After winning an Emmy Award this past September, songwriter and performer Common is just a notch away from EGOT status. He won that Emmy earlier this year for “Letter to the Free” from Ava DuVernay‘s documentary “13th.” He prevailed at the Oscars alongside John Legend for their original song “Glory” from DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014). He has three Grammys (Best R&B Song for “Love of My Life (an Ode to Hip Hop)” with Erykah Badu in 2003; Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for “Southside” with Kanye West is 2008; and Best Song Written for Visual Media for “Glory” with Legend in 2016.
And now the song “Stand Up for Something” from the film “Marshall” co-written with Diane Warren might bring him back to the Academy Awards in a few weeks. Gold Derby’s Zach Laws recently hosted a webchat with Common, which you can watch above. Read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Common, you have got a new song for the movie “Marshall” called “Stand Up for Something.” It’s written with Diane Warren and performed by you and Andra Day. Can you talk a little bit about first how you got involved with this project?
Common: Well, I was on my way to Sundance, the film festival, this year, and I ran into Diane Warren. We were waiting to get on the plane and then we ended up sitting, I sat directly behind her. So we were talking about different things and she said, “Hey, I have this song that I started for the movie ‘Marshall’ and I think you would be great on it. I was already talking about you rapping on it,” and she started singing me this song. She was like, “Oh man, I’m telling you, this song is one of those songs like ‘Change Is Gonna Come.’ It’s for the movement. You would love it.” And I was like, “Okay.” I was open to hearing it. I love Diane Warren and I know how incredible she is so I was like, “Yeah,” but when she sang it I couldn’t tell all the way what it was. So she sent me the demo of it and I can remember I was getting my haircut and I was listening to the song, I was like, “Wow, this is a powerful song. Very powerful.” And I just called her and told her I wanted to write on it and she was like “Yes, great.” From there I wrote my part and she told me Andra was coming in to sing it and Andra did a vocal of it and I told Diane, “No, we just gotta take it to this highest level. We all gotta be at the highest level with this song,” ‘cause I thought Diane had written such a beautiful song. So that’s how I became part of it. Thurgood Marshall was always somebody who I knew about in history, I learned about in black history and learned about as one of our heroes, who was a person of color, because he was the first Supreme Court Justice that was black. I always knew his story so I just wrote it for him and the film and just for humanity.
GD: It is a really powerful song. I wonder if you could talk a bit about, as a songwriter yourself, what about it, the lyrics, the music, what about it really spoke to you and made it powerful for you?
Common: I think it’s something about melody and notes that writers choose that really… what Diane chose as far as the melody was really resonating with me. It was coming from a heartfelt place, a spirit place. When I see a great film or hear some incredible music or see an incredible photo, a piece of art, it touches me in a place. It’s not really a place you can put a mathematic number to or try to define it in so many ways. It was just a feeling, but I think what I believe it to be was the melody she chose and the spirit that she was writing it from, her inspirations. She told me she sat and listened to “Change Is Gonna Come” and “People Get Ready” back to back. I think she got into that spirit of also just seeing what was going on in our world, and when you write from a truthful place, the notes she chose and the melody was just so heart that it struck me, but then I really listened to the words. It’s really powerful and not easy to write simple lyrics that resonate and don’t sound preachy and don’t sound like what we’ve heard before, and for her to say, “Do the best that you can do and you can look in the mirror proud of who’s looking back at you,” that’s really simple but it really hit my heart because like I said she chose the right notes and with that simplicity of lyrics it felt like it was a letter to the world that we could do better and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.
GD: So talk a bit about writing your contribution to it. What was the process like, how many different drafts did you go through?
Common: My process, Zach, is I sit with the music and kind of get into that space where I feel like I’m very clear and open. I feel like it’s a divine place to be in when I write. That’s what I strive to be in and I just really was listening to the music and getting inspired and listening to what she had written and I just kept sitting with the beat, with the instrumental, and I was trying out different flows, different rhythms to it and I had had different ideas and then I think this is what I start with, what you hear on the record and for the movie, is probably my third idea. I’ll mumble some things, but one thing I did do, too, was I started reading the Bible, not started, but I read the Bible. I wanted this to be like if I had a speech that I was saying to the world, that this would be part of it. I wanted it to have the spiritual tones and the reverence that I have for people and or Thurgood Marshall so by the time I got to that third way, I actually started saying “Rise up, love lift your hands, I stand with you ‘cause I understand.” I just started thinking about what would I say to humanity and people that are going through different situations, that are going through the struggle of all different backgrounds, what women are going through, have gone through, what Muslim brothers and sisters go through, what Latino brothers and sisters go through, what Jewish brothers and sisters go through, black and brown people, what we go through. I just felt like I wanted to reach into that humanity and write it where it touches the inside of any human being and no matter what they declare themselves to be, they would let the love resonate over all that.
GD: You mentioned the performance of it, the recording process of it. I wonder if you can talk a bit more about that and working with Andra Day. How do you know you’ve got it?
