This week, the rapper Common released an album titled Black America Again. It’s genius. Pure activist genius, right before Election Day. His music is complex and interesting, his lyrics exploring the nuances of systemic racism in the United States. He focuses on an array of issues, including mass incarceration, the injustices occurring in Flint, Michigan, and cultural stereotypes, which marginalize people of color and perpetuate systemic inequality. “The Day Women Took Over” highlights the accomplishments made by black women, from Michelle Obama to Rosa Parks to Maya Angelou. “Letter to the Free” focuses on the New Jim Crow laws, with mentions of Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, dehumanization, Amendment 13, police brutality and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In “The Day Women Took Over,” he even pays homage to Michelle Alexander: “Now Michelle Alexander wrote the new constitution.” His album reminded me quite a bit of Alexander’s work, so I was interested to explore the ways in which it reflects and amplifies her claims.
Alexander’s main focal point is the cyclical nature of racist structures in the United States: “Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time” (2012, p. 21). In just the first few lyrics, Common expresses this same sentiment: “Here we go/ here, here we go again/ Trayvon’ll never get to be an older man.” In a video in which he breaks down each set of lyrics in the song, Common explicitly describes racism as “a cycle.” He emphasizes the damaging nature of racism, from an individual level – Trayvon not being able to grow up and have a family – to structural levels, such as slavery and segregation.
Alexander also focuses on master narration as a mechanism for this continued inequality, which she describes through colorblind laws and documents. Common’s album, then, serves as a counter narrative. By specifically naming people of color who have lost their lives because of police brutality, such as Sandra Bland, to directly calling out the hatred embedded within Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, Common amplifies the voices of people of color who do not share the same status that he does as a rapper and entertainer. His album amplifies the voices of those like Michelle Alexander, who through their scholarly position, may reach those in academia but could miss a large portion of Americans. He highlights her work and positions, even specifically naming her, and makes her voice heard to a larger audience, who might happen to see his album on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, etc. He uses his privilege as a man and a famous performer to elevate the voices of those who do not possess such power. Common’s album is especially amazing for this reason, and he is truly playing a large role in “rewriting the black American story.”