. I want to do that only as a freestyle rapper, but as a writer, as an artist, as a musician. I just want to grow.
Let's face it: No artist and musician—or human being, for that matter—has reached perfection. You might have some really divine moments where the song is just exceptional and incredible, but you still get better from there. That's what's inspiring me, to be honest, as a musician and artist: "I could do better." There are things I don't know in music, obviously. There are things that I'm learning and places I haven't gone musically.
As I listened to the new album, I mulled over the word "revolution." We hear it all the time these days, as well as similar ones like "reckoning," but it's been commodified and commercialized over the decades. What does it connote to you right now?
I think it means radical change. That was a word that always stuck with me. It's a go-to saying for me: "It's a revolution."
I heard the song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" when I was young. One of my best friends used to play it. Even though I didn't know everything Gil Scott-Heron was talking about, I heard the word. Basically, as I started to discover Bob Marley and KRS-One and Public Enemy, my interpretation of "revolution" began to expand and I started to discover what it meant to me at that time, or what they may have meant by it.
My definition of a revolution has now opened up even more because I used to think of the revolt aspect of revolution. The overthrowing of systems and things that have not been beneficial to people—the people. To Black people. To brown people. I thought about overthrowing and changing those systems. But the more I started to learn things about life, I started to understand that a revolution was even beyond that.
To be really clear with you, I even thought of using the title A Beautiful Revolution because one of my heroes, a woman named Assata Shakur who was a Black Panther and was exiled in Cuba, had a quote about how revolution is love and treating your partner well. Revolution is honoring yourself. She was saying all these beautiful things.
At one point, she said "Revolution has beauty in it." I was like, "Ah, yes! Yes! Yes!" It's still a radical change for me, but the radical change may be the way I treat myself. Changing the way I approach my mornings. Changing the ways that I talk to my daughter or listen to her. Changing the way I think about my diet.
I think about revolution now not only as "We've got to dethrone the system!" It's more like, "Man, how did that change happen within me, within myself? How do I issue that change to other people—people close to me and strangers?" That's what makes revolution palatable and valuable for me now. That's what my definition of it is right now.
You're interested in internal revolution first. Perhaps cleaning your yard before you offer to clean your neighbor's.
Yes. Within this project, A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 2, I felt like that was the mission. The intention is to put out energy that's like, "What's love? What's self-empowerment? Where can we find joy? How do we create hope for ourselves in times where things have been difficult?"
There's been a lot of hurt out there. There's been a lot of loss and a lot of the unknown. A lot of change for us. But I still believe in the power of human beings and the power of God. We can be positive and put good things out there and create happier days and times.
It starts inside. There could be a lot of things going on outside and, depending on how I approach them and look at them and receive them, it'll determine the way I look at them and what my mind-state is. I'm talking about the internal revolution first and then looking outside and seeing what we could do to change them.
Can I get your opinion on how social justice has perforated the mainstream lately?
There's definitely a commercialization of social justice out there. A lot of companies we see are making it like that's what they're about and that wasn't what they were about two years ago, three years ago, or 10 years ago.
But you know what? I feel like it's OK. Because I would rather you start doing some things, even though it's not for the right reason at first. If you're helping some people, it's still healthy and you're benefiting some lives. In the course of that, you will feel like "Man, this is the right thing to do." Maybe it becomes more of a practice.
I don't know if you've ever heard the saying "Fake it 'til you make it"? People will tell you, "Man, just say you're great until you become great." I don't mean you don't put in the work until you get there, but I'm saying it's a great step if people are even putting it out there. I see Black women in a lot of commercials now. Or kids getting opportunities in Hollywood. Film studios are like, "We've got to get some Black creators in this, and brown creators and people of color and women."
Even if, at the beginning of it, it was just because they got forced to do it and there was a society-wide wave going on, it's still a good wave. This can actually benefit us. And the more we do it, it becomes who we are—a reality to us. You also, by doing it, are going to invite and attract people who are sincere about it. They can help change the real scope of it.