Common: I felt like when I heard the demo of this song, this song was it. I was like, this is an it song. Certain songs strike me at a level where I feel like, “This is something special. This is greater than us. This is bigger than Diane Warren. It’s bigger than Andra Day. It’s bigger than Common. It’s bigger than us.” And I just felt that when I heard the song itself, right? But my recording process is… so I do all my rituals before I go in the booth and everything and then I like recording with my engineer, Mike, who I love. iIve been recording at this studio that I really love so I had the music, I went in the booth, I laid it a few times. It felt pretty good, but I know when it could be better and I knew it could be better and I wanted to make sure the enunciation was there. I wanted to make sure that the cadence was in a rhythm where it had a great pocket and it still had that… I like sitting back in the music sometimes and it had that but you still can stay bouncing to the music. The take that we have is the last take that I did. It’s the last take. I probably recorded about six other takes. It’s a short verse, so I recorded six other takes and I was like, “I can do better.” And you know you have it when you listen and it’s a feeling that’s created because you want people to hear the song and it creates an emotion for them. And everybody can’t define emotion, so I could never probably tell you technically why I like something but I know why it feels right to me and it touches a place inside of me. So I knew I had that take, but then going to record with Andra, like I said, she had recorded before and Diane called me and sent me the song and was like, “Yo, check it out, Andra, she killed it.” And I was like, “Man, she did a good job. But it could be better.” I didn’t have that feeling that I knew that we could capture with this song, what that song gave me when I first heard it, I needed it to be greater than that, the feeling.
So we went back in the studio, and this studio recording session was at Diane’s place and it was really good because we had a real talk, me and Andra and Diane and some of our friends was there, some of the people we worked with and it was just like a real bonding. And that bonding session kind of translated to us going in the studio, communicating in the most pure and honest way and making sure we got the best out of it and Andra, you can hear when she was recording she was in that spirit of it. We all felt it and there was times where I didn’t even have to look at Diane and we were like, “Yes,” or we all were making noise like, “Ooh, ahh!” When you got it, sometimes you’re like “hoo.” So that’s what we felt when Andra recorded and I think she knew that she had elevated the song. When you have a songwriter that writes the song, it takes time for you to get that song and make it yours and make it like you created it in a way, like y’all connected, you and the songwriter just connected and it just becomes your song and I think Andra was able to capture that at that point.
GD: In recent years you’ve provided music for movies like “Marshall” and “13th” and “Selma” with Ava DuVernay. These are movies that have a really strong message of social justice and relevance. Obviously this is about Thurgood Marshall, “Selma” was about Martin Luther King Jr., “13th” was about our screwed up criminal justice system. What draws you to these films and makes you want to provide your music for them?
Common: Well, purpose. I believe these films have purpose. These films are not only there to give us creative entertainment but also they spark something inside of us. It’s also there to not preach, not tell you what to do, but to hopefully have you reflect on what we can do or who you are and what we wanna accomplish and what can we do to make the world better. “Selma” had that element to it. It did it for my life just as a human being. ”13th” informed me in so many ways and also I’ve been inspired to help correct it, our criminal justice system and this prison epidemic that’s going on. And Thurgood Marshall has been a leader in humanity and teaching human beings about justice and living towards it and willing to sacrifice, as well as Dr. King’s willing to sacrifice. So I’m inspired by these people, the individuals. I’m also inspired by the people who are being overlooked. Where injustices are I wanna write and I wanna be active in changing the situations. I feel a responsibility to speak and be a voice for those who are not heard sometimes and I’m in connection with a lot of people. I connect with the people so I feel like it’s my duty to be a voice for that so I love when somebody’s making a film that has that type of resonance and substance to it. So it all goes back to purpose, Zach. It’s the purpose in it. I want my life to be purposeful. I always, as a kid, I was like, “Man, my heroes is Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Dr. King, Dr. Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.” These are heroes of mine, people that I look up to. My mother, all these people have did something not just for themselves but were willing to do for others and use their gifts to enlighten and inspire others and that’s what I strive for with this and to be able to connect songs to those films, it just gives it a bigger platform to be heard and to move people. It gives people a visual to take and the music to take with it.
GD: Last time that we talked it was right before you won an Emmy for “13th” to go along with the Oscar you’ve got for “Selma” and your three Grammys. What has that recognition meant for you and I’ll ask you again, when are you going to Broadway to get that Tony?
Common: (Laughs.) Look, first of all, the recognition is incredible. I feel grateful to be recognized. I’m an artist and I love creating and I put my heart and soul in everything that I do and for people in the art world or in the film world, the musicians, the television world, to recognize it and say this is important, it makes me not only feel good but I feel grateful and thankful. And I thank God for that. And it makes me also feel like I got more work to do. When I get this opportunity, when I hold a statue it’s automatically a sign for me that I have to do more. I owe it to everybody that I’m up there representing and people that don’t even know me to go do more. Put it this way, I’m very, very happy to have received the Emmy, an Oscar and the Grammy Awards, and it just makes me wanna do more. And it’s nice, my mother is looking like, “Whoa, son. I never knew you would get to this.” It’s like, “Whoa.” And the whole family is celebrating and wanting to touch the Oscar. It’s an incredible feeling. So to answer your question about Broadway, I’ve been passionate about Broadway and theater really since I was a kid, theater, and since I first got to see plays at Broadway I always wanted to be on Broadway. I didn’t wanna be on Broadway trying to just go up there with a name. I wanna be the actor and do the work and be at that level. So to answer your question, I really am looking forward to doing some theater, whether it’s obviously me as an actor, also as a writer I would love to write or combine on something that would be great for Broadway, and man I’m just passionate about it. I love going to plays and obviously I’ve loved everything from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”… I really loved “Hamilton”… to everything. But I loved a lot of plays. There was one that Philip Seymour Hoffman was in, “Death of a Salesman.” It was incredible. So I’m looking forward to that. Ever since I’ve studied acting, my coaches, we’ve worked through different plays, Sam Shepard plays and it’s just been inspiring, so I’m looking forward to that. Thank you, God willing I’ll be on Broadway doing theater and writing, too.
GD: Well I want some tickets to that.
Common: You got it. You got it, bro. You spoke it and said, “Yo, you should do it,” so, you’ll definitely get tickets.
GD: Well thank you. Common, thank you so much. Congratulations on the movie. Pleasure talking with you again.
Common: Thank you, Zach. Blessings, happy holidays.