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Common: ‘Black people are not afforded the room to be human’

Exclusive: The Chicago hip-hop legend speaks with Roisin O’Connor about his new album ‘Let Love’, racism, his relationships with women – and how he came to terms with a forgotten childhood trauma

Tuesday 27 August 2019 07:43 BST
Common: 'I'm in a place of forgiveness and moving forward'
Common: 'I'm in a place of forgiveness and moving forward'

Common hasn’t really slept. Last night, in London, the rapper, actor and author was drinking and playing Scrabble, he tells me. Then, lying in bed, he spent the early hours tweeting about the US-Mexico border crisis to his 5 million followers. “I don’t approve of the US casting people out,” he says. “When I see the country I’m from treating people like that, it’s hurtful. That picture of a father and his child…” he trails off, and you can tell he’s thinking of the heartbreaking picture of Oscar Alberto Martinez and his two-year-old daughter, who both drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to enter the US.

We’re in a Soho hotel and, despite the lack of sleep, Common is alert, eloquent and engaging; each question is answered in the same gruff, calm tone with which he raps. It’s difficult to imagine him ever raising his voice. Born Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn, the Chicago MC is one of the foremost examples of the “conscious” rapper – an artist who uses his platform to address pressing issues of the time. It’s a theme that stretches to his work in film – he won a Grammy, an Emmy and an Oscar with John Legend for their song “Glory” from 2014’s Selma, in which Common also stars as civil rights movement leader James Bevel. His acclaimed 2016 album Black America Again reacted to the spike in police brutality against black US citizens, along with a number of other social and political failings by his country.

“I’m not saying things are perfect now,” the 47-year-old says, “but at that time I wanted to express what I was seeing and feeling. Sometimes I take the mic and I’m a voice for many – other times it’s what I’m experiencing on a personal level.”

It’s the latter that forms the base for Common’s new album, Let Love, which moves from “the march and the fight” that energises Black America Again – recalling artists such as Public Enemy and Gil Scott-Heron – to Common at his most honest and vulnerable self. The title is derived from his New York Times bestseller Let Love Have the Last Word, in which he addresses an alleged childhood sexual assault by a family member. In the book, he explains that he didn’t recall the incident until working on The Tale, a 2018 film about a woman investigating childhood rape cases. “One day, while talking through the script with Laura [Dern], old memories surprisingly flashed in my mind,” he writes. “I caught my breath and just kept looping the memories over and over, like rewinding an old VHS tape … I said ‘Laura, I think I was abused.’”

“It was slow,” he says now, recalling the moment that trauma was brought to the surface. “Making that film in 2016… that’s when the memory really came in my mind. My whole life, I never thought about it. And when I did, I spoke about it really quickly with Laura. But I didn’t really start talking it out for a while after that.”

It was while he was writing his autobiography that he began “peeling back layers” of himself, and attended therapy. “It’s been a process”, he admits, “but it’s something that I wanted to talk about because I know how many people experience it. And more than anything, I wanted to live my truth and not hide from that.”

It must have been traumatic, I say, to suddenly experience a memory you didn’t realise you had.

“That’s how I know it had affected me in such a heavy way,” he nods. The slightest frown crosses his face for a moment, before giving way to his typically serene expression. “I didn’t even know it existed. But I’m in a place of forgiveness and moving forward. It affected me and it still does, but I’m going to work through it and be the best human being I can be. If I’m mad the whole time, I can’t work towards that.”

Common: ‘Sometimes I take the mic and I’m a voice for many – other times it’s what I’m experiencing on a personal level’

This forgiving nature extends to other people in his life, such as his Run All Night co-star Liam Neeson, who caused outrage after admitting he wanted to kill “some black bastard” after one of his close friends was raped, in an interview with The Independent earlier this year (for which he later apologised).

“It was a lesson for Liam, I think,” Common says. “He felt that way because of what happened to his friend – we’ve all at some point experienced a bias towards a certain group because one person did something. When he said that, I felt more than anything – because I’ve been around him – that he had learnt you can’t stereotype a whole race. Even though he’s obviously still hurting about the fact something happened to his friend... I think he was caught up in that, and he learnt his lesson from it.”

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There’s a line on the song “Good Morning Love”, on the new album, where Common raps: “I’m a cake, just let me bake, goddamn.” He recites it now, before recalling a gospel song he used to love in church, which preaches patience as people grow. “That’s the philosophy I have for myself and others,” he says.

