Having not released an album since 2008’s Universal Mind Control, lately Common has generally received more attention for his film roles than his rap career—though he perhaps received the most attention for the 2011 hullabaloo surrounding his invitation to appear at a poetry slam at the White House, which (hilariously) prompted conservative pundits to cite out-of-context lyrics about death threats and cop-killers from an artist who’s generally known for his focus on positivity and strength. This next couple of months will see the rapper-actor pursuing both sides of his hyphenate with an upcoming album, The Dreamer, The Believer (due out December 20), and a starring role in the new AMC drama Hell On Wheels, in which he plays Elam Ferguson, a mixed-race former slave who works “in the cut,” digging out land where the track for the first transcontinental railroad will be laid. Common talked with The A.V. Club about the role, how tough it was to hear the other characters use the “N-word,” his reaction to the White House controversy, and why Ryan Gosling has been so inspirational to him.
The A.V. Club: Had you been looking for a series to do, or is this a case where you really just liked the material enough to want to participate?
Common: Yeah, the material was so good that I felt like, “I have to go after this. I want to be a part of this.” I wasn’t looking for a TV series, because I was always told from other actors that if you lock yourself into a TV series, you won’t be able to do certain other things. But of course AMC is just the prime station to be working with. Not only do they do quality projects, but then the episodes usually shoot 10-13 episodes. So that means it would allow me time to go out and do films, and put music out, and other aspects of my career.
AVC: What about the role appealed to you?
C: Well I think what appealed to me most was that this person had depth, as a human being. You could see, just knowing that he was a slave, [he’d] been through a lot. But then I saw a strength in him, I saw intelligence, I saw some heart and values. As they told me when I was auditioning, it was his story. He had a father who was a master and his mother was a slave, and his father was treating him very, you know, on and off he would treat him well. So that’s very confusing in itself. It just is a lot of depth to the character, and I saw that it could go to many places; it could go far. So I was like, “Man, this is great.” I just felt I had never come across a character like this for myself.
AVC: What research did you do for this role?
C: I had studied in elementary school about slavery, but it’s nothing like doing the research when you’re studying for the character and learning. The experiences that slaves had were very different, and the relationship between black and white wasn’t all just, “I hate this person because he black,” and, “I hate this person because he white.” Of course, some of that did exist. But it’s a lot of complexities to human beings and the way they relate it. Doing that research helped me to learn more and really take on this person, not just be like, “Okay, I’m a slave and I’ve been through this and I’m mad at the world.” You know, it’s a human being, and that’s something that, when you look at the way black people were viewed at that time, some of them weren’t even viewed as human beings. So to feel that experience and to know that when you’re bringing something to a character, it’s a lot of weight, and a lot of responsibility, and man, you have something to work with also.
AVC: How do you manage that weight and responsibility when you’re doing the role?
C: Well, for me, one of the most important things is to be truthful. Meaning it’s true to the person, it’s truthful to what black people were at that time. Like I said, everybody was not the same. But I hold that weight by just letting the spirit of what I know to exist during that time, let that come alive, man. It’s important for me to just be as authentic to the character as possible. And I think that by that point, I’m doing right in being responsible to the people that lived during that time. Because that’s what I feel. I feel a responsibility to the people that lived during that time.
AVC: What about that period surprised you the most when you looked into it?
C: I actually gotta say that the relationships between blacks and whites wasn’t just, like I said, the whole hatred thing. I started realizing it was like slaves that raised white children, and some of those white children loved those women who took care of them, those nannies who took care of them. It also surprised me when I really realized how bad some of the slaves were treated. It was just like, man, that really surprised me. And one of the most surprising things that I could say overall is the fact that some of the things that we were dealing with then, we still deal with now.
AVC: Like what?
C: Like greed from higher powers for the sake of business. Creating commerce, you destroy land or a people. That sacrifice happens. It’s definitely still racial conflict that goes on, but I think it was a lot more overt back in that time. But now I think it’s kind of hidden more, but it still exists. It’s still there in some ways. And I think one of the ways to heal those things is to put it out on the table. “Hey, this is how I truly feel, and I have to work through that.” I think by hiding it, or not acknowledging it, it just continues to become a cycle. Yeah, you’re right, they would just say it back then. Which is actually probably more healthy, in a way.
