Common previews new song in surprise appearance at Aspen Institute |

Common previews new song in surprise appearance at Aspen Institute

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times

The rapper Common made a surprise appearance at an Aspen Institute event Saturday afternoon, previewing the new song “Black America Again.”

His a capella performance in the Greenwald Pavilion followed a talk on social and corporate responsibility by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Schultz Family Foundation co-founder Scheri Schultz.

“Black America Again” dissects the current state of race relations in the U.S. and serves as a call to action for all Americans in the name of equality.

In an impassioned three-minute performance Saturday, the song touched on the Black Lives Matter movement (“I know that black lives matter/Do they matter to us?”), the disparity in pay for black and white athletes (“Maria Sharapova making more than Serena”), the limited Hollywood roles open to black actors (“You put a brother in ‘Star Wars,’ maybe you need two/Maybe then we’d believe you”) along with the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. It also praised leaders like filmmaker Ava DuVerany, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Sen. Cory Booker while honoring those killed by police like Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland.

Common said he has been inspired by Coates’ book “Between the World and Me” and by the musical “Hamilton” to speak directly about the country’s fraught moment in race relations. He also said he wanted to tackle the lack of progress from the Rodney King police beating in Los Angeles in 1991 to the death of Bland in police custody in Texas last year.

“This story keeps happening in America, and I came up with this thought about ‘Black America Again,’ how the story repeats itself through many decades and centuries,” the Oscar and Grammy winner told the crowd. “It’s our time to rewrite this story.”

He challenged the Aspen Institute audience to take action to do so.

“I hold myself accountable as a black man, I hold you accountable — whatever nationality, whatever economic status,” he said. “We are all American. We are all held accountable for each other.”

“Black America Again” will appear on Common’s as-yet untitled 11th album. Through the course of his career, he said, he’s been unexpectedly drawn into politics and activism.

“I grew up feeling like politics was not really related to me,” he explained. “The first time I stepped up and decided I needed to do something was to vote against Bush. … Since then, I’ve used this voice on a grassroots level, a political level and a corporate level.”

Howard Schultz, introducing Common to the crowd, said he befriended the hip-hop star in recent years as his foundation has attempted to respond to the rash of incidents of police violence against young black men.

“We have spent a lot of time talking about our role and responsibility, what we can do together and how we can complement each other,” Schultz said.

Last month, he said, Common played “Black America Again” privately for the Schultz family, leaving them choked up and inspired. Common then performed the song for 4,000 Starbucks employees at a company meeting in Seattle and agreed to join Schultz in Aspen (the rapper flew in overnight Saturday, on institute Chairman Jim Crown’s plane, from a movie shoot in London).

“As great an artist as he is,” Schultz said of Common, “he is a much better person.”

Common said his mission now is to be a voice for the voiceless, to inspire change and to better society through music.

“At a certain point in my career I decided that I wanted to use my music and my art to help improve the world,” he said. “It’s a process and a constant growth process of learning and offering who you are and what you are and offering your perspective. But that perspective deserves to be heard.”