ALL ARTS Specials


In Conversation with Common and Reverend Otis Moss III

PBS Newshour's Stephanie Sy talks with Common and Reverend Otis Moss III about healing through spirituality, art and music; and how this moment of racial reckoning may present an opportunity for new solutions to find peace within communities.

AIRED: October 05, 2021 | 0:32:21

It's really special to have the two of you

together in a conversation about peace and community,

because Reverend Moss,

you come from a long line of justice seekers

and have continued that with your ministry

at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago,

and Common -- Mr. Common --

I almost want to say your music

is infused with so much struggle,

but also so much hope and optimism.

So I think you're sort of the perfect combination

to talk about peace and community.

How did you guys meet?

That's a good question. We met at church.

Yeah, we met at church.

Well, see, I attended Trinity United Church of Christ

since I was eight years old, and so prior to obviously,

Reverend Moss was not Reverend Moss at that young age.

But you know, that's where I met him,

and I was, like, loving his sermons

and then I got to get to know him

and I was like, "This is my brother.

This is someone who I love and, like, really cherish,

being able to talk to and share friendship with."

And there seemed to be an immediate connection,

as if we knew each other,

you know, we'd known each other for a while.

Common, you said sometimes you get ideas for lyrics

by listening to Pastor Moss' sermons.

Yeah, Pastor Moss, I mean, I've told him several times,

he's definitely an emcee.

If you see how he holds the microphone

and what he does, he has, like, that charisma,

the spirit of what hip hop is to me, to be honest.

And what's very funny to me, when he does a concert,

you have elders from the church who show up and they're there.

"And I remember him when he was 10." It is hilarious.

I mean, it kills me every time that they're there.

You guys also have a lot of projects

in the South Side of Chicago

that overlap in terms of your mission.

Right? Because you're not just a preacher.

Trinity is far more involved in the community

than just in faith based services, right?

It's part of the DNA of the church

to be deeply committed to the community.

We have a project called Amani Village,

where we're investing, in terms of medical center, housing,

what we call a healing garden to ensure that returning citizens,

what people frame as, quote, "convict," ex-cons --

People that have been incarcerated

and through that system. Yeah.

Yeah, we don't like that language. is

You're returning home. You're a returning citizen.

You know, you're coming back to to where you live,

and we're utilizing those individuals

to be the developers for the project,

along with people who are from the zip code,

who are the contractors.

And then we're working with violence interrupters.

One of the best ways to stop violence

is not call 911 after it happens,

but to have investment on the front end

and then have individuals who can come in

as interrupters prior

to something jumps off in a community.

You know, I think it's important that, like, churches

are active in the community.

You know, it's inspiring that my church

and our church is, like, doing the work.

Yeah. And I want to continue to keep going back

to the spirituality element

of what you guys put out there in the world.

But let's first talk about the struggle in Chicago

and what is happening there.

There again has been another summer of gun violence

and homicides in Chicago,

and that's after years of media attention,

negative attention on Chicago.

Bring me there. What is happening?

What do you feel like, having lived it and lived there,

what are the drivers? Is there a spiritual crisis?

Is there an economic crisis?

Is it an incarceration crisis? Is it all of the above?

It's all the above.

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, I mean, in these communities.

I mean, you're looking at spaces in the city

that when African-Americans

have migrated from Mississippi and Arkansas,

all of a sudden, you have these incredibly gifted people

and the powers that be saw them as a threat

and pulled back the investment for social control.

There was literally discriminatory policies

put in cities like Chicago to keep people of color down.

And you see the legacy of that today.

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.

And that was our community.

And so, we believe in imagination.

Your new song -- talking about "Imagine",

your new song, "Imagine" --

We believe in imagining something radically new

and you have to have artists -- like, what Common's doing.

He's doing the most radical spiritual piece

because he's putting in young people's imagination.

He's raising the ceiling.

Talk about that song and how it relates

to what Reverend Moss is saying.

Well, it's important because one of the things

that Reverend Moss has hit on

is significant to me looking at my life and saying,

"Okay, what --"

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

I was not poor. I was not rich.

