Common on Joe Biden: “You have never heard any other president talking about systemic racism”

The Chicago rapper, actor and activist talks to NME about America’s future, uplifting the people and dropping the ball on a Stevie Wonder feature

Common is no stranger to fighting for change. The Chicago native has been using his music to shine a light on social injustice for years, while also regularly getting out on the frontlines and protesting with the people. His latest album, ‘A Beautiful Revolution Pt.1’, is a call to action, which arrives after a crucial US election that saw Common going door to door encouraging people to vote.

We caught up with the rapper, actor and activist to discuss his new record, canvassing for votes, fighting racism and bagging a rare feature from Lenny Kravitz.

Hello Common. Where were you when you found out that Joe Biden had won the election?

Common: “I was in Savannah, Georgia. I had been on set all night and got home at around 7am. By 11am, my phone was vibrating a lot and I was like, ‘Man, what’s up?’ So I looked at my phone and people were texting me congratulations.”

How did you celebrate?

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“I celebrated with my team, we had champagne. Then I spent the whole day just enjoying the moment, watching the news a little bit, listening to music. I just sat around and talked to people. I didn’t want to do any work, I just wanted to take it in.”

During the election you were out canvassing and encouraging people to vote. What made you want to get involved?

“I felt it was necessary because I felt the sadness around the country. I wanted to go 100 per cent for Biden and [Kamala] Harris because they are what’s best for this country. They are looking to really be leaders and get the country in the right place, which helps the world get in a better place. I also can’t say I care about people and not go out and do the things I was doing, because if I had just sat back then I might as well have voted for [Donald] Trump, you know? Like Nina Simone said, it’s our duty as artists to reflect the times in which we live. So I felt like it was my duty to be a human being and help change the times, be in the faces of people, Black people specifically who felt ostracised and not a part of it.”

What does Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ win mean for America moving forward?

“It means we have true leadership in the White House. Leaders who are here to serve the people, care for people and make the right decision not just for one group – all people.”

What issues would you like to see them address?

“Well, let me say this: Joe Biden is the first presidential candidate, now president-elect and soon to be president that I’ve ever seen say the words ‘systemic racism’. You have never heard any other president talking about systemic racism. This is important because America has had an issue with racism for a long time, for as long as it has been a country. And it has never addressed systemic racism or truly acknowledged it from up top, from the powers that be in the White House. So that being addressed by that level of government is one of the changes I wanna see.”

Anything else?

“Yeah, making sure education is broadened. Focusing on academic and development is important, but what about the arts and different programs that would help develop inner city kids? Let’s expose them to different things. I’d also really like to see the criminal justice system reformed because that’s been a cycle that’s been destroying Black and Brown families for decades. Healthcare needs to be addressed too. I want people to have access to healthcare just like you have in the UK.”

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Common
CREDIT: Armin Ramzy

What inspired the idea for your new album, ‘A Beautiful Revolution Pt.1’?

“I was asked to do a song for a children’s Netflix show called Bookmarks. I was part of the show reading Black and Brown children’s stories. So I started working on the song ‘Don’t Forget Who You Are’ with Karriem Riggins, Robert Glasper and PJ, and one night after working on it, I went home and listened to it and was like, ‘Man, this music feels good’. It was really something. And some of my team were saying how much they liked it and how they needed it. I was writing it from the perspective of someone talking to the babies, to the children, yet there were adults saying how much they needed it.

“Truthfully, I wasn’t thinking about making any music, but this made me think that I needed to make something for the people that was inspiring and uplifting. I wanted to make some music that gives people that hope, that good feeling, but it would be revolutionary music. I wanted it to be able to be played whether you’re protesting or in line voting.”

How do you define a beautiful revolution?

“For me, it’s when people can see God’s purpose, creation and love for all mankind in themselves and they channel it through their individual lives and affect change in others. Then we can live in a place where people see happiness. They can live in joy, in grace, in creativity and they can live in unity and in hope.”

On the track ‘Courageous’ you rap about taking part in this year’s Black Lives Matter protests and how you “found mine” while marching in the streets. What exactly did you find?

“When I say ‘I found mine‘ I’m really discussing two things: I’m saying that I’ve gotta make sure I get my heart and mind in the right place because we all need each other at the end of the day, but also there’s people out there that are riding for us. I found that this revolution is gonna take all of us. I saw white folks, Latino folks, Asian folks, Black folks, all protesting with strength and with hope. This matters to us.”

Stevie Wonder appears on the track, however he wasn’t credited at first. Why was that?

“Because I do some dumb shit sometimes.”

What do you mean?

“I was asked by my management team how we should credit Stevie on the record. I was like, ‘We can’t put ‘featuring Stevie Wonder’ because people are gonna think he’s singing on it ,and they might get mad when they realise he’s not. I should’ve just put ‘featuring Stevie Wonder’. It was a bad choice that I thought too hard and too long about.”

Lenny Kravitz appears on ‘A Riot In My Mind’. He hasn’t collaborated with many rappers – how did you get him on the track? 

“Over the summer I went to a couple of Dave Chappelle’s Summer Camp comedy shows. This French photographer called Matthew who works with Dave, Robert Glasper and Lenny Kravitz was there. He would always be Facetiming with Lenny, and one time I was there and I was like, ‘Hey, we gotta do some music’. Lenny agreed, but I wasn’t sure if it was small talk or whatever. About three or four days later me, [Isaiah] Sharkey and Karriem came up with ‘A Riot In My Mind’. I thought Lenny would sound crazy on it so I sent it to him. It took a few days but once he really listened to it he called me and was so excited. He was like, ‘This is some progressive funk soul’. I’m just grateful to have one of the greats my record, especially as he’s someone who hasn’t done a lot of hip-hop.”

Common’s new album ‘A Beautiful Revolution Pt.1’ is out now via Loma Vista Recordings

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