screenshot from Common's Letter to the Free music video

Letter to the Free

Letter to the Free

Awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics, Common’s “Letter to the Free” speaks out against a justice system which helps to perpetuate the terrible inequality endured by many African Americans. With a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities incarcerated in prison, the lyrics criticise the money-making “business” of the “prison” system when these institutions should be a tool for positive reform and rehabilitation. Released in 2016, the rapper also worried about “staring in the face of hate” of Trump’s vision of America.

If you are preparing for the AQA Media Studies exam, this Close Study Product focuses on media language and representation. Since the lyrics refer to the abolition of slavery and the modern “polices” of “control”, the political, social and cultural contexts are also important aspects to revise.

Music Video

Context and Discourse

When slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished in America, an amendment was added to the constitution which allowed the practice to continue for the “punishment of crime”. For example, a vagrant could be forced to work without pay because unemployment in some states was illegal. Ridiculously, after emancipation, some people were evicted from their work and home. With nowhere to live, they were arrested and leased back to the white landowners. Put simply, it was a new legalised form of slavery. If you would like to know more, Wikipedia has a great article on the Black Codes, including the Pig Laws and Jim Crow.

Common’s “Letter to the Free” was written for a documentary exploring this criminalisation of African Americans. Directed by Ava DuVernay, The “13th” also focused on the “systems of racial control” and state laws which seem to discriminate against impoverished ethnic minorities who are then more likely to be convicted of a crime and imprisoned. For instance, despite making up 13% of the total US population, black inmates account for nearly 40% of the prison population.

Common is an advocate for criminal justice reform and is the founder of Imagine Justice, a non-profit organisation dedicated to “empowering communities and fighting injustice wherever it appears”. “Letter to the Free” is his rally call against racism and the different forms of slavery still being used in America.

The video begins with four of handheld shots which help to establish the prison location and link to the most important themes of the lyrics. The camera pans across cell bars and tracks slowly down the gloomy and empty corridors. Perhaps, the mise-en-scène refers to the bias of the criminal justice system. It could also connote the need to free our minds from the tyranny of racism that places different values on a person depending on the colour of their skin.

More powerfully, however, the empty prison could signify the freedom Common is trying to achieve. The fifth shot cuts to the recreation yard and the surreal image of a black monolith floating in the middle. It is disorientating and surprising. In an interview, Common suggested “it represents the infinite thing about blackness and blackness can’t be defined in time or space”. In the final shot, the monolith reappears outside a row of houses and a wild garden, which could represent the promised land of freedom. In this way, “Letter to the Free” works as a reminder of history but also a promise of a “sweet land of liberty”.

black monolith floating in front of houses in the distance
Letter to the Free Representation

Performance Mode

In terms of mode, “Letter to the Free” is a performance music video because it mostly focuses on the artists and their performance in front of the camera. Common delivers his lyrics with force and belief from several locations around the prison. There are also regular cuts to the other musicians: the chorus is brought to life by Bilal, a regular collaborator with Common, and Andra Day, a Grammy nominated singer; Karriem Riggins demonstrates his skills on the drums; and Robert Glasper, the co-writer of the track, is on the piano.

Interestingly, the piano and bass guitar are connected to speakers and there are microphones positioned over the drums. These details suggest the performance is being recorded or broadcast. The phrase “no excessive noise” was painted on the wall in the recreation yard to keep control of the inmates who were housed in the New York jail. In the video, it becomes a signifier of African Americans being denied the freedom of expression and the suppression of their identity. By plugging in their instruments into various amplifiers and sound systems, “Letter to the Free” suggests they have a new voice that will not be silenced by society.

The video is punctuated by the surreal image of the black monolith, so it might be more appropriate to classify “Letter to the Free” as hybrid music video genre – performance and concept modes.


Note how the cinematographer, Bradford Young, positions the camera at certain angles to hide the faces of the artists in many of the shots. For instance, in the following screenshot, the bassist has his back to the camera, so we are unable to immediately identify the musician:

musician sitting on a speaker with his back to the camera
Letter to the Free Cinematography

The dark clothes and the use of chiaroscuro (the bold contrast between light and dark), reinforce this decision to obscure the identity of the performers. Even when their faces are revealed, it is sometimes in profile or heavily shadowed.

Stuart Hall argued there were two systems of representation. The first is the conceptual map in our minds that enables us to visualise the world and recognise the similarities and differences that exist. The second representation system is the signs we use to describe the world. Sadly, ethnic minorities are often stereotyped negatively as the Other. This can lead to disgraceful racial profiling, such as the dehumanising stop and search methods used by police mentioned in the first verse of the lyrics. Isis Dallis, writing an open letter for “Fast Company”, offers a detailed look at how the media portrays black people and provides plenty of links to news reels, magazine articles and academic research. Her perspective on the power of the media is certainly worth reading.

By contrast, there are numerous medium and long shots of Common where he is very expressive and his body language is full of confidence. When he stretches out his arm, it is an invitation for the audience to have their voices heard and join him in the “sweet land of liberty”. Bilal and Andra Day also display passion and strength when they sing “freedom” and “it won’t be long”. In this way, the video positions the audience to continue the struggle for justice and the American dream.

