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March 14, 2018 at 12:04 PM EDT

Since debuting a quarter-century ago with 1992’s Can I Borrow a Dollar?, Chicago rapper Common has blazed a singular trail with dense, political poetry and an instrumental style that fuses jazz, soul, R&B, and even a bit of electronica. Beyond his music, he’s earned cachet through his Oscar-recognized contributions to the soundtracks of films including Selma and last year’s Marshall.

Just over a year removed from his stormy 2016 LP Black America Again, the 46-year-old musician has branched out in a new direction, joining forces with longtime collaborators Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper to form the band August Greene. “Something about this music is inspiring,” Common tells EW of their optimistic self-titled debut, now available on Amazon Music.

EW connected with Common to discuss the project, turning Academy members onto his music, and some of the buzzy collaborators he may release music with in the future.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve worked a lot in the past with your August Greene bandmates — producer Karriem Riggins and multi-instrumentalist Robert Glasper. What made you decide to form a band?
COMMON: As we were working on [2016’s] Black America Again and then “Letter to the Free” for [Netflix’s Ava DuVernay documentary] 13TH, there was a synergy between us — like, man, we loved doing this. This music feels like a mixture of Herbie Hancock and Pete Rock. We were pushing our art forward as artists.

What did you want to achieve with this group that you might not have done on your own?
We just wanted to create some of our best music ever. The thing about August Greene is a lot of our music is just us jamming in the studio. Certain songs, you can hear us just creating it, finding the sounds on the song and then the song is actually forming as we record it. It’s like James Brown’s band. They’re just rocking in the studio. I love the spontaneity. I’m the slow one out of the bunch. I’m the guy that’s gotta go home and write [lyrics]. These dudes will make, like, eight songs in one studio session! We wanted music that feels like today but also has that live feel that you got from some of those records we love from the past. We were calling the music “audio sage,” because it has this spirit to it. It’s cleansing.

What was the inspiration behind the group’s name?
To be honest, it was no big story. All three of us love jazz, and “Blue in Green” is a famous jazz song [by Miles Davis]. I don’t know how “August Greene” came up, but there’s something interesting and intriguing about that name. We do think we are going to create a color, our own color, that they’re gonna have to define as August Greene.

This is your first project since Black America Again, which came out just before the 2016 election. Did you want to continue that album’s focus on current events and politics or take a step back?
With Black America Again, there were a lot of things that needed to be discussed and put right there in your face. For this project, I wanted to discuss the power of the people. I didn’t focus on what the government is doing. It’s redundant for me to rap about Trump. We know who he is. That’s like me telling you the color yellow is yellow. You know what yellow is! I felt like I needed to talk about solutions and experiences and feelings and ways to lift ourselves. On this project, I talk about the challenges that we face, and say, “I believe that we will overcome these challenges.”

You’ve recorded acclaimed songs for Selma, 13TH, and Marshall. How do you see your role in telling these stories about America’s recent fraught past?
The people who have inspired me throughout my life have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Dr. Maya Angelou, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis…. What James Baldwin means to me — I want to be contributing to the root that they grew. I’m one of the voices in this movement. I’m really about being active, too. If I rap about it, I gotta be about it. [Laughs] To be able to have a song that’s part of a film that’s powerful, it’s working in partnership. They serve each other, they support each other — it’s all just part of the movement. Music and film together create a unit. It gives people even more to be inspired by and to move with.

Obviously [these films] hit some people who might not even listen to some of [my] songs. Like, point blank, [Selma‘s] “Glory” introduced a lot of people to Common as an artist. For real! I had 70-year-old white folks coming up to me about “Glory.” You think they were listening to Resurrection or Like Water for Chocolate or Be? No!

You’ve long had this political awareness to your work, and I see it reflected in many young MCs today. Who are some of your essential young artists?
The great Kendrick Lamar. The talented and phenomenal Chance the Rapper. I really enjoy Noname, she’s great. Those are my three that I can sincerely say that I really listen to and [go], “Man, I’m learning from them.” I believe we’ll have some of those artists on our rerelease. But first let the [album] come out!

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