After George Floyd was killed, I had a director I worked with on a commercial call me. He said, "Man, listen: I own one of the biggest commercial studios in the country. Do you know any young Black directors that I can help develop? Even if they haven't directed commercials, do you know anybody?" And I gave him a list of some people.
I don't know if he used the people I knew, but he found some directors and got them working. To me, that was a sincere thing. He used the platform that he had and really had been affected enough to say, "This is how I'm contributing to bettering the world and changing things. I have power and I have this privilege and I've been paying attention, so I'm going to do it now."
My long answer to that is: Yes, social justice has been commercialized, and giving Black people a fair shake, that's been part of the wave. But I think it's a great wave and it can become part of the DNA of our society at some point, the more we do it. I'm happy to see the opportunities coming.
While what your friend did is beautiful and commendable, stories like that can also invite cynical readings: "Why weren't those opportunities being extended back when an innocent man wasn't being slaughtered on the news?"
Well, listen, listen. Let's face it. I've been guilty of this too. There are certain things that go on in the world that we just don't pay attention to. Some of the struggles that Black people have been experiencing in this country, some people didn't pay attention to.
Man, the life of George Floyd is something special. To many, he was an average human being, but him losing his life in the way he did really opened a lot of people's eyes. It really changed things. Some people, by seeing that—years ago, like I said, they weren't on that. They weren't thinking. Everyone was going about their business, and I've been one who went about my business.
I was doing work for a lot of inner-city youth and Black people, but there were issues going on that I may not have paid attention to. But when things get drastic, sometimes you pay attention to it: "Man, this can't happen. This is not good. This is inhumane." The inhumanity of what people saw last year has changed people's thoughts.
That's a really compassionate take on it. It's just human nature: We're busy. We can't grasp all the ills in the world at the same time. What I'm getting from what you're saying is that it's OK to respond to a stimulus. It doesn't make you a bandwagon-jumper, necessarily.
It is. If you're doing it from the intention of "Listen, I've got to do this because it's for my business. This business has to work and if I don't say anything about Black people at this point, our business will fall," the truth will come out at some point and it won't last long what you're doing. It will be revealed at some point.
But it's OK to be like, "I didn't even know much about this struggle, but now I'm seeing this has changed me." To be honest, that's what life offers you. Life gives you that gift, in a way. People don't need to lose their lives for certain experiences to change us, but that's what happened, in many ways. If somebody says "Man, I didn't know anything about this and I didn't care and was just going about my business but now I do," I respect 'em because we're all human.
There was a time I was sitting there doing a documentary on Black America and this author was like, "Man, do you ever think about the plight of women?" I was like, "Man, I talk about it sometimes, but I haven't been involved in the fight in a way I could be!" It was a wake-up call.
So, my point is: We all sometimes need to be awakened to things going on with other peoples' struggles. There's somewhere in my humanity where I say "If there's something to contribute towards helping this cause, I'm going to do it."
Let's talk about the new album a little bit. What did you feel you wanted to say with A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 2, that you didn't necessarily get to on Pt. 1? Or is it all kind of one thing, just divided in half?
I think, on Pt. 2, I got to look at the hopeful side of the struggle. Pt. 1 was written while we were dealing with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The election was going on. There was a lot of dissension and conflict and hurt and angst and it was a charged era. I consider that music movement music.
But Pt. 2 is, "What is the next step in the revolution?" As you spoke to earlier, I said, "You know, we use that word a lot, but what's the next step in it? What's the progression in the revolution?" In Pt. 2, I felt like I was saying, "Man, having a good time is the revolution." That's part of the revolution, to find places where you enjoy life. Also, giving yourself self-love is a revolution.
That's why, in this song I've got called "Set it Free," I'm telling a woman, "Don't let anybody—this guy—determine your happiness. You create that and then you can bring your happiness to them. But don't let somebody else outside of you determine your happiness. You've got it in you."