AVC: When you’re reacting as an actor, is there a personal anger in there as well, when you’re hearing that dialogue, which includes the N-word, even though you know it’s scripted dialogue and it’s of the time?
C: It’s still a twinge in my back when I hear the word and it’s being said to me like that. Yes. It is. It is still tension that exists with that word. Even if the actor says to me before, “Man, I hate that I have to say this,” it just still doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t rub me the right way. It’s actually good for what’s going on in the scene, but it’s the truth.
AVC: Where does that reaction come from?
C: I believe it comes from me just knowing the history of it, the word, and the history of the way that word was said throughout time and used toward black people. It still has a certain resonance that’s not positive when it’s said in that way. I’ve had some experiences when I was young of someone calling me that word and it just didn’t feel good. That definitely is something that still has the resonance of a negative connotation and feeling. But ironically, and I’ve gotta bring this up, in hip-hop and—not just hip-hop, but amongst the black community, that word, the N-word, “Nigga” is used in a different way. But when it’s being said in the scene with someone saying this with that intention, it just reminds you of where it comes from.
AVC: Do you use that word like that? Or are you one of those guys who says, “Hey, we should just stay away from the word altogether?”
C: Naw, I have used the word in more of a different way. That’s why I really love what the show does. It makes you examine that stuff. As we’re talking, I’m thinking like, “Okay, I use that word, so...” I mean, it feels bad when somebody’s saying it to me, when a white person’s saying that, even in the scene, but I still use the word and it doesn’t feel as bad when I say it. I can’t actually explain exactly why that happens. I think it’s the intention and the history that existed in it. But yes, I have used the word without any negative intention.
AVC: And you still think you’ll use it when you know what the intention is?
C: Yeah, I mean, I do believe that I probably will use it still. No, not probably. I will use it at times. I’ve had elders say, “Man, you all shouldn’t be using that word.” You know, because they—like you ask what experiences I’ve been through, they’ve been through the experiences of it more. They don’t see the word as like, “Oh, well, we can change it and make it into something that’s more positive, and this is how we relate to each other, and it’s not like a negative intention to it.” They don’t see that. Because they have a different experience with that word than we do.
AVC: Did you learn anything new when you had to shoot out there in the rough conditions in Calgary?
C: Well, one of the things was riding a horse. That’s something I definitely learned, to ride a horse. Not just a little trot, but really get some velocity with it, and galloping, and getting it going. So that was something, to be able to ride a horse. I had to just really learn how to work the horse. I’m still growing. I would be tooting my own horn if I was saying I’m good at it now. But I definitely feel that I’m learning. But also, just dealing with the elements of walking through and dealing with the mud, and the grit, and the grimy feeling of being out there. It wasn’t a learned thing, but it was just adjusting to the conditions and just feeling like, “Hey, this bug is on me… So what? I gotta keep going.” You’re dealing with real-life elements, whether it’s the weather, or there’s animals or bugs, whatever it is, all of you just keep working with it and going with it. Also, I think I learned to relate to horses more, to relate to animals more, just from me working with the horses. Because I initially got there and I was not too—I did a horse trail when I was young, but I had never really been through that experience of working with animals and horses that way.
AVC: You got a lot of attention this year when you were invited to the White House and there were stories condemning the invitation because of some of your poetry and song lyrics. How did you react to those stories?
C: Initially, I was amused. More than anything, I felt like, “Man, these people really don’t know who I am.” Because they are all portraying me in this way, and anybody that knows Common knows that my music is not about killing, it’s not about negative things. It’s life. It’s not perfection, but still, there’s humanity to it. There’s love in the music, there’s creativity, there’s a good spirit to it. So I was looking and just kind of laughing. I realized that they were just doing their best to try to take away from the president and the first lady, but it just didn’t work because they barked up the wrong tree. It was too obvious to most people that knew of me that that wasn’t me. Then the people that didn’t know of me, they might have believed that at one point, and may still believe it, but they’ll see the difference. It just wasn’t a strong enough card they played. It just wasn’t there.
AVC: Why do you think it wasn’t a strong enough card?
