To Pen a Butterfly: Honoring Common and his music this Black History Month
To be young, gifted and black; oh what a lovely, precious dream.
Nina Simone’s tribute to the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry in the opening stanza of her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” has been echoed in the music of acclaimed artists such as Aretha Franklin and Rapsody, but the sentiment itself has had an even broader scope. Black excellence in America is perhaps no more evident than it is in the world of music, shown in the laundry list of names across various genres that dominated their era and molded the sounds that followed it.
However, arguably no single artist embodies the mentality of black pride and joy more than Chicago rapper Common, and his album Be perfectly encapsulates this reputation. Setting aside the actual music, the album cover is striking enough: Common’s warm smile, glowing atop the golden background as he revels in his own happiness with his eyes closed and mind open. Here, his essence serves as the perfect precursor for the sunshine that beams through the speakers soon after you press play on the opening song and title track “Be (Intro),” until Common enters the scene a few moments later to bless your ears with poetic wisdom and encouragement.
The first time I truly appreciated the album came on a picturesque San Diego afternoon, in the office of my college counselor during my junior year of high school. To start our first meeting of many, Mr. Thompson began by asking a few questions about my background and interests before deciding to enlighten me with Be, soundtracking our conversation about my future with lyrics that preached of hope for black America as a whole. Outside the room was the rigid PWI where few faces looked like mine, but within the walls of Mr. Thompson’s office, the only African American in my class could talk with one of the few on faculty about the road ahead, and what needed to be done to get there.
In more ways than one, I left the room with new inspiration — not only with a renewed vigor to earn acceptance into my dream school USC, but to emulate Common’s philosophy and keep his words in mind as a role model.
Songs such as “Faithful” would be on repeat during many drives to and from my high school, while “Chi-City” often served as motivation for whatever daunting task was in front of me. Subsequently, I found myself becoming more invested in black issues across the board, taking on a leadership role in my school’s Black Student Union and joining the San Diego Links Achievers Program, aimed to help prepare black seniors for life after high school.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I was ever ashamed to be African American, but while growing up in the suburbs and often being the darkest face in the classroom, there wasn’t much around me that allowed me to feel connected to my ethnic community.
Common was among the first of many artists to stimulate my interest in the black experience, as I drew heavily from his music as well as his autobiography, One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Still to this day I’m unable to separate the Chicago MC from that pivotal listen-through in Mr. Thompson’s office, only widening the smile that appears on my face every time Be pops up next on my Spotify queue.
So this Black History Month, I’m thrilled to celebrate black excellence once again, through artists who are pushing the culture forward and sharing their keys to success in the process. Following a year where I witnessed Solange embody the feeling of empowerment while performing “F.U.B.U” at FYF Fest and heard Jay-Z enlighten me once again on his 13th album 4:44, I’m as proud as ever to walk down Trousdale Parkway every day and strive to make the same impact that my heroes have already made on me.
And, speaking of black excellence…
Why I’m Smiling: The Tracklist for the Black Panther Soundtrack
I’m pretty sure TDE has somehow made an appearance in every edition of “To Pen a Butterfly” so far. Their artists are littered all over the tracklist for the upcoming Black Panther movie, the soundtrack to which drops this Friday, Feb. 9. Typically, movie soundtracks can be a hit or a miss without the accompanying visuals, but with Kendrick Lamar serving as executive producer and three impressive singles released so far, Black Panther: The Album is shaping up as one that won’t disappoint.
Why I’m Shaking My Head: Recording Academy President Neil Portnow Says Women Need to “Step Up”
How quickly the tide turns. It already feels like ages ago that intrigue for the 2018 GRAMMYs was as high as ever thanks to the relatively diverse slate of nominees, as the show’s aftermath has been much of the same, tired frustrations directed at the Recording Academy. After Alessia Cara was the only woman to win a major award (17 of 86 possible awards went to women), President Neil Portnow only stoked the flames with his claim that women need to “step up” if they want better representation and recognition. If the backlash that came in an open letter from several female executives is any indication, the numerous women already sharing their art with the world aren’t the problem: Rather, it’s typical GRAMMY close-mindedness.
Why I’m Hopeful for the Future: The Never Had Sh!t tour featuring J.I.D, EARTHGANG and Chaz French
The city of Atlanta has another young star on the rise. J.I.D’s The Never Story was among hip-hop’s brightest debut albums in 2017, with his swarming, off-kilter flow creating an instant earworm. This Saturday his cross country tour with EARTHGANG and Chaz French will be stopping at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood, and the energy is sure to be through the roof the entire night. J.I.D and EARTHGANG both impressed when opening up for Joey Bada$$ at the Echoplex this past summer, and now, with their increased notoriety, the Spillage Village artists certainly have another outstanding performance up their sleeve. If you consider yourself a hip-hop fan, it’s set to be a concert you won’t want to miss.
Kenan Draughorne is a junior majoring in journalism. He is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “To Pen a Butterfly,” runs Mondays.