Common. Photo: Brian Bowen Smith
Is there a part in revolution where we may have to interact with or even dignify people whose views we find reprehensible? We're in the era of "distancing yourself" from others, but I have my doubts about that. You may have to have a heart-to-heart with them.
Man, you and I think alike in certain ways. I truly believe that people who think like me—or may think the total opposite—I still don't mind sitting down and dealing with them. I like to deal with them. And we might come out still not agreeing, but I heard you, you heard me. It gives you a better understanding, and hopefully gives room for me to be me and you to be you.
Now, if the person is consistently not going to listen or give you the time of day, at a certain point, you've got to make a choice. Like, "Man, this ain't going nowhere. I've sat down with this person five times. I've sat down with this organization five times."
But otherwise, I remember being on the campaign trail doing some canvassing. We were in Jacksonville and there was this woman hollering out how she was basically pro-Trump. I went over there and talked to her. She was talking about abortion and how she'd never vote Democrat. I was just listening to her, and I didn't even try to convince her too much. I was just trying to be respectful and nice to her.
I think one of the things we overlook is just listening to the other side or somebody who doesn't think like you. Just listening to them is something. It's paying respect. It's necessary. I believe heart-to-hearts are necessary. That's where growth comes in. If I sit down with people who always think like me, I'm not even learning anything new!
And the change I want to see: I ain't changing them. The church members who need to hear the preacher are the people in the streets. Now, I'm using church as a metaphor, but I think the real messages should go out into the hoods and places where people don't want to hear what you're talking about. You hear them out and you give them [a new way] to think about things.
If you want to change people's hearts, the worst possible way is to insult them and call them names. They'll never listen to you after that.
That never works for anybody. It takes some work because we all have feelings. If our feelings are hurt and somebody says something or we feel emotional about something, we want to spew out what we feel. I'm saying that to say: You've got to be slow to anger.
If you want to get a point across, you're never heard when you're yelling at someone. The person you're yelling at won't respond, "Oh, man, I actually hear you. That was powerful what you said. I receive your message," because they've been screamed at. How can they receive it if you're screaming at them? You're already attacking them. Anyone who's being attacked is going to defend themselves in some way.
On the topic of community and connection, tell me what you appreciate about your collaborators on A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 2—their individual artistic voices and what they brought to the table.
Well, Brittany Howard is one of the most gifted, individualistic, talented and true-to-her-artistic-tastes artists that I've been able to be around or even, honestly, listen to. She knows what her voice is and ain't going to let that be diluted.
She's so true to what she believes is quality. When we did the song "Saving Grace," she was like, "This is what grace is to me." We talked it through and worked through some more ideas. I was like, "I want to say something about grace," and she was talking to me about how grace is power. I was like, "Keep that part. Just make sure grace is in there. That's what I want the song to be about." Her perspective needed to be heard. I really appreciated it and think it's super dope.
Man, I love her. And then Marcus King is so soulful. What he brought to the song "Poetry" was grit. We wanted to feel like somebody was sitting on the porch singing, and he did that. I just love his music and think he's a really special vocalist.
PJ is featured on a lot of songs. As I mentioned earlier, she's one of the dopest songwriters and one of the most stylish vocalists I've been around. The way she styles with her vocals is just unique and fresh. She can do a lot of different things.
Then: Black Thought! Black Thought is one of the most prolific and incredible MCs to ever exist. He's been an inspiration for me forever. I've worked with him forever. But when I heard the song "When We Move," I was like, "I wanted something that sounds like a Fela Kuti kind of hook." Black Thought introduced me to Fela Kuti's music back in '96.
So I was like, "Man, Tariq, can you give me a hook? I want to talk about how we move—the way we as Black people move. I want to celebrate our Blackness and the influence we've had on the planet." He came in with that hook and he brought Seun Kuti to the table, who is Fela's son. It tied everything together and also made it international to me. It made it a global-sounding song to me. I was geeked about it—excited!
