Selma is one of the most important movies you’ll see this year. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the film chronicles the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the historic civil rights marches he led in Alabama.
We spoke with Oscar nominee Common about his contributions to the film, and how hip-hop has contributed to the fight against discrimination. As the fight continues, the conscious emcee offered up a blueprint for today’s rappers to use their influence to make change.
Check out the exchange below.
GlobalGrind: Selma has already received four Golden Globe nominations. Congratulations to you and the cast! Did you think the movie would be this well received when you decided to take the role of activist James Bevel?
Common: No, I didn’t even think about how the movie would be received. I was just enthused and inspired to be a part of it because of what it is and the history that was true to life. For us to be able to bring that history to more people and to the present day, I was really more wanting to get into the role and the family. I wanted to get into something special.
The story in Selma is extremely powerful and moving, but the script and movie itself went through several versions after Ava took on the role of director. How do you think it helped that it was made by a woman?
Well, women have a certain compassion that men don’t always express. We do have it, but we don’t always express it. Ava was able to put the compassion into a certain perspective. Not only is it because she’s a woman, but it was also due to her talent, her taste, her vision, and her gifts. Being a woman, I think she paid a lot of attention to the relationships of each individual and why those relationships existed. It was something about the tenderness, but leadership, that she showed when directing all of us that we all felt we were part of something special. She was able to communicate that in a compassionate and respectful way. That goes a long way with a leader.
James is very involved in the planning and organization of the march in the movie, and it’s actually very similar to you in society today. What was it like getting a call from Russell Simmons to be part of the marches this past week?
It’s an honor. It’s my duty to do that. I love that Russell knows that he can reach out to me, and I’m going to do anything and everything that I can to be there. I feel like I’ve been blessed to be a voice in hip-hop culture and somewhat pop culture. With that being said, I owe it to the people to be there, speak up, and represent them. I also learn a lot, because I don’t have all the answers, so it’s great to have people like Russell and those who can get us up to speed on everything when we come in with our perspective to be on the move. We on the move to get things done.
Many will look at this film release as probably the perfect time it could be as far as what is going on across America. How do you feel people protesting will view this film?
I think they will look at the film and see themselves. They could think, ‘Man, 50 years ago they were doing what we’re doing now.’ A lot has to change. Some things have changed because at that time, no one thought that we would have a black president, or all these multi-millionaires that are black or people of color. But that’s not everything. Those things are valuable, but man, there are still people that are poor, and still people that are being shot down in the streets by police officers because of their color. So, a lot has to change still. They’ll see this film and see a blueprint on some of the things they can do. The Selma protests were effective. They got the President to change the voting laws. That’s what you want to see happen. If you are marching, you want to know what the agenda is so you can accomplish some change.
You have been extremely involved with the protests in NYC this past week. What are your own personal thoughts on what’s going on as far as the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice?
I just think that we’ve seen that black life is not valued as much in America. Black and brown, to be honest. Equality is a word that is not being practiced. Justice is not being practiced. My perspective is that we have to do all that we can do to change it. That means educating ourselves. Speaking for myself, I need to educate myself on what laws need to be changed, and what type of structural things that can be done to change the situation so we don’t appoint officers who don’t have compassion and understanding of a community. I feel it’s our job, and my job, to find out the right people to support, the right people to go to change the laws, and educate each other, especially the youth. We need to bring awareness to them that they’re not going to have the same treatment that a white kid may have from the officers, so you have to be aware. It ain’t fair, but you gotta be aware that this is what’s going on.
What was your reaction to first watching the footage of Eric Garner being murdered by an NYPD officer?
I don’t like watching it, so when I saw it, I watched it trying not to be too into it, because I don’t want to see somebody getting killed. I just don’t want to look at that. I had to because it was a situation that is affecting us, and I knew it was something that we were going to have to deal with and talk about. I was saddened. I was angry. It just felt like, ‘Man, how can you do that to another individual, when they’re not trying to destroy you.’ He wasn’t trying to do any bodily harm to you. I was kind of in a state of not understanding how that person is thinking.
Being that you have served as “the conscious” voice through music and art, for almost your entire career, is there an artist you would like to see take a more involved stance in their music?
