There is a sequence in 13th, Ava DuVernay’s thorough examination of race in the U.S. criminal-justice system and the scourge of mass incarceration, that will hit close to home for Americans—particularly viewers who are black.It intercuts footage of black people being pushed, pulled, and beaten in the streets during the civil-rights movement with that of black protesters being treated in a similar fashion during Donald Trump rallies. “In the good ol’ days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough… and when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily,” Trump bellows in voiceover.
Later on, he describes himself to his army of hysterical acolytes as the “law and order” candidate, borrowing a notorious phrase from disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon—the godfather of mass incarceration.
The footage had a profound effect on the Grammy-winning rapper Common, who penned the track “Letter to the Free” for DuVernay’s film. It was his second collaboration with DuVernay, following his song “Glory” for the Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma, which was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Song.
“I really thought about how this situation is affecting us right now, that’s why I wrote Shot me with your ray-gun / And now you want to Trump me, and We staring in the face of hate again / The same they say will make America great again,” says Common. “When I heard Trump in his speech saying he was the ‘law and order candidate,’ it really resonated with me when it came to Nixon and the origins of mass incarceration.”
13th indeed traces the birth of mass incarceration in the U.S. back to Nixon’s War on Drugs, which targeted the enemies of the conservative right: hippies and black people.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic-policy chief John Ehrlichman later confessed to Harper’s. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
And so the era of mass incarceration began—one where, from 1980 to 2010, the U.S. prison incarceration rate exploded from 220 to 731 per 100,000 people, despite crime rates steadily declining since the ’90s. The problem has affected black Americans the most: They represent approximately 37.8 percent of the U.S. prison population—the most of any group. Non-Hispanic whites, by comparison, represent 32 percent of the prison population in America despite making up 62.6 percent of the country. 13th is named after the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery, and posits that mass incarceration is a form of modern-day slavery for African Americans.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” reads the Thirteenth Amendment.
Common had just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow when DuVernay informed him of the top-secret project. He expressed his desire to make a song for the film, and was met with a surprising response: “OK, maybe you can submit a song. Let’s see.”So he began writing “Letter to the Free” during the last week of July and into the first week in August, inspired by the divisive rhetoric of the Republican National Convention, as well as how the system has kept African Americans as second-class citizens—from slavery to Jim Crow to now mass incarceration.
“I was influenced by this whole political climate, the conditions of mass incarceration, and the injustices going on that even allow us to have a group called Mothers of the Movement,” offers Common. “They continue to drive me towards art that can be a part of the change.”
On the eve of the U.S. presidential election, I’m seated across from the dapper rapper in an office in Midtown Manhattan. The talk soon veers back to that powerful Trump/civil-rights movement montage, and how the Republican candidate has brought racism out of the shadows and into the light.
“I look at these things as finally surfacing and getting out in the open. Those negative forces weren’t courageous enough to come out before because they didn’t have any leader to latch on to,” he says. “You take the racists in our country right now and see that they are supporting Trump, who has not shown any of the qualities to be a great leader, and you think, wow, he is unfit to be president. He’s not even going to run the country better for them because he doesn’t have the intelligence to be president.”
He shakes his head. “The whole birther shit man, it’s like, you are saying this to the president! What is your motive? Whose life will you benefit by doing this? It’s just racism. President Obama is an exceptional human being, so there’s only one reason and one explanation for all the hatred.”
Common, whose eleventh studio album, Black America Again, was released to critical acclaim last week, went on to admonish Trump’s wacky band of surrogates for supporting a candidate they know to be unfit—especially former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’s spouted one ridiculous statement after another this election season, including that he’s “saved more black lives” than Beyoncé, which… huh?“You’re going to lose all integrity for someone you know is not fit to be president? You’re willing to lose your integrity, lie about things, and discredit other human beings for that reason? Giuliani says a lot of things about Black Lives Matter and it’s like, man, you don’t even care about these things, so why are you speaking on it?” says Common.
“Look, we know it will be a bad situation if Donald Trump becomes president, but we gotta keep working and finding out what to do, because the world isn’t going to end,” he adds. “People say he’ll push a button and end the world, but there are still great people in this country, so I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still have hope.”
One thing that’s reaffirmed Common’s faith in America is the reaction to 13th, which has received heaps of praise following its release on Netflix, and is a frontrunner for the Best Documentary Oscar.
“When the movie came out, I had friends calling me up to tell me they were spending their weekend watching a documentary on mass incarceration. And it really made me hopeful for the future of this country,” says Common.
He then begins to choke up. “At the New York Film Festival premiere, I was standing on the balcony with Ava and Van Jones, and when the curtain went up it all hit me and I started crying. I felt the pain that a lot of black people have been through in this country and thought, wow man, we are really loving people.”