Why you should care
Because there is always the opportunity to do more.
When Common and fellow musician John Legend won an Oscar in 2015 for their song “Glory” — from the soundtrack for the movie Selma — Legend made a bold statement from the stage as the two accepted their award. “Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now,” he stated, adding, “There are more Black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”
Among those moved by Legend’s statement was his fellow award winner. “I was shocked by what John Legend said at the Oscars,” Common told a packed crowd of festivalgoers at OZY Fest this past weekend in New York City’s Central Park. Common wasn’t shocked by the fact that Legend had said it before a global audience, but rather by what he said, because it opened his eyes for the first time to the true scale of the problem of mass incarceration of Black men in the United States.
It was a moment of moral clarity for Common.
Common, originally from Chicago’s South Side, long ago established himself as a socially conscious rapper and hip-hop artist with one of the most thoughtful voices in popular culture. Still, Legend’s comment and the experience of making Selma — about the U.S. civil rights movement — awakened an even stronger sense of social purpose within the musician and actor, one that he continues to cultivate while also helping others develop a similar drive to make an impact themselves.
During the filming of Selma, veteran civil rights leader Andrew Young was brought in to talk to the actors, including Common (who played real-life activist James Bevel), about some of the motivations of the historic characters they were portraying. “‘You must ask yourself,’” Young said, according to Common, “‘What are you willing to die for?’ And then live for that each and every day.” It was a moment of moral clarity for Common. He says that he realized, “I have an obligation to do more. I have an opportunity to do more. [And] I’ve got to do something each day.”
For Common, doing something meant not only making art that has a consciousness but also aligning himself with the right causes, issues and organizations. One of the issues was the one Legend mentioned at the Academy Awards: mass incarceration. A few years ago, Common started visiting prisons in California with an organization called ARC, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. There he talked, but mostly listened, to prisoners as they shared their stories about what they were going through and how they ended up in prison. “Imagine being trapped in one act for the rest of your life,” Common remembers one prisoner serving a double life sentence telling him. The prison visits resulted in the group identifying a number of issues for criminal justice reform and pushing for legislation, including a bill that got passed in California banning juvenile offenders from being sentenced to life without parole.
Another thing that Common — who has won three Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Emmy in addition to his Academy Award — says he learned from the civil rights movement is that “it took everybody.” And while history and the movies may focus on the movement’s leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., the success of the undertaking ultimately boiled down to the rank and file, the unsung activists and citizens laboring to effect change. And so too should today’s activism. And Common’s takeaway for those gathered at the summer music and thought festival? “You don’t have to be an artist or a journalist to effect change. Change happens in the small gestures that we give each other.”