Award-winning rapper and activist Common hosts concert at California Rehabilitation Center

Inmates at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco enjoy Friday’s concert with award-winning rapper and activist Common.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

As Common walked into a large dorm-style room at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, where men sleep on metal bunk beds with razor-thin mattresses, the Grammy Award-winning rapper and activist stopped for a moment to talk with one of the young inmates.

On top of his bunk bed was a portrait of Common that the man, Yusef Pierce, 32, had painted himself. There were also portraits of Jay-Z and slain rapper Nipsey Hussle.

“Wow,” Common said, as he eyed the painting of Hussle. “I love this. I just saw Nipsey’s father the other day. God bless his soul.”


But Pierce didn’t show much emotion.

The warden asked if she could take their picture as dozens of other inmates looked on. Common agreed, and both men posed for the cellphone photo.

Pierce still didn’t smile. Afterward, the men shook hands, and then the rapper left to meet other men at the facility.

Once Common was gone, Pierce let out a big grin. One of the other inmates said, “You better smile, you created that.”

Common admires a portrait of himself painted by Yusef Pierce, 32, at the California Rehabilitation Center.
Common admires a portrait of himself painted by Yusef Pierce, 32, at the California Rehabilitation Center.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Later, Common said society would not want men like Pierce to show their emotions. The stereotype, Common says, is that men like Pierce are simply a number in the system. But to him, they’re more than that. And he’s going to use his platform to show their humanity, he said.

On Friday, Common performed a concert for the inmates at the center. It was the ninth prison concert in the last two years for the Academy Award-winning rapper, who has championed social justice causes throughout his career. The concert was timed in part to coincide with the soon to be released movie “Just Mercy,” about a black death row inmate in Alabama who was wrongly convicted of killing a white woman.


But with the 2020 election also approaching, Common said it’s important to be visible promoting social justice reforms.

“The goal behind all of this is to give people hope,” Common said. “We need to make sure that we recognize these people as human beings. We want to wrap our arms around them and make sure that they know they’re loved.”

Common, 47, whose real name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn, grew up in Chicago and said witnessing his uncles go through the criminal justice system is what sparked his interest in social justice. Reading the book “The New Jim Crow” heightened his awareness for criminal justice reform, he said.

In 2015, Common and John Legend won the Academy Award in the original song category for “Glory,” which they wrote for the movie “Selma,” a depiction of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1960s campaign for voting rights. On stage that night, Legend recited a statistic that more black men were incarcerated today than there were slaves in the 1800s.

“That really hit me and made me want to get involved in help changing the conditions of people in the system,” Common told The Times as he walked off the stage Friday after a sound check. “I wanted to see the system for myself and to do anything I can do to prevent people from becoming a part of it.”

Soon afterward, Common called film producer Scott Budnick, who founded Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a criminal justice reform organization. The duo embarked on prison tours in 2017, talking to inmates and hearing testimonies of how they had changed while serving their sentences, but felt that aspect wasn’t being recognized on the outside.


After those visits, Common and Budnick decided to host prison concerts across the state while promoting success stories and lobbying for policy change. On the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento, Common performed a free concert after meeting with lawmakers to advocate for two juvenile justice reform bills. Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed those bills into law.

Friday’s concert for the center’s 3,000 inmates, staff members and friends was co-sponsored by the “Represent Justice”campaign, a movement tied to the release of “Just Mercy,” which Budnick produced. The movie, which is based on a true story, stars Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

Before the concert, Common, ARC staff and about 50 inmates engaged in a round-table discussion, talking about how they’ve changed and what they hope to do when they are released.

Mario Contreras-Navarro, 32, who has served 13 years for attempted murder, talked about how he recognized Matthew Conant, 47, an ARC employee who was released from prison on parole two years ago. In a powder blue prison uniform, Contreras-Navarro noted how he and Conant once served time in the same facility. Now, he was wearing a black ARC sweatshirt.

“Where did you get those clothes from?”Contreras-Navarro asked Conant jokingly from across the room. “You and I were just wearing blue together?”

Contreras-Navarro said the concert and the discussion changed his way of thinking. He thanked Common for his empathy.


“I feel really blessed right now,” Contreras-Navarro told The Times. “This gives us hope, and some people may think we don’t deserve that. It’s just a beautiful thing from a beautiful person.”

Throughout the concert, Common, dressed in a hoodie that said “Beast Mode to Peace Mode,” slipped into freestyles between his set list. In one of them, he recounted the stories of those he met, saying that the improvement they made behind bars would help make the world better once they get out.

As he spoke, two inmates wrapped their arms around each other, smiled and said, “We’re next.”