The Grammy- and Oscar-winning artist, 44, reveals to EW how Stevie Wonder, Trayvon Martin, and African-American humanity inspired his new, 11th studio album. “People can say this [record] is only about protest and injustice,” Common says of the project’s mission, “but it’s more than that. It’s expressing what black culture is.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your new album, Black America Again, explores topics like police brutality and mass incarceration in America, but there’s a hopefulness to it, too. How would you sum it up?
COMMON: It embodies black culture. It’s about the joy, the love, the innocence, the truth that’s in black people: jazz, blues, hip-hop, soul, rock. The fatherhood, the motherhood—the humanity.
Stevie Wonder sings on the title track. What was it like to work with a living legend?
[His studio] felt like a musical heaven. He was playing jazz songs on the harpsichord and going around singing. People laugh when I say, “We was watching the game”—but I was watching and he was listening. [Laughs] At certain points in your career, you realize you must be going in a good direction to get this blessed.
The song also references Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, who became pillars of the Black Lives Matter movement after their deaths.
We have to be reminded that these things happened, and that they continue happening. [Trayvon’s] mother and father lost a son. We have to let that be a motivating factor for us so that there won’t be any more.
The track “Letter to the Free” is also featured in the documentary 13TH by Ava DuVernay, whose 2014 movie, Selma, featured your and John Legend’s Oscar-winning song, “Glory.”
I knew Ava was doing 13TH, and [mass incarceration] was on my heart, so I told her I wanted to write a song for it. She said, “I got other people submitting songs, too.” She doesn’t play favorites! I had the first verse written when I saw her at President Obama’s birthday party [this year], and I started rapping in her ear. She heard enough to be like, “I’m gonna send you the movie.” Then when I sent the whole song, she was like, “I don’t know, we just [worked together]….” I said, “How many times does Martin Scorsese work with Leonardo DiCaprio?” [Laughs]
With the election coming up, how are you feeling about your vote?
My natural instinct at first said, “Donald Trump doesn’t feel like the right person to be leading this country.” Then I watched the debates and was 100 percent sure he wasn’t. I looked at Hillary Clinton and said, “This is a woman who is experienced and intelligent.” And she has been a politician for many years, and that’s hard for some people. But I’m going to choose to be on the faithful side that she can live up to what she says she wants to get done. And I’m happy that a woman could be the leader of our country. I think it will be beautiful.
As a movie buff, have you seen anything good lately?
I felt sad this year because I hadn’t seen as many movies as I usually would—there wasn’t really nothing that I was like, “I gotta see that!” But my favorites have been Moonlight, and, to be honest, I think 13TH is one of the best movies of the year.
Do you listen to any up-and-coming hip-hop artists?
When I hear Vince [Staples] and Chance [the Rapper] and Anderson .Paak, it inspires me. Those artists have found their voices. They rap about whatever they want. That’s great when it’s like, “I’m going to create in my own imagination and bring you to it and let you enjoy it.”
And how about established rap stars like Kanye West—did you get into his “living album” The Life of Pablo?
I have definitely listened to my music and been like, “I could have done this, I could have done that.” It’s brilliant that Kanye has been the innovator to say, “You can.”