Friday afternoon, on a stage that was set up on the northeast corner of Philadelphia’s City Hall, the rapper and actor Common recited poetry, performed a handful of songs, and underscored the importance of voting in the upcoming presidential election to a socially distanced crowd of nearly 300.
“Today we’re getting to perform for people who’ve been working [to] register to vote and the volunteers,” Common said in an interview before the performance. “We get to give them some joy and some support and let them know how much we value them and care about them.”
The event was designed to encourage people to vote, and vote early. It was organized by several local organizations and volunteers, including Vote to Live, the Collective Pac, the Urban League of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania NAACP. City Hall is one of 17 early-voting locations in the city.
After Philly, Common is scheduled to visit Jacksonville, Fla., Miami, and Atlanta with the same mission.
Common said the performance on Friday was his first in a while. “It feels good to go on stage. ... I’m actually doing music from my new project that I have called A Beautiful Revolution Part 1.
Holding a stick of palo santo wood in one hand and a Bic lighter in the other, Common talked about the first time he voted for a president, which was the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“I previously used to think, ‘Man, politics has nothing to do with me,’” he said as he lit the palo santo, a practice used for spiritual purification. “But I vote because I care about the lives of the people here in our communities. I vote because that’s one of the ways that I can have an effect. … This is the most important place I can be.”
“Common has always been a positive, spiritual dude,” said Mike Cogbill, PA NAACP’s political action committee chair, who was at the event. “But I’m here to remind people that this is the most important election of our lifetime. Civic engagement is a pathway to liberation.”
Michael Blount, who was in the audience, said his parents were pastors and forbade listening to any type of music that wasn’t gospel. Common’s “Go” was the first hip-hop song he discovered, and “it blew my mind.” Blount said that he has a real appreciation for Common’s music because it challenged him to think deeply about his community.
Carla Claud of Southwest Philadelphia said her ballot is already in the mail. She showed up for Common’s performance because she, like Blount, respects the philanthropic work that Common does.
“He’s not just a musician, he’s really involved,” Claud said. “I know that he’s always going to have a great message with anything he does.”
Common, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn, is a native of Chicago and one of the most respected names in hip-hop. In his three decades in the music and film industry, he has earned three Grammy awards, an Emmy Award, and an Academy Award for his song “Glory” from the 2014 film Selma, in which he portrayed the Civil Rights movement leader James Bevel.
He is also known for his poetry. In 2011, former First Lady Michelle Obama invited him to the White House to give a reading.
As Common spoke to the crowd on Friday about the work of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, and other leaders, Moriah Akrong of Princeton, said she experienced a profound sense of pride, for two reasons.
“On top of it being super dope to stand there and watch Common perform,” Akrong said, “I felt proud to be unapologetically Black in that moment and I was proud of him for using his platform in this way. It was nice to be reminded of the greater cause.”