More than 16,000 people are behind bars in New York state jails simply because they cannot afford bail. Hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z and Meek Mill have become trailblazers in stepping up to do their part, by spurring action and spreading awareness to help reform the criminal justice system.
“I want to bring a practical change in people’s lives. I want to walk down Atlantic Avenue and see someone’s life change because of Global Citizen and the work I’m doing,” Common tells Billboard over the phone of his decision to team with the activist organization. “I want to help the people who are oppressed because of their skin, beliefs, and economics. I’m always in a fight for that.”
The Chicago native’s relationship with Global Citizen dates back to 2015 when he performed at their Earth Day festival in Washington D.C. alongside Usher. After following-up to participate in GC’s “Bail Out” events, the company’s CEO was more than happy to welcome him aboard.
“Common has long been a passionate advocate fighting against injustice through art and philanthropy,” said Global Citizen co-founder Hugh Evans. “We are thrilled to be working together to reach our goal of ending extreme poverty by breaking down the criminalization of poverty that exists in overlooked and under-supported communities both in the U.S. and across the globe.”
Justice should never come with a price tag. Between his nonprofit Imagine Justice and working with Global Citizen, Common’s goal is to bring a transformative overhaul to the bail system in New York. The likelihood of individuals being convicted dramatically increases if they’re forced to fight cases from behind bars without access to proper resources. Governor Andrew Cuomo made a promise on the Global Citizen stage to put an end to cash bail, but has since reneged on his prior declarations. In March, the state of New York did make progress in bail reform by eliminating it for some misdemeanor charges and non-violent offenders.
The Chicago rapper implores NY citizens to educate themselves and keep the pressure on governor Cuomo to finish the job. “Once we educate everyone, we should know who is supportive in changing the bail system, and go out and make sure we support those political figures,” he explains. “We have to hold governor Cuomo accountable. I think New York has the chance to step up and be a leader here.”
Between reading books like The New Jim Crow and watching the mortifying, Jay-Z-executive produced Kalief Browder Story, Common is still learning more and more each day about the horrors of the criminal justice system across the United States. “The New Jim Crow crystallized a lot of things for me,” the 47-year-old admits. “The Kalief Browder Story was something that really struck my heart, and helped me realize how lopsided bail was. That’s the loss of a life. This is impacting families. If we keep these people down, there’s always going to be an amount of unrest. We owe it to each other.”
Common’s actions through his Imagine Justice nonprofit have already started to make an impact in California, where two bills were passed [SB-394 & SB-395] that ceased juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole. “We first started visiting prisons in the state of California,” he shares. “We went and talked with people who are incarcerated. We were trying to figure out ways to help assist them. The criminal justice system deserves to give people the chance to be rehabilitated and treated as a human being.”
With shows like The Chi on Showtime — where Common doubles as an actor and executive producer — he asserts that “art, storytelling, music, film, and television can shift the paradigm.” But he maintains, “You have to do it in the fresh way — meaning the stories have to be good and engage people to make them connect with these characters.”
At the end of the day, the Grammy winner feels that an artist’s duty extends far beyond the music: “It ends up discussing these subject matters and people may not be aware of it, but they start connecting to it because of the story. I think one of the most important things we can do as artists is connect to each other’s humanity.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” Dr. King. 16,000 people currently sit in jails across New York State because they cannot afford bail. Together, we can take action and make our voice heard: https://t.co/dhdgSh15U3! pic.twitter.com/jZvUNfCEU7
— COMMON (@common) March 18, 2019