Rapper Common, Rev. Moss on helping Chicago heal and the ‘plot’ against Black America

Homicides in Chicago were up 56% in 2020 compared to the year before. But efforts are underway to address the city's systemic issues. Award-winning rapper Common and his pastor, Rev. Otis Moss III, discussed some of their ideas for change recently with Stephanie Sy for our "Race Matters" series. This segment is produced by the peace studio in partnership with the "Exploring Hate" WNET initiative.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of all the cities with surging murder rates last year, Chicago was among the worst. Homicides were up 56 percent from the year before.

    But there are efforts under way to address systemic issues that feed the violence there.

    Award-winning rapper Common and his pastor, the Reverend Otis Moss III of Chicago's historic Trinity United Church of Christ, discussed some of their ideas for change recently with Stephanie Sy as part of a larger program produced by The Peace Studio, a nonprofit that supports artists and activists in partnership, with the WNET initiative Exploring Hate.

    The conversation is part of our race matters series.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There again has been another summer of gun violence and homicides in Chicago.

    Bring me there. What is happening?

    Reverend Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ: Any time you talk about violence or economics, it always starts spiritually, because economics and actions of violence are spiritually connected.

    And Chicago, especially where we live, has not had the investment in these communities. You're looking at spaces in the city that, when African Americans migrated from Mississippi and Arkansas, all of a sudden, you had these incredibly gifted people and the powers that be saw them as a threat and pulled back the investment for social control.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There was literally discriminatory policies put in cities like Chicago to keep people of color down.

  • Reverend Otis Moss III:

    Absolutely.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And you see the legacy of that today.

  • Reverend Otis Moss III:

    Absolutely.

    Matter of fact, even the police department was utilized by the city of Chicago specifically for social control. People were policed one way in one community and policed another way. So, one community got public health and public safety, and another community got repression.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Yes.

  • Reverend Otis Moss III:

    And that was our community.

    And so we want to — we believe in imagination.

    Your new song talks about, imagine. Imagine.

  • Common, Musician:

    Imagine, yes, yes.

  • Reverend Otis Moss III:

    Your new song, "Imagine."

    We believe in imagining something radically new, because that's the most radical thing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Talk about that song and how it relates to what Reverend Moss is saying.

  • Common:

    I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, not — we were — I was not poor. I was not rich. My mother's an educator. My stepfather's a plumber.

    We were — but we were a middle-class home. But, in my neighborhood, there were — there was gang culture. I could have been on the wrong path. But what was it that allowed me to see myself as valuable and work towards that and dream and think about things?

    Well, one is for surely God and spirituality. Another is my mother making sure that that was reinforced in her love and showing me that, hey, these are opportunities that you can seek out and have.

    And I bring that up because it was at a young age that I was imagining doing something and becoming something. And I think — I don't have the one solution to the violence. And many times we get asked, like, what is it? And I do believe it is — on a deeper level, it is a lack of the spiritual connection, where you do — because, any time, even in the most difficult situations, if I see the God in another human being, I'm not going to look to destroy them.

    And I think that's one of the keys to us healing our city.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Your music has always put into context the violence that's current in Chicago. And I just want to — I won't be able to rap this. Maybe you can.

    (CROSSTALK)

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But from — I hope I don't put these lyrics, these beautiful lyrics to shame, and these searing lyrics from "Black America."

    Now we slave to the blocks. On 'em, we spray shots, leaving our own to lay in a box. Black mothers' stomachs stay in a knot. We kill each other. It's part of the plot.

  • Common:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Part of the plot. What did you mean?

  • Common:

    Well, what I meant from that is that America, when it comes to Black life, has never allowed Black life to have its presence where it's like, oh, a human being that can have great education, health, even in pursuit for themselves.

    Like, if you think of the foundation of America, I mean, slaves were — we were enslaved. People — our people were enslaved and dehumanized. And that has been the mentality that has been passed on generation through generation.

    We still got Jim Crow laws, and we still got mass incarceration. And now the plot has been to say, man, we are in fear of the equality and rise of Black people. So we're going to figure out ways to make sure that they don't come up.

    We going to push you down. And we will do it indirectly. We will do it subconsciously. We will do it directly by shooting you in the streets. And until people who are leading the country say, man, this — that plot is no longer acceptable, that mentality won't be — I won't be healed, as we say. The right word is healed, because it's wounds on Black people and in the country.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I'm trying to put myself in the shoes of a Black kid living in a pocket of violence in Chicago that seems inexorable.

    And I'm feeling that I would feel anger. And I wonder, how do you speak to that?

  • Reverend Otis Moss III:

    I think the first thing is that you have to tell them the truth, that we fail in America so often to speak the truth about what people experience.

    So, as a young African American male or a young African American female, you have people who sugarcoat or lie to you about what you experience and see every single day. We need truth-tellers, the art of what Common is doing. He is a truth-teller. And Scripture says, the truth will set you free.

    The other piece is that we no longer can frame Black lives solely as tragic. There are tragic moments, tragic experience, but we have such depth of spirit to always rise above the tragic. That's why we write the blues, but the blues is not about necessarily hanging my head. It means that I'm experiencing something existential, but, at the same time, I see something powerful in the future.

    That's what happens with the Black experience.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And I hear two things from what you're saying all in all, if I could sum up. It's — you're focused on the practical and the spiritual.

  • Common:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Reverend Otis Moss III:

    It's both/and. Jobs stops bullets. Education will prevent prison. And love creates community.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Reverend Otis Moss and Common, thank you so much.

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