Common, an Emmy, Grammy and Oscar winner, aims higher: ‘I want to provide inspiration to people’
The first hip-hop artist to receive the Harry Belafonte Voices for Social Justice Award, the rapper and actor wants to make a difference. He performs Sunday in San Diego at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park
One of the most personally meaningful awards Common has received is also the least known. But that doesn’t bother this dedicated hip-hop star, actor and social activist, who is the first rap artist to ever win an Oscar, a Grammy and an Emmy.
On June 15, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, he received the Harry Belafonte Voices for Social Justice Award. It was a heady honor for Common, whose most recent albums, 2020’s “Beautiful Revolution Pt. 1” and last year’s “Beautiful Revolution Pt. 2,” were made (in his words) to “uplift, heal and inspire listeners dealing with racial injustices as well as other social injustices.”
“Harry is one of my greatest guiding lights and inspirations,” said Common, who is only the second recipient of the Belafonte award. The first, presented in May, was given to voting rights champion — and current Georgia gubernatorial candidate — Stacey Abrams.
The award was also partly in recognition of Common’s multiple movie and TV credits. His film work culminated in the Oscar he and John Legend won in 2015 for “Glory,” the rousing song they co-wrote and performed for the civil rights drama “Selma,” in which Common co-starred. His 2016 album, “Black American Thought,” serves as a powerful musical through-line from the civil rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past decade.
Presented by Robert De Niro, the Tribeca festival’s co-founder, the Belafonte Award “recognizes individuals who have used storytelling and the arts to enact change in their communities.” That the honor is named for a pioneering American artist who is a longtime champion of social justice makes it even more significant for Common, who turned 50 on March 13.
“Harry Belafonte is about truth and caring about people, and he’s about sacrificing and never giving up,” said Common, who performs in San Diego Sunday with his band at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
Art and social justice
Common was specifically honored at the Tribeca festival for the time he has dedicated to social justice and advocacy work focused on mass incarceration, mental health and voting.
He was also celebrated for his efforts to empower high school students in underserved communities to become future leaders. He has pursued these goals in part through his nonprofit organizations, Imagine Justice and the Common Ground Foundation. Both build on the legacy Belafonte created decades earlier as a pioneering artist for whom entertainment and activism go hand-in-hand.
“I feel like Harry is that mentor I can go to and ask: ‘OK, where should I be? What should I be doing?’ ” Common said.
“Having a conversation with him and hearing him talk is a reminder of what I’m supposed to do and aspire to, how I’m supposed to live, and what I’m supposed to sacrifice. Harry’s heart and mind, his voice, spirit and actions are the things I aspire to. And, obviously, he made music and was an actor. But, truly, he was an activist, and I feel like I fall into all those categories.”
Belafonte, 95, is a Kennedy Center Honors recipient. He is also a Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award winner whose album sales in 1957 topped those of both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Belafonte’s 1956 album, “Calypso,” was the first by any artist in any genre to sell a million copies in the U.S.
A longtime civil-rights crusader, Belafonte exemplifies how much a dedicated artist can accomplish — and how much they can lose by strongly voicing their beliefs.
In an October 2002 interview with San Diego radio station KFMB, Belafonte leveled harsh criticism at the foreign and domestic policies of then-President George W. Bush. Belafonte compared Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, to a “house slave” for promoting Bush’s claims that Iraq was manufacturing and hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Those accusations fueled the invasion of Iraq by American forces in March 2003. Although no weapons of mass destruction were found, Belafonte received severe criticism.
Attendance for his annual U.S. concert tour that same year plummeted by 50 percent or more. By 2004, Belafonte’s touring career in this country was effectively over because of the backlash he had received.
“As you were talking abut Harry just now,” Common said, “I was wondering: ‘Man, could I do that? Could I give up a lot of what I’ve achieved — and be pretty much ostracized from the work I do — because of what I stand for?’
“At this time in my life, there is pretty much more overall awareness about the Black experience — and more acceptance of uplifting Black people — even if we haven’t gotten to where I want us to be through social and political participation.
“But the point is: I won’t do something just for money. I will give up a lot of things for what I believe. I won’t take certain jobs or accept certain things.”
Microsoft and Peloton
Speaking by phone in late June from New York, Common paused for a moment of reflection before continuing.
“I’ve done business partnerships with companies that have not been all the way good,” he acknowledged. “But, even then, I tried to do the best I can to promote what I see as truth.”
Have the companies Common has been involved with, which include Microsoft and the fitness-tech firm Peloton, been open to his truths?
“I haven’t been in a lot (of partnerships),” he said. “But let’s face it: I’m not perfect as a human being. No one is. So, some of these corporations — with the collection of human beings they have — are not going to be all good.
“When I did have those opportunities to sit down (and talk) with them, some of them made adjustments. Some didn’t know they needed to make adjustments and it just needed to be brought to their attention ...
“And that’s OK. Because, ultimately, you want to be in a partnership in life with people that share your vision and passion. And, like Harry Belafonte, I’m willing to dig deep to make those things happen and not just play it safe.”
Common’s desire to use music as a vehicle for positive change was less pronounced but already taking root on his 1992 debut album, “Can I Borrow a Dollar?” Like his second album in 1994, he released it using the stage name Common Sense.
It was with his third and fourth albums — 1997’s “One Day It’ll All Make Sense” and 2000’s landmark “Like Water for Chocolate” — that his musical vision, lyrical dexterity and heartfelt world view blossomed. As a result, Common was hailed as one of the exemplars of what was dubbed “conscious rap.”