I think artists gotta be who they are. Speaking up is something that has got to be in you. You shouldn’t be coached into speaking up. You shouldn’t be doing it because it’s the “hot” thing. It has to be something that is in your soul and in your spirit. I believe if I was living in the ’60’s, I would be speaking up. If I was living during the slave revolts, I would be speaking up. I believe that’s in me to speak up for things. In all truth, it’s really about promoting love and freedom than anything. But I am going to speak up against injustices and for people. It’s about caring about people and wanting to see them live better lives. It’s really about accomplishing an equality amongst us. That’s really my premise and what I’m about. Sometimes it’s just going to come out that if the police are doing people wrong, I’m going to say something. If I don’t like the way the government is rolling, I’m going to say something. I think artists just have to be themselves. If that’s not where you are in your life at this time, you might grow into it. You might not even be rapping or singing about it, but you may do it in your community without any publicity. Each person has to be who they are and do what they’re passionate about.
I also have to congratulate you on “Glory” with John Legend being nominated for a Golden Globe. How did you feel when you saw that such an innovative song was nominated, being that it also could possibly be nominated for an Oscar later?
Man, that would be such a blessing. I already feel blessed to do a song that’s talking about Rose Parks, Ferguson, and us standing up against injustices. The fight is still on. That’s one of the songs that’s coming from the spirit. For it to be recognized on such a big platform is an honor. This song is reaching people that may not even know about this message or even think about it. Now, this song has the potential to affect them. It’s great to be honored on that level. A Golden Globe have never been in front of my name! [Laughs]. But it’s a really great and exciting thing to be a part of, along with the movie. I even told Ava that I’m in love.
You were MADE to be in this movie.
She said that to me yesterday! She told me, ‘You’re supposed to be in this movie.’ She said she’s been waiting to see me in a film that’s aligned already with what I do, and that’s what this movie is.
Speaking of your music, you were also just nominated for multiple Grammys, including Best Rap Album for Nobody’s Smiling. How do you feel about that particular nomination?
That’s a wonderful thing. Grammys is the highest honor when it comes to music. Man, to make an album that talks about Chicago, the struggles of the inner city everywhere, and something that’s bridging the gap between the younger artists and myself, it’s showing the connection for it having been recognized on that level. This is a great time. I’m grateful.
People have been talking about white rappers only taking from the culture, but not giving back to it, what part do you think they play in the current protests going on now?
It depends on how they feel. It would be disrespectful for me to classify every rapper that is Caucasian as the same. I don’t think Eminem is the same as Mac Miller. I don’t think the Beastie Boys are the same as Asher Roth. With that being said, I think that obviously a rapper that is white that has something to say about the protests or something socially conscious is going to be important. Ultimately, some of Middle America and some white kids may need to hear it. Hip-hop is so multi-cultural, that we see some white kids listening to the black artists as much than they listen to the white artists. My point being that if there’s a white artist that says something impactful, and it sparks a kid that normally wouldn’t listen to hip-hop or a black artist for whatever reason, then I’m glad. I want everybody to be in support of making the world better. So if you are for that, whether you’re white, black, or Latino, we need you.
You and J. Cole had probably the most inspiring albums this year that talked about a lot of unspoken truths. How do you feel about him being involved in the protests very heavily?
Oh, I think that’s great! He’s a voice in hip-hop that people pay attention to. So for him to be in the protests and stand up is important. Very important. Artists like him and Kendrick Lamar are important. Kendrick speaks on socially conscious things, and he speaks on life things that you don’t always get from artists. Some artists are meant for the turn-up, and there’s nothing the matter with that. But artists like a Kendrick Lamar are able to turn it up and also give you a conscious track. He’s able to show you what he’s been through and that he’s a human being. Those are normally things you might not hear or aren’t cool to say, but he does it. I really like Kendrick Lamar.
What are your plans for 2015 as far as being an inspiring voice, your nominations, and your music?
Being part of the film Selma made me feel like I have to do more as an activist, and I definitely plan to do more with my foundation Common Ground, but also do more work in communities. I want to start helping people in whatever way that I can. That’s one of the priorities. Another is to create music that continues to inspire and gives some support, motivation, and some soundtrack to the movement. I want to collaborate with some artists that I’m inspired by, just to do new things. One definitely being Jay Electronica. We were just on tour together. Kanye inspires me. Those are the two main ones, but Kendrick and Nas do too. There are some people outside of the genre that I like. I’m also into producing projects, so that’s what I’m looking forward to in 2015. New ventures. New ideas. Teaming up with my think tank that I work with, we come up with different ideas. It consists of photographers, graphic designers, and more, and we all create new things. Hopefully we can create new ideas and become better, as well as…what’s the word? Prosperous.
Selma is in theaters Christmas Day.
PHOTO CREDIT: Joe Chea/GlobalGrind