Common performs his song
Postive Representation

Stuart Hall’s reception theory described how signs are encoded with meaning and those representations are then decoded by the audience. According to his constructionist approach to reading a text, the audience might interpret the cinematographer’s choice to conceal the identity of the performers as a comment on how various institutions deny African Americans equal opportunities and the right to self-determination. It could also echo Du Bois’ concept of a double consciousness where we have to hide our true personalities and negotiate our identity to fit in with society’s expectations. Perhaps, it suggests the need for a collective identity rather than a focus on the individual personalities. Alternatively, the way the artists seem oblivious to the camera forces us to consider their identity rather than their performance. In other words, your interpretation of the way the musicians are represented depends on your framework of knowledge.

It is also worth considering more signs in the video and how they support these readings of the text. Prison cells normally signify punishment and captivity, but the decision to open all the doors emphasises both the emancipation from slavery and the desire to be free from the “cruel hand” of racist oppression.

two men performing the yard with the phrase no excessive noise behind them
Chiaroscuro Effect in “Letter to the Free”

The intense shadows and brilliant light are the typical look of film noir. Low-key lighting added a sort of psychological realism and emotional intensity to these stylish crime dramas from the 1940s and 1950s. “Letter to the Free” uses the technique to convey the bleak and unforgiving life in a prison. The long shadows cast on the walls, such as in the screenshot above, suggest the characters are trapped in this world.

Finally, many of the shots have a strong source of light somewhere in the background of the frame. Of course, this adds the backlighting to images of the musicians and creates the silhouettes and shadows already mentioned in this guide. However, light is often used as a signifier for the divine and human kindness. The audience can almost feel the freedom – “it won’t be long”.

A Postcolonialist Approach to the Text

In the opening verse, Common refers to the “slave days”, reminding the audience of the violent and brutal enslavement of millions of Africans brought across the Atlantic and forced to work on the cotton plantations and sugarcane fields. Since “Letter to the Free” examines how “slavery’s still alive” and continues to impact African Americans, the video could be considered a postcolonial text.

Common speaks out against the “whips and chains” of a society which continues to link black culture to criminality and deviant behaviour. This negative representation in the media, such as the way news stories are framed or rely on stereotypes, is depicted from what Stuart Hall called “the white eye”. Paul Gilroy argued this “colour-coded oppression” is a result of racism. “Letter to the Free” delivers a powerful countertype to the dehumanising “hate” experienced by ethnic minorities in America. As mentioned earlier, the representation of Common is full of confidence and hope.

In the first verse, the rapper highlights the awful “philosophies of control” which come from various government “policies” and then enforced by the “police”. The Centre for American Progress, an independent think tank, has a good report on systematic inequality and the attempts to exclude black people from the democratic process through various laws that would limit their ability vote. You might also want to research terms such as voter purging and gerrymandering.

In conclusion, “For America to rise it is a matter of Black lives”.

Music and Identity

“Letter to the Free” is a protest song which combines various musical styles. First, Common raps the verses, but then Bilal and Andra Day sing the chorus. This a convention of the call-and-response format of the work songs slaves would sing in the fields. Of course, it remains an important part of gospel music today. Their overlapping voices builds the collaborative sound that can be heard in many spirituals. This Wikipedia entry offers a thorough look at this genre of music and their stories of extreme hardship and redemption.

Karriem Riggins is seen playing a djembe in some of the scenes, connecting with his African roots. The slow pace of the drums throughout the song mimics the rhythm of a chain gang of prisoners building roads and clearing fields. The percussion echoes the hammers and pickaxes and splitting rocks.

Finally, jazz pianos and xylophones are not normally found on a hip hop track. “Letter to the Free” has this wonderful mix of musical expression to celebrate the history of black culture. This is particularly important because music was often the only mode of expression available in a society which sought to disempower and silence African Americans. For example, slave owners deliberately robbed slaves of their identity, including their names and traditional clothes, and mixed ethnic groups to prevent any chance of dissent. This idea is suggested in the way the artists occupy different spaces in the prison, but come together to create a powerful harmony. As Toni Morrison wrote, “Black Americans were sustained and healed and nurtured by the translation of their experience into art above all in the music”.

Common’s “Letter to the Free” is certainly a new musical expression that celebrates the wonderful history of black music.

For a more detailed look at the importance of music and identity, you should read “Jewels Brought from Bondage: Black Music and the Politics of Authenticity”, which is the third chapter of Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness”. You will also want to compare this video to The Specials and their performance in the video for “Ghost Town”.

Essay Questions

  1. Explain how the codes and conventions of music videos have been used to construct viewpoints in the Letter to the Free Close Study Product.
  2. Explain how values and ideologies are communicated by media language used the Close Study Product Letter to the Free.
  3. How useful is Paul Gilroy’s theory of representation in understanding the Close Study Product Ghost Town?
  4. Explore how far the representation of issues in the Close Study Product Letter to the Free reflects its social and political context.
  5. Explore the cultural and social significance of the Close Study Product Letter to the Free.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!