Common — who has won an Oscar, three Grammys, and a Golden Globe award — has teamed up with California Democrats and several activist groups to reform the state’s criminal justice system. Earlier this week, lawmakers returning from summer recess gushed over the hip hop star during his brief visit to Sacramento. The hoopla included a day of lobbying, a free concert outside the State Capitol, and another inside a state prison.
“I believe it is my responsibility to use my platform to amplify the courageous voices of the movement and support the most marginalized members of our society,” said Common, whose stardom has become a strategic organizing weapon for those seeking to transform California’s correctional policies.
The Chicago native lured more than 22,000 people to the Capitol Mall to watch him headline the “Imagine Justice” concert on Monday night, which also included a pep talk from CNN commentator Van Jones. The show, intended to raise awareness about mass incarceration, was co-sponsored by several organizations that have received funding from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, including Californians for Safety and Justice, Equality California, and the Youth Justice Coalition. For at least five years, Soros has been a major financial force behind changing the state’s laws on crime and imprisonment.
On Tuesday, Common met with several lawmakers in the Capitol. He made the rounds with Mica Doctoroff, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – an organization that received a $50 million grant from Soros’ foundation “to eliminate mass incarceration.” They spent much of the day pitching Senate Bill 10, which would do away with cash bail for most defendants in California.
Some senators followed Common to the nearby penitentiary in Folsom on Tuesday night, where the rapper put on a show in the prison yard before a large crowd of inmates. It was part of his Hope and Redemption Tour, a series of concerts and collaborations that take place inside California correctional facilities. Common’s prison performances are co-organized by former Hollywood producer Scott Budnick, best known for The Hangover movies.
Budnick became an activist four years ago when he founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition to prevent troubled kids from spending their lives behind bars. His non-profit currently co-sponsors several bills moving through the California Legislature designed to keep juveniles out of prison and jail.
Governor Jerry Brown —known for implementing gimmicks and shell games to reduce the state’s incarcerated population — sent his top aide to meet with Common earlier this year. Meanwhile, Common has agreed to be the mouthpiece for the Assembly Democrats’ new progressive caucus. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the group’s recent formation “speaks to the ideological fissures that exist within the Democratic supermajority in the Capitol.”
“You’re a storyteller; you’re one of the best,” Assemblyman Ash Kalra told Common during a May visit to the State Capitol. “That’s what you can do to help us. As we’re trying to do the work in this building, you can tell the story outside of this building.”
“We need each other,” Common told the caucus members. “I need to know the things that we can directly change.”
Law enforcement has criticized Common for his tune called “A Song for Assata,” which pays tribute to a former member of the Black Liberation Army who has become an icon to modern-day revolutionaries and prison abolitionists. Assata Shakur, who escaped from a correctional facility while serving a life sentence for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper, is honored at every official Black Lives Matter event.
Last November, Common released his 11th studio album, called “Black America Again.” As the Chicago Tribune reported, it “explores social and political issues, from police brutality to racism and mass incarceration,” and:
This is an album that revolves around the notion of freedom, and what it means in a society that still hasn’t closed many of the chasms between races and genders. Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” provides a touchstone for many of the songs, which detail how racial oppression really hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries, only the methods. Common’s songs mirror Alexander’s central assertion: Whereas once slavery and the plantation shackled people of color, now it’s the criminal justice system and federal prisons.
One of the songs in the album, called “Letter to the Free,” is featured in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary,13th, which examines the history of mass incarceration in the United States.
“I believe it is my duty to lend my voice to the voiceless and stand with the men and women in prison who have been silenced for so long,” Common said. “We need a justice system that is a tool for rehabilitation rather than a weapon for punishment.”
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.