Academy Award and Grammy winner Common, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., is a multi-threat as an actor, rapper, songwriter and producer and now one step closer to achieving the coveted EGOT thanks to his first-ever Emmy nomination. Common is nominated in the music and lyrics category for the original song “Letter to the Free” from Netflix and Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.”
“I don’t create my art from a place of doing this to get an Emmy. I can’t create like that,” Common tells Variety. “I create from my heart and what I’m inspired by and what I feel is creative and fresh. I want to be a part of things that are impactful and inspire people and motivate, so I create from that place. But once it’s created, do I want the world to hear it? Do I want people to recognize it? Yes. So that’s where the joy of being nominated for an Emmy comes from.”
Partnering with DuVernay has proven to be a winning combination for Common in the past. In 2015 he worked with John Legend on “Glory,” an original song for her “Selma” that won him one of two of his Grammys, the Academy Award, and a Golden Globe. Here, he talks with Variety about that on-going partnership, the inspiration for his Emmy-nominated “Letter to the Free,” and how the process of writing for someone else is different from writing for himself.
Since you and DuVernay had such a successful partnership on “Selma,” was getting involved in “13th” as simple as a phone call?
The process started, to be honest, with John Legend mentioning in his Oscar speech that there were more black people incarcerated in America right now than there were in slavery. That kind of woke me up a little. I met a woman named Michelle Alexander who wrote a book called “The New Jim Crow” and I got a real education on how mass incarceration affects families in America, not just black but brown, and I was telling everybody about it. It was on my heart already, and Ava told me she was doing a documentary and she wanted to see it at some point. She wasn’t asking me to do a song or anything, but when she told me what it was about, I said, “Please, can I write a song for it?” And she said she already had somebody in mind but I could submit for it. So I was on a plane, and I started thinking about “Strange Fruit,” that song by Billie Holiday, and I just started writing. I knew that “13th” was about the history of America and slavery and Jim Crow and mass incarceration, so I started chasing that history. And once I started writing, I was really feeling the words.
Did you submit the lyrics on paper to her first?
I saw Ava almost a year ago exactly at the White House for President Obama’s birthday, and I had just enough wine to approach her and tell her I needed her to hear this verse I wrote. So I started rapping the first verse from “Letter to the Free,” and she was like, “OK, this is pretty good,” but then her attention was pretty quickly taken away because the president was right in front of her. So I talked to Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins about producing the song. I told them the gist of what “13th” was about and the energy of my verse and what the song should be for the music. Karriem brought in his son and had him doing hand claps, and we had these great musicians playing on the song, and then I sent it to Ava. And she said, “Call me.” My heart was beating so fast, “Does she like or does she not like it?” And I called her, and she said she really liked it, but [was concerned] people might say we did this already. I said, “Look, do you know how many times Martin Scorsese worked with Leonardo DiCaprio?” People who have great creative connections can do it, so let’s do it! And I think the music did it for her.
What would you have done if she said she didn’t like it?
I think I would have held onto it and maybe tried to work on another song that could work for her. Maybe it would have found a home on the Hope and Redemption Tour. Right now I’m doing that where I’m visiting prisons because unfortunately mass incarceration is an epidemic. Unfortunately it’s being discussed a lot, but it needs to, especially with Jeff Sessions saying that they’re going to buckle down on even non-violent crimes and reverse what President Obama did – basically reverting back to the war on drugs with just a new regime, the same mentality. I think there’s a disconnect where we don’t consider the human beings.So I would have used it somewhere. Because whether they committed a crime or not, they’re still a human being. “Letter to the Free” and “13th” are really about humanizing people. They’re really about bringing the humanity of black people to the forefront. So I would have submitted more songs for it because it’s such an important project.
How did you approach writing “Letter to the Free” knowing it was for a specific project, for someone else with her own vision, versus a song you’d write for yourself, to put on one of your own albums?
I kind of find a joy when I write for films or other projects because it automatically leads you to a theme. Every film has a theme, a topic, a story, and I have to write something based on that. When you get to write for a film, you get to sum up what that film is about. And you have to do it in a short amount of time, you have to make it potent, and you have to make it not a history lesson. I actually wrote the first verse, and Ava liked it, but then I wrote the second verse, and she was like, “Ah it sounds too informative, too technical.” So the difference is, when you’re writing for a film or a television show, something with a story, it’s definitely more collaborative because you have a guide of where you need to go. If she wanted to change a line, I had to think of a better line. I like the challenge. And collaborating with Ava DuVernay is such a gift because she’s so intelligent and she has great taste and a knack for putting together the right elements to make something great. And there’s also a challenge in making it great so other people will get the information and it will spark something in them. When I talked about “Strange Fruit,” or Gil Scott-Heron, or John Coltrane, “Alabama,” these songs have feelings, but they also educate. So you want to do that in a way where you feel like you aren’t being preached to. Mass incarceration is a topic that a lot of people don’t even want to think about or hear about, so it’s a balance.
How did writing “Letter to the Free” inspire writing your own music, if at all? Did you keep any of the lines Ava didn’t like for something else you’re working on?
If I throw it away, it’s going away, I’m not a hoarder! If it wasn’t good enough for her, I don’t want to use it. I want everything to resonate. I want every song to be great. But I will say how this helps me as a writer is that it opens my mind up to different ways to approach things, and it reminds me that I’m capable of writing about anything.
Was it important to you that “Letter to the Free” stand on its own, in that if someone heard it without having seen “13th” they would still take away a powerful message?
Our goal was to make the song inspirational. It could have the fight in it, and the fight needed to feel like we are going to overcome and win this together. So when we chant “Freedom,” I’ve been in places where everybody, all nationalities, are chanting. And the unity, and the energy and spirit, of the song is to say that this is what we’ve been through, this is our history, and we’re not going to hide from it. America, don’t sweep it up under the rug. Let’s acknowledge it and get through it together and understand why some people are the way they are. I want everyone to try to understand what some individuals may be going through. It’s kind of a come to Jesus moment. With what’s going on in the world right now, people feel uneasy, and some things feel chaotic, but we’ve got something that we can stand up for, and we have the ability to be a part of change. Just the fact that people want to do something to improve the world, the music, the art we’re creating is for that purpose. It doesn’t matter if it’s comedy or drama or a documentary or the song alone, if you can get people to relate to it, that’s contributing towards the improvement and the change that the world needs.
Is the next step to do something like “Letter to the Free” for Broadway so you can get that EGOT?
An EGOT is a really high achievement on the scale of entertainment. There’s less than 15 people on the planet who have achieved that, so it’s something to strive for. Yes, I would definitely consider it, and I feel like “Selma” was an eye-opener for me because my whole music career has been about making music that’s conscious, making music that’s inspiring. But when I became part of “Selma,” I saw I could do that in films, too, and now TV. I’m producing a TV show for Showtime called “The Chi,” and it’s just really dealing with people growing up in Chicago and how their lives revolved around this one killing. We know Chicago is dealing with a lot of crime, but this is showing the humanity of it, from the kids to the adults. And now I know there are these avenues, including theater. To be honest, I’ve been meeting with some great people, including John Legend, about taking something great to Broadway. My biggest joy is to be able to create the art that I love and for it to make an impact in people’s lives, so if I could do it in theater, too, yes, because I love going to the theater. If I could do it as an actor or a writer or a producer, I want to put this type of art and this kind of conscious work on every medium of entertainment and platform possible. It’s just got to be done well!