C: I think because, truthfully, I have, throughout my career, shown that I’m a different type of person than what they try to portray me. There were enough people who knew that of me. And it was Fox; I mean, they were able to show reports where people on Fox News were saying I was socially conscious. So when your own station is reporting me to be a good energy and a positive person in hip-hop, then it kind of makes it look not too successful, what you’re trying to do. But I attribute it to just lack of knowledge of me.
AVC: So it doesn’t frustrate you that 30-plus years into hip-hop, people still lump rappers in one big pile?
C: Man, it’s exactly what I’m talking about when I say those issues still exist, but we don’t discuss it. Because ultimately, some of that was coming from not only saying, “Hey, we want to make the president and first lady look bad,” but part of it was just the judgment that comes upon hip-hop artists, the judgment that comes upon people that come from the inner city. Just saying, “Hey, these guys are all the same.” And we all are victims of that at some point or another. Lumping a certain type of person into a group of people. Like, “Well, this race is like this,” or, “You’re from this area so you’re like this,” or, “You do this type of art and music so you’re like this.” We all are victims of that at some point or another. But that’s what I’m talking about with Hell On Wheels. I like that it puts it out on the table. I like when people put it out on the table and then discuss it.
AVC: One of the controversial songs was in support of Assata Shakur, who’s living in Cuba after fleeing the United States under suspicion of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. Many police organizations objected to the White House invite on those grounds. Did you understand why they might have such a strong view of that song?
C: Oh yeah. I definitely had to have respect for what they said and expressed, because I mean, if you feel that somebody has killed a police officer, you would feel that way about it. So naturally, I can respect what they’re saying. But my perspective and belief was that she didn’t do that. She didn’t kill the state trooper. That was my belief from just my experience of reading her book, and my own gut feeling and instinct was that she didn’t. That’s why I wrote about it, because I believe her to be innocent. I believe that she’s a great person. So I just decided to write about it and expose and bring awareness to it. It’s just a difference in perspective for me, as far as when I think about that. Of course, they rightfully can have feelings and a perspective on it if they feel that she had killed a state trooper. At that point, there’s no right or wrong, because neither side was truly there to know. I can only express my perspective and my voice, and that is what this country is about.
AVC: What are some of the themes that you’re going to be exploring on your new album?
C: Well, a lot of this album is dealing with having a dream and achieving it. That’s why I call it The Dream Of The Believer. A lot of the themes on this album are like, if you have something that you want to do in life, you gotta go get it. You have to go do it. And you gotta have a dream, and then with that dream really just believing in it. Some of the themes deal with love, and some of them deal with loss of love, and some just deal with like the raw elements of being a human being, and being an artist and MCing in that way.
AVC: How have your poetry and lyrics evolved over the years?
C: I think it’s grown, it’s evolved. Because I’ve learned so much in life. We learn so much. So with all the things that I learn, I like putting it out there in music. Also, I grow from just digesting other artistic expression, whether it may be a book that I read, or it may be a film that I see, or it may be a painting. It may be something that inspires from that perspective. I grew up hearing mostly, like, soul music and hip-hop music. But eventually, getting introduced to Radiohead, or Pink Floyd, or Joni Mitchell, you know, these are people that can enhance me as an artist too.
AVC: What’s the latest thing that you think has influenced you as an artist?
C: I would say the latest thing that influenced me has been the acting of Ryan Gosling. He is such a good actor that I feel like, ah man, he’s great. And that just makes me inspired.
AVC: Which movie?
C: I mean, just recently, I watched Drive. I have to see The Ides Of March, but even in Crazy Stupid Love, for me it’s like, doing a romantic comedy, you gotta find a real place to be honest in it. Because sometimes in a romantic comedy, a lot of things are traditional. So you know, to find a place where it’s really truthful and it has some soul to it is great. And I think he was even able to do that in Crazy Stupid Love. And actually, I was inspired too by Dr. Maya Angelou; [she] has a poem on my album and I got really inspired by that. She has been someone who’s supported me; like even with my book [One Day It’ll All Make Sense], she supported that. We celebrated her for my foundation, the Common Ground Foundation. So she’s been somebody I really consider a great mentor and somebody that I really love. And it was obviously still a task to get her, but I was able to get her and I feel blessed to have her on the album.