My mother's an educator. My stepfather's a plumber.

But we were in a middle class home.

But in my neighborhood, there was gang culture,

there was some beautiful things about it,

and there was some things that really could have --

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, like, 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.

I think, you know,

I don't have the one solution to the violence,

and many times, you know, we get asked, like, what is it?

And I do believe it is, on a deeper level,

it is the 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.

That being said, my imagination was growing

because I saw things. My mother exposed me to things.

And I think that's, you know, one of the keys to us,

like, healing our city, is to create, like, opportunities

where people on a consistent level in our communities,

the communities that Reverend Moss has talked about

are repressed, have programs, have foods,

have, like, some, like -- enjoying events, like, events

that are uplifting, that they can see, like,

"Oh, I'm worth something. I'm valued.

And there is something out in the world for me to do.

I am purposed to do something."

So imagination -- my imagination was very important.

♪ Imagine not being politically correct ♪

♪ But spiritually direct, still giving me respect ♪

♪ Imagine if you could change the world through song ♪

♪ No longer do we have to pay back school loans ♪

♪ Imagine in the hood, doing our own renovations ♪

♪ Another way to keep the dollar circulating ♪

♪ Mountaintops of patience is just to heal a nation ♪

♪ Since I was little, I had a big imagination ♪

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 wrap this. Maybe you can.

[ Laughs ]

I hope I don't put these lyrics, these beautiful lyrics to shame

and these searing lyrics from "Black America Again".

the song you do with Stevie Wonder.


"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."

Yes. "Part of the plot?" What does that mean?

I have my interpretation. What did you mean?

Well, what I meant from that is that...

America, when it comes to Black life,

has never allowed Black life to have, like,

its presence where it's like,

"Oh, a human being that can have, like, a great education,

health, even 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 to generation, whether it was like,

"Okay, we going to take the guise of slavery away,

but we still got Jim Crow laws

and we still got mass incarceration.

And now, you know, this is a different way for us

to keep you actually in the same mentality

that we had as second class citizens,

as people who don't, like, get opportunities for healthcare,

housing, proper education, job opportunities.

We just found another way."

When I say "we", I'm talking about America.

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 out.

We're going to push you down, and we'll do it indirectly,

we'll do it subconsciously,

we'll do it directly by shooting you in the streets,

and we'll do it directly by demeaning you

and whipping you hundreds of years ago, like with whips."

So it's been a plot,

and until people who are leading the country, like,

say, "Man, that plot is no longer acceptable,"

that that mentality -- it won't be healed.

As we said, the right word is healed

because it's wounds

on black people and in the country.

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?

We as a society are facing a racial reckoning.

We are understanding the depths of systemic discrimination

against black people in a way

that I don't think we have before.

But how do you speak to an angry black kid in Chicago

who is aware of systemic oppression

and give them hope and give them healing

and give them something positive?

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 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.

You know, 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 that's what happens with the Black experience.

And the artist does that. The poet does that.

The activist does that. The preacher does that.

The engineer who has been infused

with that spirituality does that.

And so we have to stop framing Black children

as solely tragic problems.

The brilliance -- There would be no hip hop

if it had not been for the brilliance

of young Black children.

Or jazz or the blues.

Or spirituals to take two turntables and a microphone

and being able to create something new.

That's brilliant creativity in the midst

of something that someone else has determined is tragic.

This has been a very difficult year

for Black communities in this country.

There have been twin crises, really.

There was the murder of George Floyd

and there was a pandemic

that disproportionately affected people of color

in deaths and hospitalizations.

How did each of you process it?

And was there a moment where you felt anger and frustration?

Oh yeah, without a doubt.

We're in the midst of COVID-19,

but we've always been existing with COVID-1619.

The experience of the epidemic of race

and the weaponization of our bodies

and not seeing us as fully human.

That's a continual struggle living in America.

And these two things have collided.

And yes, there are moments when you have anger. You should.

I would hope. That means you are human,

that you're frustrated.

That's a part of the human experience.

