Depression-era New York, through the art of children
In Common’s new memoir about healing, ‘love can be an action’
John Yang: Now a conversation with a rapper from the South Side of Chicago, who's branched out beyond music and has a new book and album that explore his own personal history.
Amna Nawaz's interview with Common is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Amna Nawaz: He's one of the biggest names in hip-hop, known for the rhythm and rhymes he's created over a 27-year career in music.
Over the decades, Common the rapper has added actor, activist, and author to his resume, and the awards have followed. He's won an Oscar, a Grammy and a Golden Globe for "Glory," the powerful theme song he co-wrote with John Legend for the 2014 film "Selma."
He's also appeared in movies and on TV, including "The Chi," a series about South Side Chicago, Common's hometown.
Common: It took me 12 years in Stateville to find my way to Allah.
Amna Nawaz: Lonnie Rashid Lynn, better known as Common, first emerged on the rap scene in the '90s. In 2000, his first major label album, "Like Water for Chocolate," brought big success, and his 2005 album, "Be," was a commercial hit, leading to one of several Grammy Awards.
As his fame has grown, Common has used his growing platform to become more politically vocal. A frequent guest at the Obama White House, he's faced criticism from Republicans.
He's performed at the March for Our Lives gun safety rally. and he's been outspoken when it comes to the Trump administration's immigration policies.
Through it all, Common continues to make music. His new album, "Let Love," accompanies his new memoir, by the same name. He recently came by the "NewsHour" to talk about both.
Common, welcome to the "NewsHour."
Common: Oh, man, I love hearing that. Thank you for having me.
Amna Nawaz: I want to ask about your memoir now.
It's called "Let Love Have the Last Word." There is an accompanying album coming out with it, too. What was it about this stage of your career, this stage of your life that made you want to sit down and write this book?
Common: Well, I think it's a lot of what we see going on in the world, like the divisiveness, the anxiety, a lot of the -- including the attacks and things.
I really wanted to put -- instill something that was hopeful, instill something that could be solution-oriented, and something that has been an antidote for me, a resource for me to overcome, you know, tough times in my life.
I wanted to share with other people, because so many of my conversations was based around anxiety, and so many of the conversations I was having with people, and I was like, hey, you all, we can do it. We can -- like, I got hope. We can do it as people, as human beings. Let's find the common place for us and, like, start from there.
Amna Nawaz: It's also a very intensely personal book, this memoir, right?
Amna Nawaz: And I was reading that your daughter actually inspired a lot of what you shared in here.
Tell me about that.
Well, we had a conversation, my daughter and I. She really challenged me as a father where she told me places where she didn't think I was, like, showing up as a father.
And, you know, initially my emotion was, wait, but I love you. And I was hurting, defensive, and even, with some things, angry about some of the things she said.
But somewhere during that course of the conversation, I just looked at her and said, man, this is my daughter. Let me listen to her. I knew I wanted to write about love, but not just romantic love. So, when that incident happened, it just gave me like more things to talk about how it can be an action, how it can be a practice.
Amna Nawaz: One of the other things that you share for the first time, speaking publicly about it, was that, as a child, you suffered a very serious trauma.
Amna Nawaz: You were molested when you were 9 years old.
Amna Nawaz: What did it take for to you get to a place where you felt like you could talk about that?
Common: I felt that, if I decided to talk about it, it would be healing for me, but also healing for others, because other people experience sexual abuse, molestation, just physical abuse.
And I knew, as a black man, me talking about it would give a gateway and an opening for other men, black people, brown people, you know, just to be able to talk about it, because -- and I bring us, you know, black people into the equation, because, for us, in our culture, it's not really discussed.
Like, when those things happen, it's not talked about as much on, how do we solve this? How do we, like, stop the cycle?
So I really knew that, if I told my story and told it in a way that is really just raw and truthful, and still acknowledge that I'm in the process, and it would allow other human beings to come out and talk about it, and hopefully be a part of the healing, because my ultimate goal is to, how do -- to stop the cycle, yes.
Amna Nawaz: Do you feel like you're still going through that healing? Where do you feel you are right now in your personal journey?
Common: I feel like I'm in a great place of forgiveness. I'm still learning, like, what -- how this affected my life in different ways.
And, you know, one of the things I'm learning through the process is to be kind to myself, you know, and not just, like, judge everything I do. When I make mistakes, or just to beat myself down, like, I try learn from the mistakes and acknowledge where I was wrong and move forward.
Now, this is something where I wasn't wrong, but I still -- as a human being, you hold guilt, you hold shame. And I just try to make sure I'm being loving to myself, and in the process deal with each emotion that I have.
And I think, overall, I feel like this is bigger than me anyway.
Amna Nawaz: You have never been afraid of tackling the tough stuff in your career, whether it's about your own personal journeys. You mentioned your criminal justice reform work.
You tweet a lot about immigration detention. You were tweeting about the ICE raids recently and injustices that you see going on around you.
Where does that come from? Do you feel, like, a sense of responsibility to pay attention and be engaged?
Common: Yes, I think -- you know, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, a community which I really love.
And that community is like many other communities that suffer from being marginalized, being treated less than, having lack of opportunities and resources. So, when I see somebody being pushed down, I just relate to it, and I don't like it, meaning, like, when I see what's going on with the people that's trying to get into in the country and families being separated, it's just -- it's not fair life.
It's not good humanity to other people. So I have to speak up. It's my duty as a human being, as an artist, and not only speaking now. To me, my speaking has to become action, and that's what I'm in -- more involved in.
Like, I have Imagine Justice. That's why I went to the prisons. That's the organization I'm a part of, where we do social activism in different spaces, including immigration as one of the spaces we are now in the process of figuring out, how can we be a solution to this issue?
Amna Nawaz: It's fair to say music is still your first love?
Common: It's my first love, but I love, like, acting just as much as I love music. So, I'm not going to deny that. I love acting. It's fun.
Amna Nawaz: You did say something in your book I wanted to read to you, though, about sort of the roots of where your music comes from, which is freestyling.
Amna Nawaz: Talking about rapping, you say: "I have been rapping for more than 25 years now. I would rap for free. I would rap if I lived on the streets. I would rap if I were a preacher or a prisoner or a politician."
You say it's your release, that, sometimes, even if you can't do it in the studio, you just hop in the car and you go and you do. You really just do that?
Amna Nawaz: You just get out in the car and freestyle?
I mean, I love -- that's actually how I write my songs, is, like, I get in the car and I just, like, put on a beat, and I say my raps out loud. I just start freestyling whatever lines I like.
I do believe it's a divine expression, meaning I'm only creating when I'm at my -- when I'm in like a pure place and I'm feeling like this -- I'm not thinking too hard.
Amna Nawaz: Yes.
Common: It's just coming out. It's just flowing.
Like, there's no way to, like, try to describe the process, besides I can tell you the steps, but I can't really tell you how it's done.
Amna Nawaz: Common, I can't thank you enough for coming by.
The new book is called "Let Love Have the Last Word."
Amna Nawaz: Thanks for your time.
Common: Thank you for having me.
Sometimes, she might even ask if I can come here and rap off facts. I'm going to tell you this. Even sitting in the booth, any time I talk about facts, I speak truth. That's what it is. I spring truth to power. I came to do this at the "PBS NewsHour."