Common portrays the cruel legacy of slavery, Jim Crowe and mass incarceration in the stark new video for “Letter to the Free.” The song appears on the rapper’s latest album, Black America Again and is also featured in Ava DuVernay’s new documentary about the history of the amendment that outlawed slavery: 13TH.
“Letter to the Free” was directed by Bradford Young (the cinematographer on DuVernay’s Selma, and more recently Arrival). The video finds the camera moving at an aching pace throughout a prison where Common, singers Andra Day and Bilal, and other musicians perform the song in various rooms. A black box hovering in the air appears throughout the clip, while the final shot frames it as an empty space in a field.
“[DuVernay] is like one of those creative, passionate, intelligent beings and visionaries and is committed. So I’m like always saying, ok, what can we do?,” Common said in an interview via Reuters. The rapper earned a 2015 Academy Award for best song “Glory” from DuVernay’s 1960s civil rights drama “Selma.”
DuVernay’s 13TH is about inherent racism in the United States criminal justice system and how mass incarceration affects black Americans more than other groups. The documentary makes its argument by tracing the history of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery in 1865. 13TH is available to stream on Netflix.
Common released Black America Again in November, marking the Chicago rapper’s first album since 2014’s Nobody’s Smiling.