But if you don't have the depth of the values,

then you can be led very easily by the moment that you feel

and not want to organize to imagine

and create a new world that has not yet been created,

but act as if it already is.

Which is what you do. What about you, Common?

Yeah. I mean, I went through, like,

definitely a range of emotions seeing what was going on.

Anger, for sure, was one. But you know,

I'm one who tries not to stay in in the dark spaces too long.

Like, I don't want to stay down too long.

I mean, I'm not going to be angry

and just be angry and not think about,

"Okay, what can I do to pull myself and my people out of it?"

And I think for me,

the solutions were to go out and like,

encourage people, like, of what the power that we have, meaning,

"Okay, we are dealing with a pandemic,

but we also had the power

to take care of ourselves health-wise, like,

and do our best pre-pandemic, during pandemic,

and post pandemic."

So I really was like,

"What are some things that I could provide

while we going through this anger and this pain

that I can provide, that I know have helped me

to deal with anger?"

I love what you're saying because there's an opportunity

as well in the racial reckoning

that came out of the deaths of so many unarmed Black people.

And that was after the death of George Floyd.

What I observed was massive coalitions of people

from all walks of life and all different races

understanding what Black people in this country,

the type of brutality,

the degree of it, and solidifying behind that, right?

Yeah, well, I mean,

you know, when you asked were we angry,

Otis said, you know, "COVID-1619."

It's like, this wasn't the first year we were angry.

You know, it's been a buildup of anger, pain.

And as you just said, this was the first year

that other people, other nationalities, said,

"Oh, this is what they're talking about.

You know, we thought Black people were just

complaining, or like,

they just ain't happy with this and they never satisfied."

And our pain's being broadcast, and that is traumatic

to watch.

Watching the video was traumatic.

It's been in our imagination, but for other people --

Like you said, they're like, "Oh, my gosh, this is real."


But like Common said, people started to understand

in a really profound way

what you all have been dealing with forever.

But on the flip side of that, you know,

talk about -- the last decade,

there has never been more hate crime

against people of all groups and races --

I name specifically Asian-Americans

and Jewish Americans.

And that phenomenon brought up this conversation

about interracial tension

and the fact that in this country,

we often think of race as a black and white issue,

but it is much deeper,

and I wonder if you guys have reached out to your communities

to have those difficult conversations

about interracial tensions.

We did something at Trinity a little while ago

where I was invited by a group for Trinity to participate

in kind of this ecumenical interracial coalition,

specifically with Asian-American communities

that have been attacked in Chicago.

And it was a powerful gathering because as we start talking

about the lived experiences, for example,

when you start talking about the Chinese Exclusion Act

and how that becomes the precursor

to how you lay out what we now consider to be Jim Crow-ism,

that you then -- you practice with one group

and then you try to perfect with another group.

And if you look at the policies between the two groups,

that literally, those in power were saying,

"We don't want these communities to build coalition

because if these coalitions happen, we are not in power."

And so this is where the power comes in,

when we recognize that when we come together,

that literally this is a new nation,

this is a new world, because

there's so many commonalities between our experiences.

You know, you talk about the Black American story.

Are we at that inflection point, Common?

I feel like we had a progression point

where never before have Black women

been valued the way they are.

And I think it's divine in many ways,

and just, you know, it's amazing to see like --

when you think of Black women, those are the women,

those are the people who have been most oppressed in

in the world, really.

I think the Black stories are being heard.

We've seen more in arts,

which also obviously transforms people's thoughts.

I mean, like, Otis and I always -- we talked

about the movie "Moonlight" before,

and I always looked at that story as something that,

without saying it, it made people be closer and understand

Black men in a different way

because they were used to seeing images of Black men

as gangsters on TV or the hustler or, you know, this cop.

And now they saw a young Black boy from the neighborhood

who was gay and had emotions

and was dealing with trying to survive in his own environment.

So I see us at a progression point

that I have never witnessed,

and I don't know if the world has seen it before

because we never talked about Black, like, perspectives,

and I never even heard --

when Joe Biden was running,

he talked about systemic oppression.

