Common Brings His “Letter to the Free” Film to Tribeca Film Festival 2017

Common at The Tribeca Film Festival 2017

Common Brings His “Letter to the Free” Film to Tribeca Film Festival 2017

By Matthew Allen

Bilal and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah are standing in the middle of an indoor prison yard. Bilal is singing his hook to Common’s “Letter to the Free” while aTunde Adjuah is accompanying him, improvising with his custom made trumpet/siren hybrid. Bilal’s vocals are soulful, yet weary; determined but drained. Christian’s tone is visceral, biting and exuberant all at once. In Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Branford Young’s monochromatic long form depiction of the closing song to Common’s 2016 album Black America Again, you can feel the despair and earnestness in the room generating from these two musical titans. Screened at the Tribeca Film Festival this past weekend, the piece, which takes place throughout an empty prison outside of Queens, NY, sees Karriem Riggins (co-producer of “Letter to the Free”) playing his drums in an open cell, Andra Day and singer/flautist harmonizing the refrain with painful soul; vibraphonist Stefon Harris hitting his vibes while banging his mallets against the cell bars; Robert Glasper (co-producer of “Letter of the Free”) is plaintively playing the theme on his Fender Rhodes; Common passionately rhymes each verse backed by a percussionist – shades of heroes and collaborators, the Last Poets.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23 Singer Bilal performing live with Common at the Tribeca Film Festival 2017: Storytellers talk with Nelson George at Spring Studios on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Allen for soulhead.com)

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 23 Singer Bilal performing live with Common at the Tribeca Film Festival 2017: Storytellers talk with Nelson George at Spring Studios on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Allen for soulhead.com)

It’s a powerful visual component to a song that indicts and diagnoses government’s role in the social/racial injustices of the 21st century in America via mass incarceration, and how it stems all the wall back to slavery. However, the scene with Bilal and Christian summed the poignant theme. On the wall are the painted the words “No Excessive Noise.” It points out the narrative of Black American Music: creating beauty, fire and freedom in the mind and atmosphere despite the physical, inescapable restraints of bondage. The title Black America Again itself suggests that African-America history must be rewritten and Common is doing more than just writing songs to hit the reset button for the culture.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23 Musician Robert Glasper performing live with Common at the Tribeca Film Festival 2017: Storytellers talk with Nelson George at Spring Studios on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Allen for soulhead.com)

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 23 Musician Robert Glasper performing live with Common at the Tribeca Film Festival 2017: Storytellers talk with Nelson George at Spring Studios on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Allen for soulhead.com)

Common has always been one of Hip-Hop’s most vivid and imaginative lyricists. From the sage, sensuous love letter of “The Light” to the bleak, frigid observations of “The Corner,” the Grammy and Oscar winning MC/Actor has painted three dimension pictures of righteous indignation for millions since his 1992 debut, Can I Borrow a Dollar. His long form video of “Letter to the Free” further upped the ante for Common’s growing dedication to educating his audience on the dangers and affects of mass incarceration. “Letter to the Free” was also included in Ava Duverney’s Oscar-nominated documentary 13th.

In a live conversation with writer Nelson George that followed the video (see a few video bits below), Common further explained how director Ava Duvernay helped inspire his new endeavors: “My relationship with Ava is really inspiring,” he stated. “And talking with her, I see somebody who is dedicated to putting Black culture and Black faces out in the world in the purest way; in a truthful way; in a way we don’t get to see all the time.”

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23: Nelson George and Common attend Tribeca Talks: Common with Nelson George during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studios on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 23: Nelson George and Common attend Tribeca Talks: Common with Nelson George during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studios on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Common told George that Duvernay’s film inspired him to got more deeply involved with affecting policy change in regards to mass incarceration in American. He had been visiting prisons, observing the environment and speaking with the inmates. He was astonished by how much potential for positivity was contained within the prison systems, wasting away without much hope or attempts at rehabilitation. “There’s so much humanity, and talent and gifts that’s locked up right now,” he explained. “So many people who have so much to offer to the world and they’re locked up. We as a society don’t pay much attention to it.” Common acknowledged that despite making socially conscious music for more than two decades, it’s only recently that he’s begun to take serious steps towards activism and political change. “It started when I was working on Selma,” he said. “During rehearsals, Ambassador Andrew Young said to me, ‘What are you willing to die for? Live for that.’”

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23 Common performing live at the Tribeca Film Festival 2017: Storytellers talk with Nelson George at Spring Studios on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Allen for soulhead.com)Common capped off the video and discussion with a mini-concert, performing a nine-song set behind a live band, including Black America Again collaborators Riggins and Glasper, with whom the MC stated had formed a new trio with called August Greene. The crowd reveled in Common’s fan favorites “For the People,” and “Come Close.” Cuts from Black America Again like “Letter to the Free” and an a cappella of the title track sounded militant and inspiring. However things exploded during the performance once the band climaxed into classics “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Glasper, DJ Dummy and company switched things up, incorporating Kanye West’s “Fade” and Slum Village’s “Fantastic” into “Go,” and “The Light.” But no matter how politically engaged he may be, or how much his acting chops continue to evolve, Common proved after all these years, he can still move the crowd.

Part 1: Common and Nelson George Talk Chat Video

Part 2: Common and Nelson George Talk Chat Video with Audience Question from soulhead’s own Matthew Allen.


Matthew AllenMatthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.

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