This tag was also used to describe the work of Mos Def, The Roots, former Common paramour Erykah Badu and other hip-hop innovators, whose music and thematic subjects were designed to enlighten as well as entertain.
Common’s love for jazz, classic R&B and other genres was readily apparent from the start of his career. But it was on his fifth album, 2002’s “Electric Circus,” that his expansive approach fully bore fruit.
Rather than just use samples from records by some of his favorite artists for his own songs, Common collaborated with them. Guests on “Electric Circus” included Prince, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Zap Mama’s Marie Daulne, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, Bilal, CeeLo Green and vocalist Sonny Sandoval from the San Diego rap-metal band P.O.D. Moreover, Common used landmark albums by Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd as musical signposts on “Electric Circus.”
Or, as he rapped on “I Got a Right Ta”: Hip-hop is changin’ / Y’all want me to stay the same? ... I made my own lane.
‘Love and purity’
“There are some things I really don’t like about hip-hop,” Common said in a 2003 Union-Tribune interview. “I don’t like the regurgitation of music — everybody using the same formula, the same producers. The lack of creativity, the fear of not being free and taking chances, that’s what I don’t like... The love and purity of music is what’s missing from hip-hop today.
“I owe my audience my best. And I owe them the truth and imagination and hard work, to be able to offer whatever I can that has challenged me as an artist and made me a better person. I need to show them the (dimension) of me as a person, which means dealing with love, with getting drunk, with watching people trying to survive by selling weed and working a job, and with trying to patch their relations up with the mother of their babies.”
Now, 20 years later, does Common feel hip-hop has grown more creative and open to risk-taking?
“I think hip-hop has definitely opened itself up more, due to people like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye, who just take the music to different places,” he replied.
“Tyler The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, all these artists are brave enough to go wherever they need to go. So, yeah, it definitely has opened up more. And I want to give credit to groups like OutKast — who broke barriers and did incredible, innovative music — and, of course, to The Roots and Mos Def, who took the music to different places.”
Common took his music to different places, literally, on his 2017 and 2018 Hope & Redemption Tour.
It opened at Corcoran State Prison. After performing at another California prison, he posted a message on Instagram: “I’m blessed to have the opportunity to connect with my brothers inside Folsom State Prison and perform for them to inspire them and spread a message of hope, redemption, justice, love and compassion.”
Common documented his tour and the stories of some of the inmates he met in his “The Hope & Redemption Tour” series on YouTube. Yet, while he continues to do outreach work with incarcerated people, his goal is to reach as many listeners in as many places as possible.
“I want to provide inspiration, hope and comfort to people,” said Common, whose two memoirs — 2011’s “One Day It’ll All Make Sense” and 2019’s “Let Love Have The Last Word” — were both best sellers.
“I want to be one of the guides to a better life. I really want to be a (guiding) light, whose music make people feel like life is better and that there is hope for what they want be. I want people to feel that they are powerful, the same way they do if they hear a certain speech by Malcolm X, or read something by James Baldwin or Dr. Maya Angelou, or hear President Obama speak.
“I want my music to create that energy and for people to leave my live performances feeling like: ‘Man, I want to go and do something good!’ ”
Common bonus Q&A
Q: Mos Def was scheduled to play Thelonious Monk in a new biopic that is now on hold. What iconic jazz artist would you be up for playing in a film?
A: That’s a great one. Ha-ha! Maybe, whoo, let me think, Charles Mingus. Or, I would really love to — I know this isn’t jazz, per se — but (rap godfather) Gil Scott-Heron would be someone I’d love to play, too.
From Joni Mitchell and Radiohead to Andy Summers of The Police, Jeff Beck and P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell, Mingus inspired many artists beyond the jazz world
Q: Why Mingus, whose centennial was celebrated earlier this year?
A: I work with a lot of jazz cats and they tell me stories. Because they have gotten to play with Ron Carter, Ray Brown, Betty Carter, Mulgrew Miller, and they’ve heard all types of stores about Mingus. Stories about how he was always really mean and aggressive at certain points, and how he was tough, a tough band leader.
I would love to play that role because I would like to know what drove him to doing that. He was such a talented jazz musician. And, by the same token, he was a real rugged cat who was gangsta in his own way. There would be a lot of dimension to offer to that human being as an actor portraying him.
Q: The great saxophonist Charles McPherson, who lives in San Diego, played in Mingus’ band for 12 years. He is a great source of information about Mingus.
‘What Mingus said he wanted (in performances) was musical chaos,’ McPherson recalls
A: Charles McPherson lives in San Diego? That would be cool to get to talk to him. You might be starting up a new film for me!
Q: You have recorded with some notable jazz artists on your albums, and Robert Glasper and Kariem Riggins are most recently both featured on your “A Beautiful Revolution, Vol. 1” album. Any chance of the three of you reuniting to do a second August Greene group trio album or tour?
A: Yeah. We went into the studio late last year and started creating some some new August Greene material. Now, we’ve just got to hone it. Each of us have been touring and I’ve been filming in London, where Robert did a gig and we played together. And I believe Kariem is drumming with Diana Krall on her current tour.
But, yes, we have to do another August Greene project. Our first album was one of my favorite creations, to be part of a group and put out a project like that. It feels so free and liberating to be part of a group, especially with such talented musicians as those. I feel we can go anywhere together when there are no limitations . That’s something I’ve had to learn within myself as an artist: to go wherever I want to go and not be afraid.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 222 Marina Park Way, downtown
Phone: (619) 235-0804
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.