I hadn't heard anybody running for president

talking about that.

♪ No can win the war individually ♪

♪ It take the wisdom of the elders ♪

♪ The young people's energy ♪

♪ Welcome to the story we call victory ♪

♪ The coming of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory ♪

♪ One day, when the glory comes ♪

Let's go back to Common's lyrics.

"The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful.

Our music is the cuts that we bleed through."

Yeah. That's from the song "Glory", those lyrics.

".Our biggest weapon is to stay peaceful

Yeah, the music is the cuts that we bleed through."

I'm really just saying, following the mentality

and the philosophy of those of the civil rights movement,

which was nonviolence and really understanding it,

man, going back and forth with hatred

is going to bring out the worst in everybody.

So my thing is one of the biggest ways to combat

hatred and ignorance and negativity is peace.

And that peace --

When I say it, it ain't all just like,

"Okay, well, I'm just going to keep my head down

and you just hit me."

Some of that is, for me, going to find your power

and being like empowering your environment,

like, "Let's go create for our people.

Let's go do good out for each other."

Moss: And I'm glad you mentioned that

because there's a view that peace means being passive,

and peace is not about being passive.

It means that you're working to transform

and to gain your super power in many ways

so that you're working to create a new world.

Now, those who are in power always want to define peace

as being passive.

"Let's be peaceful",

but they're creating situations where I don't have peace

and I'm filled with a whole lot of other things in my spirit.

So, we get to define what peace is,

and that is something that we are aspiring to,

a world that's not yet.

DuBois says it this way --

"We live in the yet to be United States of America,"

that we're working toward,

and Langston Hughes put it this way. He said,

"Let America be America again."

But he says, "America has never been America to me."

And so therefore, I have to work to create

what has never been using my imagination,

working toward peace,

but I'm never passive in what I'm doing.

You all have spiritual lives. You have spiritual texts.

I mean, I've read that you've read the Bible, the Koran.

You make reference to the Dalai Lama in your music.

So you are seekers. I want to get down again

to the level of the folks who don't have access to that

in places that have experienced so much trauma,

not just the killing of George Floyd,

but of so many others.

How do you help them to process anger

and not act out in violence?

Because when we're angry, we get aggressive.

We want to be violent.

But let me tell the story.

So I have two children.

One's now 20, one's now 17.

But when they were small,

if my daughter or my son got hurt,

I was never angry with them for the outcry

because of the pain inside.

I didn't say, "Don't process your pain by being quiet."

I had to embrace them and say there is

a real societal challenge

that they don't want to hear the pain of Black people.

And we've got to allow people, one,

to be able to speak their pain, process their pain,

yell their pain, and then from there,

then we start talking about how do we bandage those wounds?

You know, we have a school in Chicago

called AIM -- Art In Motion --

and one of the most rewarding things

I've felt going into that school was watching our kids

in the meditation room, and this meditation room,

first of all, the school is less than

two miles from where I grew up.

It's on, like, 74th and Ridge on the South Side.

All the students there are from the neighborhoods in Chicago.

Right? So these these are kids from the hood.

How do we get to them with their anger, right?

When they're dealing with something in school

and they might not be acting right in class,

that get sent to the meditation room,

not to punishment, like, "Okay, you're sent to detention."

To watch the kids meditating just meant --

took me to another level.

It touched my heart because I was like --

Yeah, kids at a young age can appreciate

that if they're introduce to it and exposed to it,

but these kids are very wise and they have a lot of gifts

and a lot to offer, and when offered solutions

and exposure to things that actually

are beneficial to them, they embrace it overall.

You know, like, do you know how powerful that is,

like, to see a little black kid meditating?

And we deserved that.

You know, so I think those are some of the ways

we can get to the kids in the hood,

and music is another way.

Like music, is one of the ways it speaks to so many people.

And for the pragmatic folks who are just like,

"Well, you know, this is a lot that you're talking about,"

it's cheaper to do this, you know?

Instead of spending all this money to incarcerate somebody,

let's focus on the whole person.

