The Oscar-nominated singer and actor talks award snubs and social justice
When the Oscar nominations were announced last month, Selma made news with what were perceived as a series of snubs by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; the film about Martin Luther King, Jr., had been considered a contender in several categories for which it was not nominated. The film, all told, received only two nominations: Best Picture and Best Original Song.
It’s in the latter category where Selma‘s Oscar story may be likeliest to find a happy ending. The rapper Common and the singer John Legend’s collaboration has already won a Golden Globe Award and high praise for the manner in which it draws explicit parallels between the events in Selma, Ala., in 1965, as King led voting-rights marches, and in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
Common, who also played civil-rights activist James Bevel in Selma, is slated to perform the song with Legend at the Oscars on Feb. 22, making it only the second hip-hop song to be performed at the awards ceremony. It’ll be a career high specifically for Common, an artist who’s been engaging with social issues since his career began. Common spoke to TIME about his experiences with Selma and the ups and downs of the film’s reception.
TIME: What has the reception to Selma, and to “Glory,” been like for you?
The reception has been overwhelmingly inspiring and great. It’s inspiring because you realize so many people want a better world, and want to connect with other human beings. So many people, no matter what color they are, are moved towards love and equality. I get that, because when I’m greeted by people in the streets, a whole variety of age groups and nationalities all say, “I was moved by Selma. It made me want to be a better person.” It has nothing to do with the color of the cast, the color of the director. I’ve never been a part of a film project that’s had this kind of impact. It goes beyond people saying this is a great piece of art. When you have people getting together to buy tickets for student groups and black—and white!—churches getting on the phone trying to see it, it goes beyond just the movie.
Many people were severely disappointed by Selma’s only receiving two nominations at the Oscars—Best Picture and Best Original Song. As the co-writer of the Best Original Song nominee, what’s your take?
Of course I was disappointed, not seeing people who I work with and love and are really talented and gifted, I wanted to see them all receive Oscar nominations and then go all the way. It’s something I would love to see—people I care about who are extremely talented.
I also understand, just like the premise of the movie, voting—it’s a voting process. If someone is not nominated, it’s because of the vote. I think the response that we’ve seen on the internet as far as people enjoying the movie makes me happy. I know that obviously awards are something we all want as artists, but that’s like going to the next level. First, just create something that’s impactful. Create something that moves the meter, that people pay attention to. Ava went from doing a film where she had a $200,000 budget and it got recognized at Sundance, to making a film nominated for Best Picture.
I tend to look at the positive more than I do at things that didn’t happen. If that is happening, there’s an opportunity for her in the future, and anyone who participated in our film could win in the future.
How do you make a song that’s explicitly political and connected to current events without it being overpoweringly depressing, or not listenable?
Oprah Winfrey said something to me on the set of Selma that really resonated with me. She talked about intention, and how intention is one of the most important things you do. Our intention with “Glory” is to uplift, to inspire, to bring people together. To motivate. We have things to overcome, we have walls to knock down. The only way to knock these walls down is together. It can’t just be one group of people: Christians over here, other denominations not participating, or Latinos over here by themselves. It’ll take all of us. I don’t care what religion you are. This is about love and humanity and we’re going to knock this down. You can hear a reference to Ferguson and it’d still come from a place of love and uplift. The intention is not to bring a negative spotlight. It’s to bring hope.
Recently, it seems hip-hop artists have grown more socially conscious than they were maybe 10 years ago. As someone who’s long been engaged with social issues, do you take credit for that?
When I was introduced to hip-hop, a lot of the music was socially conscious. Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five with “The Message,” Run-DMC’s “Proud to Be Black,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back—there were always songs that were socially conscious and socially relevant that spoke up for issues going on out there. There were strong topics, in the beginning of [hip-hop], as well as having fun and other topics. As you add many living organisms and life goes on, you don’t talk about social issues as much. Hip-hop didn’t have it at the forefront for years. Now, you do have artists—Kanye, Kendrick, J. Cole, Dead Prez—who are still saying things. Some of the socially conscious things may not be on the radio. But a lot of artists say something. It’s important we know hip-hop is very diverse. It’s not just—if a person does a socially conscious song they can still do a party song or a song about love. It’s a reflection of the person.
How’d the collaboration with John Legend work?
John and I had worked together on music before. It started with me believing he’d be the right person to collaborate on a song for Selma, that we could do something that could be truthful and heartfelt. I gave him three titles and he loved the title “Glory.”
He happened to be touring in London and not coming back to the States until the end of November. When he was in the studio and laid down the piano and chorus, he energized me. I said, “This is incredible,” and started writing on what I knew Selma to be and what I see in the world today. It was a back-and-forth of how to keep building on the song. I had my ideas and he had his ideas. On one specific text, I said, “This must be what it’s like to be in a group!” It wasn’t a long process. He had similar ideas to mine and we did eventually combine them. It was a true collaboration. I can remember saying “I want it to sound like this,” and he wanted that, too. The person who arranged the strings did an amazing job, and John called that person in — but I was the person who said we needed strings. It was a true collaboration.
The Academy Awards haven’t often honored rap songs. What does it mean that your song broke through?
There have been songs that have penetrated Hollywood and transcended any genre. People said “This is a great song.” That’s what happens with art and music. I do believe with certain pieces of art, it transcends the genre or the class you put it in, the box we put it in. I always use a reference to Slumdog Millionaire. Not many people would have expected that a film with subtitles would have touched people across America. The creation of certain things transcends hip-hop or subtitles, or something taking place in Brazil, or being shot on 35-millimeter film. Some things have a spirit to them that transcends the specifics.
Given your career-long engagement with the news, does it bother you when celebrities try to be apolitical?
It doesn’t bother me because everybody has to do what they feel is purposeful for their life. You have to do what you feel in your heart, what you feel like is your purpose and you’re called to do. If you truly believe in that calling, you are that and live that, then speak up for it. If you don’t believe in something, don’t do it just because it’s popular. If so many people are speaking out and it’s not solid ground under what they’re saying, it could be taken as not serious — a bunch of people just saying things. There’s something about sincerity in what people say. I could say something that’s halfway true and it won’t resonate with you. But if it’s true, you can feel it. There’s something about the truth—if you’re going to speak up about social issues, it should be something you care about. You may want to go beyond singing, be like Harry Belafonte and give to those same movements. I’ve grown into that. I initially was speaking up and giving to a degree, but being part of Selma, I always feel I can do more. Part of that is being present, being active, giving to the community, saying I have to show up and put in work to make the world better.
How has your involvement with the movie changed your plans for your career going forward?
I surely know that it has enhanced me as a human being to want to be more on the ground—do more, pay attention more, not just walk by the news. I don’t always take in the news. Sometimes it’s depressing, or I don’t need to start my day with negative things going on. I pay more attention. I stop sometimes and say, “I’ve got to be aware.” It’s happening to people. This is happening in someone’s life. Selma has been a spark for me. How can I offer my services? I think it’s great to do a song and films that matter. Art can change the world and improve humanity. But being part of Selma makes me say to myself: along with the art you do, let me see you be more active, present, and on the ground more.