Inmates at the state prison in Lancaster got an unusual perk this spring: a private meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown’s top aide and a Grammy-award winning rapper.
It was one stop in a larger effort that has recently brought Common—a musician who blends hip-hop beats with an activist message—close to key California decision-makers. After an artistic career that propelled him from the south side of Chicago to poetry nights in the Obama White House, the 45-year-old rapper is now working to influence state policy. A resident of Los Angeles, Common is trying to change the criminal justice system in California.
In addition to the meeting with Brown aide Nancy McFadden at the Southern California prison in March, Common met with Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol in May to talk about bills that would change California’s bail system and juvenile justice procedures. He’ll be back in Sacramento on Monday, when legislators return from summer recess, holding a free concert outside the Capitol and lobbying politicians inside.
“I have a lot of respect for him because he goes a level deeper than some might think,” said McFadden, who described their meeting in the prison as a round-table with well-behaved inmates serving life sentences for serious violent crimes.
“He really is trying to understand the issue. He was just such a good listener, listening to people’s stories and then understanding and connecting dots. I was just really impressed with him.”
Though Common’s music has long carried political messages, his spokesman Michael Latt said policy advocacy is new. Common’s visits to state prisons this year—where he performed for inmates and held conversations to learn more about their experiences—are one piece of his effort to try to curb cycles of violence and incarceration, especially in the black community.
The advocacy grew out of Common’s work on the soundtrack to the 2014 film “Selma,” which tells the story of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and the march he led to secure African Americans the right to vote.
“It really pushed me to a new level in wanting to do more,” Common said last year in a televised interview with Trevor Noah of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, in which he described King as one of his heroes.
“I want to do that work.”
Common has long been known for songs that largely eschew the violence and misogyny of gangster rap in favor of messages with positive social messages. But his lyrics have not been controversy-free: Two years ago, a New Jersey college rescinded an invitation for Common to speak at graduation after the state troopers’ association complained about an early song in which he praised a member of the revolutionary Black Panthers group who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper. In 2011, President Barack Obama faced criticism for the same reason when he invited Common to perform at the White House.
In Sacramento, Common will be lobbying for two juvenile justice bills. Senate Bill 394 would give juvenile offenders a shot at parole after 25 years in prison, even if they were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Senate Bill 395 would require that juveniles consult with an attorney before waiving their Miranda rights and answering questions from authorities.
Assemblyman Jim Cooper, who spent 30 years in law enforcement before politics, said he’s not convinced the bill makes sense. Investigators want to interview suspects as soon as possible, he said, while the details of a crime are still fresh.
“To actually have an attorney there takes time,” said Cooper, a Democrat from Elk Grove.
He emphasized that he doesn’t yet have a formal position on the bill, and said he’s planning to meet with Common next week to hear him out.
Common joins a long list of celebrities that pop into the Capitol to pose for photos and try to sway decisions. Earlier this year, actress Lena Dunham advocated for Planned Parenthood and reality TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter testified against a bill to change the bail system. In 2013, Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry lobbied for a bill intended to protect children from paparazzi.
“Obviously he’s not the first celebrity that’s been to Sacramento lobbying on an issue,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who was among the group of progressive Democrats who met with Common in May. “They can play an important role highlighting an issue.”