Common Talks 'Glory,' His 'Selma' Duet With John Legend: 'It's for Dr. King'

Dustin Aksland
Common photographed by Dustin Aksland on July 18, 2014 at the Skylark in New York.

The rapper also addresses the song's Oscar chances: 'The bigger the platform, the more people the message can reach.'

The trailer for the civil rights drama Selma was scored with a hip-hop song by Public Enemy, as a sort of promise to audiences that this wouldn't be a musty treatment of a mid-'60s story. When the film premieres on Christmas Day, of course, the music won't so overtly contradict the period -- until the end credits, anyway, when "Glory," a song by Common and John Legend, will bring things up to date, both lyrically and musically.

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The result is a track that has a shot at joining Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and Three 6 Mafia's "Hard Out Here for a Pimp" in the very short pantheon of hip-hop winners in the Best Song category at the Oscars. Even if it doesn't win that kind of Academy love, "Glory" is still likely to help sell a younger audience on the relevance of a historical drama -- and sell the entire audience on the connection between Selma and Ferguson. Among the lyrics: "Resistance is us/ That's why Rosa sat on the bus/ That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up… They say 'Stay down,' and we stand up… King pointed to the mountaintop, and we ran up."

"This is not only for paying honor to those who lived in these times during the '60s, but also really relevant to today," Common tells Billboard. "You can look at what's going on in Ferguson, and it's not a far comparison to what happened to Jimmy Lee Jackson during the time of the civil rights movement that is shown in the film. So I really was thinking about encouraging people that we've come a long way, but we've still got some fighting to do, and we are capable. We've got to carry this torch and take it to the next level."

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Having taken a supporting part in the film (playing James Bevel, a key Southern Christian Leadership Conference figure), Common wanted to take the advanced schooling he'd gotten in civil rights struggles and "say something in a musical way too." But it was director Ava DuVernay who finally came to him to suggest he make a contribution. Then it was Common's idea to bring a celebrity collaborator aboard for the song's more melodious passages.

"One day I was sitting in my bedroom and I thought, 'Man, John Legend would be the perfect voice to combine with to tell this story.' He was in London when I reached out to him, and I told him everything about Selma in about a five-minute conversation, because he was preparing for a show. He said he wouldn't be back in L.A. for a minute but said he could go in the studio on a day off and come up with some ideas." After hanging up, Common thought of three different titles for their possible collaboration, one of them being simply "Glory," which he emailed to Legend. Before he knew it, the R&B star was sending him back a piano demo of the simple chorus for the song -- which still left Common to come up with the far wordier bulk of the number. He more than rose to the occasion, with rhymes like "Facing the league of justice, his power was the people/ Enemy is lethal but King became regal/ Saw the face of Jim Crow under the bald eagle/ The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful."

One hip-hop staple you won't hear on the track: percussion. Common wants it to be seen in a grander protest-tune tradition. "This is not a rap song," Common maintains. "It's a beautiful song like the way when you heard Bob Dylan or Stevie Wonder singing songs or John Lennon doing 'Imagine.' I wanted people to really hear what was being said. We don't have a drumbeat to it. It's just vocal, piano and an orchestra arrangement. We wanted it to have an intimacy, but for it to be majestic, because it's for Dr. King."

He points to his own family as examples of how he expects "Glory" to reach a broader demographic base. "It's been one of the most exciting moments for me in creating a song ever, just because of what it's for and who it's for," he says. "When I was writing this song, my daughter was in the studio, and she was enjoying it -- she's 17. And when I finished the song, I played it for my mother and she was like, 'That song made me want to cry.' She asked me to send it to her, and… my mother doesn't do that too much," he laughs.

Common doesn't downplay the possible importance of an Oscar nod, should it come. "I always believe that the bigger the platform, the more people the message can reach. I would love to be participating in the Oscars in any shape or form. Point blank, the world functions in a certain way, and some of the people that you want the message to reach need to see you on a big platform so they can be like, 'Oh, this is really being celebrated by all types of people, and we need to listen.' I would be very grateful if people get to hear this message on that large a scale."