If you throw an expensive, boozy party exactly one week after our Presidential elections exposed a bitter, volatile ideological divide straight through the middle of the country, you better be prepared to justify it. Common didn’t organize last night’s iteration of the Whitney Museum’s annual Art Party, but he was a co-chair of the fundraising event, alongside his stylist Micaela Erlanger, model Karlie Kloss, designer Brandon Maxwell, and Vanity Fair’s Michael Carl. And he came ready to explain its value.
“It’s to bring people together from different walks of life to acknowledge how important art is to us in these times and throughout life,” he said, leaning against a bar in the museum’s lobby. “When you see beautiful art, it inspires you. It reminds you of the importance of the soul.”
For an artist like Common, that sentiment is more than just a well-rehearsed talking point; he’s long demonstrated faith in the spiritual power of art through his music. Earlier this month, the Chicago-bred rapper released his eleventh studio album, Black America Again, a 15-track rumination on the complex state of affairs for black people in this country that deals with police brutality, institutionalized racism, and America’s history of oppression. But throughout it all, optimism and hope remains.
Common believes possessing a determined confidence in a better future is especially important right now. “We should look at the positives in this situation,” he said, referencing the election results. “A lot of racism existed in this country that we didn’t know, because we had Obama as a leader. Him being our leader, we saw people more open to communicate, more people embracing each other, whether gay, transgender, black, Latino, white, Asian. We saw a unity of people. But, there was still that group of people who didn’t believe in that. And now that they’ve come to the surface, we can deal with them on a level that we know that we should. That’s with love, that’s with protest, that’s with strength.”
It’s easy to greet a call for love with cynicism, particularly in the face of a White House staff that will include at least one noted, flagrant racist. But, for what it’s worth, Common is far from the only artist preaching that message. “The fact that Chance is talking about God is a beautiful thing,” he said, explaining his belief that Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar are carrying the torch of politically active musicians from the past, like Nina Simone, Bob Marley, and John Coltrane. “They found what their voice is, and they care enough about other people to create art that is going to be in the footsteps of legendary artists.”
Beyond music, Common named writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and filmmaker Ava DuVernay as particularly inspiring to him for their work, which he said empowers people to reflect on how they can make a difference. “I think [lawyer and activist] Bryan Stevenson is a great leader,” he added. “There’s a lot of grassroots leaders doing things with the community.” He also shuts down any lingering doubts about the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, that Lil Wayne controversially questioned in a Nightline interview earlier this month, before half-recanting and semi-apologizing for his statements later. “I think the Black Lives Matter movement is something for all of us to come together and realize is about justice. It’s about equality,” Common said. “Right now, we have to pay attention to black life, because black life is the one that’s being devalued most. Some of those laws that we will work to change will be for everybody.”
If you’re sold on Common’s message of unity and love and art, and can appreciate how a night of celebration has a place among widespread protests, the question still remains: What next? After Questlove and Lion Babe have spun their last records at the Whitney, funds have been raised, and the open bar is closed, where do we go?
The answer, it seems, is still emerging—we’re only a week in. But Common wants everyone who is awake and ready to know one thing. “This is our opportunity to really create the world that we want to see,” he said. “This is our time right now to show that not only is the drive there, is the intelligence there, but now we can actualize through the obstacles. Yo, we can overcome any of this, and we actually are going to change the world.”