Fighting for the future with new music from Common and Malcolm London

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When Common dropped Black America Again on Friday, Vulture published an interview with the Chicago rapper that said his 11th album was "perfectly timed for release on November 4." I've turned that phrase over in my head ever since. What makes a recording that's meant to become part of peoples' lives "perfect" for a single day? Why should an album that recalls centuries of injustice only hold our attention during an election cycle? A work of art that means to hold us accountable for the systemic racism that continues to cripple America's minority communities should fuel political action beyond November 8, right?

Black America Again is about the world we've inherited, a world that continues to exist after the election—and will likely take an uglier shape once Trump takes office. And Common's album is arguably more important now than it was before the ballots were cast. Despite the blur of exit polls, of U.S. maps carved up into red and blue, of think pieces mostly about white voters, Common impresses his blackness, his personality, and his humanity onto Black America Again. On the sumptuous, soulful "Little Chicago Boy" he raps about his father, Lonnie Lynn Sr., a onetime American Basketball Association player who died in 2014. It includes a recording of him talking about a trip back home to Chicago, and how the spirit of home flooded his thoughts as he drove down 87th Street:

"I want to talk about the moral necessities of human justice, the power and the action of God-given dignity. One cannot enter the gate if you hate. You gotta take the lead for the rest of the world—87th is the street of knowledge. And streets of knowledge are all over the world."

The affection the elder Lynn had for his south-side home is especially vital for us to feel because our president-elect has used that very part of town to stoke fear and hatred among his followers. By using his father's words, Common (like so many great Chicago rappers of late) shows Chicago's streets not as places clogged with death but as avenues of life and reflections of home. Tragedy sits in the guts of Black America Again, but songs such as "Little Chicago Boy" help remind the rest of the world what's at stake—and whose lives most need protection—as we move into an uncertain future.
On "Home" Common calls himself a "rapper-actor-activist," which reminds me of a younger Chicago rapper with an even longer hyphenated title: educator-poet-activist-rapper Malcolm London, who celebrates last month's Opia with a release show at 1st Ward on Friday night. London kicks off the title track by defining the word opia: "The ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel invasive and vulnerable." It reminds me a little of listening to London's music—and that's got everything to do with vulnerability.

London presents a version of himself that's in sync with every other facet of his public persona. That's not just because he can sandwich a Kanye reference between lines about battling the Chicago Police Department and embodying the Harlem Renaissance, as he does on "Get It Right." And it's not just because he paints a portrait of himself that's more multidimensional than the unforgiving binaries that society offers young black men—something he did with his 2015 single "I'mPossible (Basquiat)." London's performances on Opia feel conversational—his mellow vocals retain the personable tone present in his voice when he talks to people one-on-one or addresses a crowd. When London performed at Chance the Rapper's Parade to the Polls on Monday, he told the audience, "I got TED Talks, but I'm also on Soundcloud."
I've struggled with cognitive dissonance this week—watching thousands of young people of color expressing themselves and fighting for their future, and seeing a man who campaigned on hate, bigotry, and sexism win the election. And within 24 hours Trump's victory, I discovered what it could mean. Yesterday, while waiting for a Metra train in Downers Grove after an interview, I was approached by a white man with blond hair who was curious about the "Save the Reader" button on my backpack. He assumed it had something to do with books, and after asking whether I liked to study history, he asked, "Have you ever read Mein Kampf?"

I don't know how many times my stomach flipped in that moment. Since then I've thought about what made a stranger think this was a reasonable thing to ask. I've thought about my white skin, my blue eyes, and my hair, which has lightened in the sun since I was a kid. I've thought about my dad's dark brown curls, which in old photos form a large bulb just above his forehead—the most obvious sign that he's Jewish. My grandfather had the same hair—he emigrated from Poland to Israel (when it was part of the larger British Mandate of Palestine) roughly a decade before Hitler swept through Poland. I've thought about how many of my grandfather's siblings and cousins never made it out of Poland, and how many of them surely died in the Holocaust. I wonder how many of them had his hair.

It took a few minutes before I told the stranger in Downers Grove that I was Jewish—he'd gone on to ask me if I was "into Jesus." Not that my religion and ethnicity seemed to bother him much. He seemed like he might just be an eccentric looking to talk to someone. In that regard, I suppose I was lucky, though at the time it didn't feel that way—after months of seeing the anti-Semitic imagery and allusions to white nationalism that surrounded Trump's campaign, I was concerned for my safety.

Nothing else happened to me, in the end—the stranger finished his cigarette and we bid each other good-bye. I know it's my good fortune that I can be who I am and not suffer because of it, but I fear for those less fortunate. And I think about how to help those among us who can and will be harmed if Trump removes legal protections for women, people of color, and nonbinary individuals. In times of doubt I turn to the music of London, Common, and many other Chicagoans who've led by example. They remind me of what's at stake, and how to continue to believe in the future.

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