This is mental health. This is an issue for you.

You're focused on this.

This is one of the big --

I mean, mental health is a big thing for me.

And if we are willing to service the whole person,

it's so much cheaper.

I mean, Dr. King talked about the fact when --

he was talking about Mississippi.

Years ago, in 1967, he said,

"Look how much we spend to educate one child in Mississippi

and look how much we spend for one bomb.

Obviously, America's priorities are to kill instead of grow."

If we flip the priorities, we'll change everything.

So there has to be an urban marshal plan,

meaning that we have to reinvest,

and the investment is cheap.

You can spend $150,000 to incarcerate,

or we can spend $30,000 to educate

and to feed, teach people how to meditate,

have mental health programs and arts.

It's so much cheaper,

and with that $150,000 to incarcerate,

you also have to add the several million dollars per person

in reference to the not only incarceration system,

but all of the services that go with that.

Homelessness, healthcare. Exactly.

And I also want to just go back to jobs and parents,

parents stressed out, bringing toxic stress home.

And these are just children.

Yeah. I mean, I remember -- this was years ago.

I was with a group of kids in Inglewood, in the South Side,

and I asked them -- I just sat down with them.

I did a performance and I sat down with them.

And I said, "Man, what do y'all need?"

Because it's the same violence

that was going on. I was like, "What do y'all need?

I need to hear from the kids that are in the neighborhood.

What do you need?"

And one of the first things they said was, "Jobs".

The kids said that? The kids said that.

And it was something to me because it resonated

because it automatically clicked in my head that,

"Oh, they just thinking about just taking care of themselves

at this point and getting money,

but they actually want to do it in a legal way

so they could provide for themselves."

But these are kids saying this. Like, teenagers.

They know. They know.

They know that's what Mommy and Daddy need.

Yeah, yeah. "For me to feel safe and secure and like,

I don't have to hustle." Yeah.

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.

Yes. Their higher consciousness,

and then the in the trenches work.

Yeah. It's both/and, you know?

Job stops bullets,

education will prevent prison, and love creates community.

I love that you used the word love in that solution

because Common talks a lot about love is an action.

Yeah. And I think that's a wonderful thought

to sort of get your final thoughts on.

Well, I mean, I think, you know, in peace,

love is all alive in the word peace.

And I think, you know, I talk about love

from the standpoint of it being an action word because

me saying love and rapping about love,

but not doing any active activity to express it

is not what I want to do.

I feel like I'm better than that.

I feel like we're better than that.

And you know, faith without work is dead.

Well, love is no good without work, either,

to be honest. I mean, I could say a lot of things.

I can rap and sing about love

and be a great singer or whatever.

But man, I want to see it coming to fruition.

I want to impact and show the practicality of love by

watching it in action

and living it, like, with human beings,

you know, as Reverend Moss said,

love will conquer all.

So, you know, with all the stuff we talk about, it's like --

You got faith, hope. The greatest of these is love.

Reverend Moss, do you have final thoughts?

There's something I learned from my father.

He said that there are really four things

that you've got to learn, and in that process,

you can see some things that will be transformative.

So if you learn how to love God, then you better learn

how to love yourself, love your family,

and then you can love and serve your community.

And he said love is the most important thing

when hope is not available or stillborn,

when faith, you can't find it.

Love is always the peace that will always rest and transform.

So in this International Day of Peace,

we've got to have self-love.

We've got to have community love.

We've got to love ourselves and our nation enough to say

that we can imagine -- [Laughs] --

imagine to see something better than where we are.

Imagination -- love demands that you imagine.

So love becomes central.

If we are to work toward peace, and love is,

in the American context,

something that we're deeply afraid of,

but every spiritual teacher

says that we must wrestle with and engage,

and if you do, it makes you a new person.

Love is patient. Love is kind.

Love is not self-serving, as Paul says.

We must learn a more excellent way.

First Corinthians 13. There you go.

Reverend Otis Moss and Common, thank you

so much for your insights and your wisdom and your love,

bringing it here. Thank you.


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