“Every human being should be concerned about every other human being,” jazz legend Herbie Hancock told the audience on Tuesday night (Dec. 13) at a private screening of the documentary 13th, which he hosted for rapper Common. The Ava DuVernay film, released on Netflix, centers around the mass incarceration of African-Americans as a form of modern-day slavery, and is named after the 13th Amendment, which made slavery illegal except as “punishment of crime.”
Common, who provided the song “Glory” with John Legend to DuVernay’s Selma, approached the director to have a song included in the documentary. “I was really inspired and the situation was heavy on my heart,” he explained before adding, “I was very passionate about being a part of this.”
The Chicago MC also discussed the first time he shared his verse off “Letter to the Free” with DuVernay, saying, “I caught Ava one night. It was President Obama’s birthday party and we were at the White House.” He also noted, “I approached Ava with the first verse I wrote, and I was rapping it in her ear.”
Common eventually teamed up with Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper to create “Letter to the Free,” a powerful track off his latest album Black America Again that delves into slavery and mass incarceration. “We dealt with the whole subject matter from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration which is what we’re dealing with right now,” he explained. “We wanted to make something that was strong, unapologetic, but that was also hopeful.”
When asked about the song’s timeliness, especially as America transitions into a new presidency under Donald Trump, Common told Billboard, “When I say, “We ain’t seen as human beings with feelings/ Will the U.S. ever be us, Lord willing,” that hasn’t changed with the election of Donald Trump. Those things are there. Now it’s just probably going to be in our face even more, and we know we have to resolve it and be the vessel for the change.”
Today (Dec. 14), Billboard premieres the video for Common’s “Letter to the Free.” The black-and-white piece, directed and shot by cinematographer Bradford Young (known for his work with Selma, Arrival and A Most Violent Year), opens with the camera panning through a jail, before Common enters the frame and depicts various scenes of people singing and playing instruments. Andra Day and Common’s collaborator Bilal also make cameos while a black box symbolically appearing throughout the video.
Watch it below.