And then the poets I have—Jessica Care Moore and Morgan Parker—I mean, they're incredible writers. The poem at the beginning, "Push Out the Noise," says so much. We had a conversation and I was telling her about how this album is about being still and what I've found in that stillness. What I found is the joy and happiness and power within me and different things that are positive for me in being quiet. She took that and wrote a beautiful piece.
Morgan Parker's the poet who ended the album. She's an inspiration to me because I read her poetry and then I want to go write. I love poets who do that for me, like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni or Dr. Maya Angelou.
Those are some of the collaborators, and I've got to give it up for the collaborators who produced it. Karriem Riggins produced this album and it's co-produced by Isaiah Sharkey, who plays guitar and other instruments and is one of the [greatest] cats around. He's from Chicago. Boom Bishop is the bass player, who also came up with some of the tunes.
Collaborating with him, I feel like the music goes to so many places, and this album has taken me to places I've never been before musically. That feels incredible for me, because I've been making music professionally for some years now. I've never rhymed to a beat like "Get it Right" or "Set it Free" and I've definitely never rhymed to a beat like "Poetry."
I remember doing "When We Move" on "Jimmy Fallon" and Jimmy was like, "What sample is that?" I was like, "That's not a sample, man! Those cats are playing that!"
Speaking of: How did it feel to play on "The Tonight Show"? That must have been like a family reunion since you've worked with the Roots and Soulquarians so much.
Dude, that was so much fun, man. I was so excited. The Roots are my family and Black Thought is my brother, man. I love him. We wanted to present something that was fresh. We videoed Seun Kuti in Nigeria. We also had a director work on some visuals for us.
I felt like we were rocking that joint. I felt excited to be there. I think you can see the excitement on my face. My mother was like, "Man, that song is incredible! You rocked that!" so it's always good to have a little love from Mom.
I've been revisiting Like Water For Chocolate, which turned 20 last year. When you think of those times, what immediately comes to mind?
Being around some of the greatest musicians and artists that the planet has ever seen. D'Angelo is timeless and incredible. Erykah Badu. Questlove is a genius. We see that not only with his music, but the movie Summer of Soul is a masterpiece, man. Being able to go from one studio and work with Mos Def to working with Bilal, and then Jill Scott coming to rock with us. Talib [Kweli] had been around; Dave Chapelle came through the studio, just hanging out.
Everybody loved J Dilla and wanted him [to participate]. He was in Detroit, so he would come out to work with us. Electric Lady was the place we worked, and then I just remember flying out to Detroit and creating with Dilla—really developing a sound that was inspired by Fela Kuti and Slum Village. I came up with my own thing, but these producers gave me the best music.
We were going to do a 20-year celebration, but things couldn't happen with that. So I'm grateful that that album exists. Some people come to me and be like, "Like Water For Chocolate is my favorite of your albums!" and a lot of musicians who play say, "Man, I was digging into that album."
And that's one of the things I want to say: I'm a hip-hop artist, but I'm also a musician. I don't really play any instrument at a professional level yet, but the point is, I love when musicians tell me they love my music.
Can you reflect on J Dilla a little bit? I'm sure he still feels like a presence in your life.
J Dilla will always have a presence in my life. He was the most gifted musician that I had worked with. His music hit people in ways I had never seen music influence. People reacted to him. I walked into a studio with J Dilla and Pharrell got down on his knees and was like, bowing down to him: "You the god!" James Poyser, Questlove and D'Angelo used to call him "the god": "That's the god right there!"
And his spirit: He was a good dude, man. He was dynamic, meaning he was a Detroit dude who entertained and drove around in a Range Rover. But he was sampling Gentle Giant and Herbie Hancock and Dave Brubeck. He was so, so musically gifted and just a wonderful friend in his soul.
I love him and will keep his presence. It's around. It's here. It will continue to impact me. At times, I feel that presence influencing and inspiring me and I'm grateful for it.
Do you feel that your best work is ahead of you?
Yes. Yes. I do feel my best work is ahead of me. I feel that I'm learning more and more about music and life, and that's allowing me to be my highest self and creative self.