He admires Jay-Z, who spoke about attending therapy in a 2017 New York Times profile. “That moment when he said the hardest work he had to do was on himself. To see this successful person who’s been a shining example to so many of us… that was inspiring,” he says. “To see that masculinity being dismantled, slowly but surely. It takes a lot – to unlearn that mentality.”

Then there’s his friend and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, whom he has known since they were teenagers and collaborated with numerous times. “Ain’t none of us perfect over here,” he says when I venture the subject of West’s controversial praise for US president Donald Trump.

“I don’t agree with everything Ye thinks… I never did!” he adds with a warm burst of laughter. “And he don’t agree with everything I think. But I knew that was a real sensitive subject – his thoughts were in support of somebody affecting people’s lives. I’ve seen him go out and do stuff for the community, do stuff for incarcerated people. Ye wants to help. I think part of his deal was, ‘Everybody is so against this, we’re not getting everywhere, so let me go talk to the guy.’ But, you know, we all observed, and I felt that his heart is definitely in the right place.

“I admire people who can speak their mind in the moment,” he says after a pause. “It’s a freedom, you know? I aspire for that, but I don’t want to do it if it’s going to hurt another person.”

He wants men to be allies in the #MeToo movement, “in a way that is supportive – it’s a movement that has to be led by women”. He cites his mother, a professor, as the person who set the tone for his attitude towards women and life in general: “She’s a powerful, intelligent woman with a beautiful soul. I’m attracted to women like that.”

As well as being romantically linked to Erykah Badu, Angela Rye and Taraji P Henson, Common dated tennis superstar Serena Williams for over three years. The pair remain friends, and he was one of many to speak out in her defence last year, following her row with umpire Carlos Ramos at the US Open.

“Someone as gifted and passionate as Serena won’t always be calm,” he says. “But that kind of emotion is perceived as something negative… people degrade you, they see a ‘mad black woman’. Black people and women are not afforded the room to be human. So, you’ve got to set these other people straight, and remind them that we all feel these things at some point.”

Common with Serena Williams at a charity event on public speaking, which they co-hosted, in October 2018

“I felt like I had to speak up,” he adds. “Serena is one of the leaders in culture, she inspires so many people and she’s done so much for the sport, for women and for black women. And she’s someone I care about personally. For me, that is truly understanding what love is. It didn’t work out relationship-wise and we went our separate ways, but I still care for her as a human being.”

Let Love also addresses Common’s relationship with hip hop, referring to the genre as a woman – as he’s done in the past ­– like on “HER Love”. But his views today are markedly different from that of fellow elder statesmen Cypress Hill, who recently claimed that most modern hip hop was “mindless bulls**t” – and to the views he once held himself. The new songs nod to Common’s 1994 track “I Used to Love HER” (HER standing for “hip hop in its essence is real”), which ignited a feud with Ice Cube’s rap collective Westside Connection after it was interpreted to direct blame towards west coast gangsta rap for the path hip hop was taking. It also provided the tipping point for the notorious east coast/west coast rap feud that followed.

“I don’t feel I have any authority over anybody else taking part in it,” he says. “This thing is all of ours. I’ll speak up about it because I care, but I had to learn not to be possessive. I love that hip hop is continuing to grow and evolve. The new artists, the new voices, they’re developing their own thing and that’s dope. That’s what’s always been the most attractive thing to me about hip hop. That’s what made me first participate, and that’s what makes me continue and have reverence for it.”

What does he make of “Old Town Road”?

“Lil Nas X… the country joint, right?” he asks, smiling. “Yeah, that’s got a little vibe to it. I like that, it’s innovative.”

“Sometimes people want things to stay the way they were,” he says. “I’ve experienced that before, when I didn’t feel the soul of it. But when I see people coming from a truthful place, I respect that. What I don’t care for is people who don’t hold to any new thoughts,” he adds.

“The world progresses when you take the good things that were passed on and allow the younger generation to bring what is new and advanced. This album is rooted in soul music – it’s a traditional hip-hop project. But it’s also present. I’m watching, and listening, and paying attention. Originality is something I’m always going to aspire to.”

Let Love is out on 30 August. Common performs live at London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 10 September

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