Common speaks at Fresno City as part of Central Valley prison reform tour

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The activist and rapper advised students what they can do in contributing to activist movements

“I know that Black Lives Matter and they matter to us
These are the things that we gotta discuss
The New plantation, mass incarceration
Instead of educate, they'd rather convict the kids
As dirty as the water in Flint, the system is"

More and more attention is being paid to the black incarceration rate. Considering that more black people are incarcerated than were enslaved, according to author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness” Michelle Alexander, it’s no surprise that calls for prison reform have been a part of the ongoing dialogue on how to correct racist institutions.

Common, a three-time Grammy winner, renowned rapper, artist and activist, is making sure he’s doing his part in adding his voice to the conversation.

The Chicago-born hip-hop legend visited the Central Valley as part of his Imagine Justice’s Hope and Redemption Tour. His visit included performing at three prisons, with the aim of inspiring and giving hope to the men and women there. He also hoped to engage Valley communities through forums and town halls.

“The craziest thing about activism is that it has to start with you. It all begins with love, it begins with you and you need to love yourself before you can love others. When we love ourselves right, we can see others through an opened love lens.”

Common spoke at Fresno City College (FCC) to share his reflections, stories and advice on how individuals, especially youths, can do their part in tackling these systemic issues.

“The craziest thing about activism is that it has to start with you. It all begins with love, it begins with you and you need to love yourself before you can love others. When we love ourselves right, we can see others through an opened love lens,” he said in his address to FCC students.

Common’s nonprofit organization, Imagine Justice, teamed up with the California Endowment and Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC)’s Hope and Redemption Team, since they were partly responsible for bringing the rapper to the Valley.

“We assist all formerly incarcerated individuals who come back to their communities… we let them know the realities of being back; they have an organization to help them with their career, not with a job… We (Imagine Justice and ARC) are collaborating because Common is inspired by what we’re doing,” said Cesar Zuniga, a member of the Hope and Redemption Team.

Common also touched on changing perceptions of prison through service, referencing Matthew 25:36-40: “A man died and went to heaven and God said, ‘Hey man, thank you for visiting me in prison’ and he said ‘God, this is the first time I’ve met you, how could I visit you in prison?’  ‘When you visited children of mine, you visited me. When you visited those that are imprisoned, you visited me. When you went to go help those that are poor, you helped me.”

He also criticized the punishing attitude that he felt when visiting prisons. “We walked through the halls of death row [in San Quentin]… there was a sign on the wall that said ‘building of the condemned’. This entire mentality is not about rehabilitation, it’s not about compassion,” he said.

FCC Student Body President Christopher Washington was optimistic about Common’s visit impacting the several hundred students that came to see him. “The first impact will be to spark the minds of people who believe in social justice and political action and change. On an interpersonal level, he can get a lot of students to believe in themselves … Personally, he inspired me to serve more,” Washington said.

Lee Herrick, 2015 poet laureate of Fresno and a professor at FCC, introduced Common at the FCC forum. He emphasized the importance of activists like Common, and artists in general, when it comes to enacting serious change.“I think the arts can be at the center of not only societal transformation, but individual transformation, and those two things might work hand in hand… whether it’s music or journalism or poetry, the arts [and writing] are central and necessary,” Herrick said.

Although many individuals left Common’s address feeling inspired, ARC Director of Inside Programs Sam Lewis was under no illusions about how much systemic transformation needs to happen before serious results will be seen.

“We still have a long way to go. I would use Germany as the example: read the laws of Germany and then read ours, both federal and state, in regards to prison. Our goal is punishment, whereas their goal is rehabilitation and reentry,” Lewis said.