Common Reveals the Origin of His Trump Lyric in ‘A Letter to the Free’ From Ava DuVernay’s ’13th’

The rapper joins fellow Oscar hopefuls, “La La Land’s” Justin Hurwitz and “Rules Don’t Apply” composer Eddie Arkin at TheWrap’s “An Evening of Best Song Contenders”

Academy Award winning rapper Common was among the guests at TheWrap’s “An Evening of Best Song Contenders” this week, where he talked about the origin of his lyric referring to Donald Trump in the song “A Letter to the Free” from the documentary “13th.”

The line in question — “Shot me with your ray-gun. And now you want to trump me. Prison is a business, America’s the company” — appears to be a direct shot at the president-elect, and Common revealed his feelings behind it while talking with TheWrap’s Steve Pond during the panel celebrating Oscar song contenders at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles.

“Mass incarceration is a specific struggle,” the “Glory” songwriter said. “Just to write a song only about that … I felt there are bigger things that we are struggling with in our country.

“So I just really tried to get into the crux of what is the theme, what is the heart of what’s being said, and then kind of try to take it from that chord and let it be a universal theme like, ‘I will address America in a bigger way and talk about other issues.’”

The hard-hitting song is featured in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary film “13th,” which argues that slavery is being effectively perpetuated through the mass incarceration of African Americans in the U.S. It is named after the 13th Amendment, which made slavery illegal in 1864 except as “punishment of crime.”

“13th” marks Common’s second collaboration with DuVernay, following his song “Glory” for the Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic “Selma,” which was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2015.

The rapper was among a trio of songwriters and composers who joined TheWrap for “An Evening of Best Song Contenders.” Justin Hurwitz, composer of “City of Stars” and “Audition” from “La La Land” participated along with Eddie Arkin, composer of “The Rules Don’t Apply” from Warren Beatty “Rules Don’t Apply.”

Talking about the catchy tunes sung by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in “La La Land,” Hurwitz told Pond that “there are a lot of inspirations for the movie. There are a couple of French musicals from the ’60s like ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,’ ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort,’ which we loved, some of the MGM musicals and Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals are big inspirations.”

At the same time as feeling inspired by classic soundtracks, “I was trying not to listen to anything really while I was actually composing or orchestrating because Damien [“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle] didn’t want to sound old fashioned or like any of those movies,” Hurwitz said.

Meanwhile, composer Eddie Arkin explained the origins of his song, “The Rules Don’t Apply” (which is set in 1958 and centered around Howard Hughes) telling the audience: “The late ’50s were sort of the beginnings of Rock n Roll so that was one choice. But Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook were still very prevalent.

“If you read about this film, I think Warren [Beatty] has been thinking about this idea for at least 30 years,” Arkin added. “We wrote it [the song] many years ago — probably around eight years ago — and at the time, we wrote in one sitting and then I hated the bridge … so it took a couple of weeks to write, and we presented it to him and he loved it,” the composer explained.

When he finally delivered the song, Beatty kept it pretty much intact, “We haven’t to this day changed a note or a lyric on the song,” Arkin said.

See the full list of 91 songs 91 songs that have qualified for the Oscars race for Best Original Song here.

A highlight of “An Evening of Best Song Contenders” came when Common recited the second verse of “A Letter to the Free” for the audience in attendance, sparking a rousing applause.

Read the lyrics below.

The caged birds sings for freedom to ring
Black bodies being lost in the American dream
Blood of black being, a pastoral scene
Slavery’s still alive, check Amendment 13
Not whips and chains, eye subliminal
Instead of ‘nigga’ they use the word ‘criminal’
Sweet land of liberty, incarcerated country
Shot me with your ray-gun
And now you want to trump me
Prison is a business, America’s the company
Investing in injustice, fear and long suffering
We staring in the face of hate again
The same hate they say will make America great again
No consolation prize for the dehumanized
For America to rise it’s a matter of Black Lives
And we gonna free them, so we can free us
America’s moment to come to Jesus