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The Chicago-bred, Brooklyn-based rapper Common (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn) has never been one to follow doctrines -- or to shy away from voicing his opinions, even when those opinions differ radically from the general American party line. Consider his thoughts on the case of Assata Shakur, an African-American woman who has lived in exile in Cuba since 1986. (Shakur fled the States after escaping a New Jersey prison, where she was serving a life sentence plus thirty years for her alleged involvement in the shooting of a New Jersey State trooper in 1973.) Because mainstream media and politicians typically portray America as the benevolent, freedom-loving father and Cuba as the unfit, evil patriarch (the battle of Elián Gonzales, anyone?), the notion of a 'political' prisoner fleeing America to live in exile in Cuba may seem inconceivable, if not absurd, to many Americans. Common, however, sees Shakur as a freedom fighter, a champion and a muse -- and he's extended this view to his music and his life.
Common first felt Shakur's influence after reading her autobiography, Assata, which outlines her struggles as an activist and her affiliation with the Black Panther Party. She also writes of the brutality and torture she experienced while in the custody of various correctional facilities. "What drew me to her was the strength that she showed throughout her life and the freedom of mind that she showed when she was able to achieve a knowledge of self," Common says. "She had that goal. That drew me to her right there."
As an ode to this inspiration, Common wrote "A Song for Assata," which appears on Like Water for Chocolate,his critically praised album released this past spring. The song emanates a gospel-hymn-like quality, with Cee-Lo from Goodie Mob providing a soul-stirring sung chorus. In the cut, Common re-creates the night when Shakur and two other Black Panthers, Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur, were stopped by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. A shootout followed, leaving a trooper and Zayd dead and Assata and Sundiata wounded. "Shot twice with her hands up/Police questioned but shot before she answered," Common raps on the cut. "One Panther lost his life, the other ran for his/Scandalous the police were as they kicked her and beat her/Comprehension she was beyond, trying to hold on to life."
Rap fans might know Shakur by her American name, Joanne Chesimard, which Public Enemy referenced on "Rebel Without a Pause" from its incendiary It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Her struggle for freedom has been championed by other rappers and various human-rights organizations. Yet despite substantial evidence that Shakur did not commit murder, New Jersey governor Christine Whitman heightened the effort to extradite her back to the States by upping the financial reward to the Cuban government.
Prior to completing his album, Common had a chance to meet Shakur during the fifth annual Cuban Rap Festival, where the rapper performed in August 1999. He played "Song for Assata" for her and was later able to get a few quotes. Those words were subsequently added to the recorded version of the song, giving it a poignant close. "Freedom! You asking me about freedom. I'll be honest with you. I know a lot more about what freedom isn't than about what it is, 'cause I've never been free," Shakur is heard saying. "I can only share with you my vision of the future, about what freedom is. The way I see it, freedom is the right to grow, is the right to blossom. Freedom is the right to be yourself, to be who you are, to be who you wanna be, to do what you wanna do."
"It was one of the best experiences in my life," Common says of the meeting. "It taught me a lot about balance, about how you could be a good person, but that don't mean you're perfect. You can still have fun and try to elevate yourself."
For Common, Cuba was a place where he could connect with others similarly affected by the African experience and view his struggle and that of black peoples from a global perspective. The visit, he says, "was a spiritual journey. I thought it was a beautiful place. It was rich in spirit. It was fun and very musical."
When Common recorded the rest of the material for Like Water for Chocolate, his fourth album, that journey inevitably helped shape his desire to create a record that would balance his spiritual, consciously elevating side with the desire to just kick it and have fun. "I wanted to make an album that was entertaining, educating and uplifting. My vision was positive. I wanted to make something that just felt good and that people could feel like, 'Yo, this is the way I used to feel when I heard hip-hop back in the days.' I just wanted to make something that was fresh to the people," he says.
In pursuit of these aims, Common enlisted a number of high-profile players and producers, including DJ Premier, Jay Dee from Slum Village, D'Angelo, James Poyser and ?uestlove from the Roots. ?uestlove served as executive producer and oversaw the project -- as he did on D'Angelo's excellent Voodoo, also released this year. On both recordings, ?uestlove draws a musical bridge between the spiritual and the carnal. "Jay Dee and ?uestlove helped that vision because they brought the music, and the music of it is like the foundation of it, to be honest," Common says of his Chocolatecollaborators. "?uestlove dealt with not only the production end of it, but also the sequencing of the album and the skits."