By Joseph Fedorko
Southern leaves, southern trees we hung from
Barren souls, heroic songs unsung
Forgive them father they know this knot is undone
Tied with the rope that my grandmother died
Pride of the pilgrims affect lives of millions
Since slave days separating, fathers from children
Institution ain't just a building
But a method, of having black and brown bodies fill them
We ain't seen as human beings with feelings
Will the U.S. Ever be us? Lord willing!
A few people at the Auditorium may have been wondering if Common wouldn’t do some rhyming. Speaking at the final event of the 2018 American Dream Reconsidered conference, Common spent a lot of time talking about his background as the son of an accomplished educator, the risk he took ending his college career to try to create a hip-hop career (he promised he’d return to school if in a year he didn’t have a recording contract), and how that career helped him create other careers as an actor, winning an Oscar for the song “Glory” (from the movie Selma), and creating the Common Ground Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that brings a variety of mentorship programs to underserved Chicago kids. It was a warm story of giving back and paying his good fortune forward.
And then he busted out the rhyme you see above. The song is “Land of the Free,” and he wrote it for 13th, the Ava Duvernay-directed documentary about mass incarceration of African-American men that Netflix produced. The rap opened up the conversation and brought Common into his element of art and music and social justice, merging his love of 1970s R&B with the socially conscious rap of the late 1980s, as well as issues raised by Duvernay and Ta Nehesi Coates. Whether talking about his fear of leaping into a music career or his awe at being the first rapper who actually rapped at the White House, Common talked with a sense of humor and a true modesty about his career.
The talk ended with two other guests: new Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, and After School Matters CEO Mary Ellen Canon. Together, the trio (moderated by Tom Phylion of RU) talked with idealistic hope about the power of education, the need to bring the best services to students who needed them most, and how artists like Common can inspire kids to keep striving and, well, achieve their dreams. The students in the Auditorium Theatre were enthusiastic about it all, which was as good a way to end the American Dream conference as any song could.