Common's message was simple: "Find your path, believe in your path, and live your path." He utilized each section of his motto by correlating it with a part of his life. Common began by reflecting on his early love for English and poetry during childhood and how the story of Emit Till inspired him to find greatness within himself. He went on to quote Nelson Mandela, Fredrick Douglas, and even bible scripture to emphasize that "belief is contagious." Common also briefly touched on his relationship with Erykah Badu : "You've seen Window Seat...well yeah, I've seen it too!" he joked. He affectionately referred to Kanye West as a brother, despite his disappointing Grammy loss to him for "Hip-Hop Album of the Year." The loss ultimately lead Common to work harder, and he would go on to win his first Grammy the following year. "Work is love made visible," he told the crowd.
After gaining a standing ovation, Common took questions from the audience. The line of eager students stretched practically out the door. Unlike most artists these days, no topic was left untouched. He offered career advice to struggling student-artists, prompted those whose majors were being shut down to "go where your dream is," and insisted that everyday required "commitment to your craft." One student asked about how his religion played into his lifestyle, in which he responded, "I don't believe in shutting out the world. I can go out on a Saturday night and be in church on Sunday. It's all about how you conduct yourself and your personal relationship with your creator."
When asked about how hip-hop had changed since its birth in the late '70s and '80s, Common eloquently responded, "hip-hop in '80s was so new and pure, it's almost like it was a child. All you know is love, being creative, and expressing the truth. That's what hip-hop had; the element of quality."
He went on to explain how that element was missing in today's music. "I equivocate it to growing older; you start losing those pure qualities. We stop focusing on the problems of the world in order to reach certain goals that we have that may not even be for the betterment of our spirit or our souls. Hip-hop has been going through that phase. It still has some aspect of creativity, but since it has become so focused on the business, that's taken away from the sincerity and innocence of the music. That loss of innocence, that's why I wrote "I Used to Love H.E.R." "
Though concerned about music's current state, Common's solution was to lead by example. "I need to create what I want to hear and not complain. What good is complaining going to do? My goal is to make quality, accessible music that stays pure to the essence of hip-hop."
Common did not hesitate to give credit to the artists he did respect. Throughout the night he mentioned his appreciation for people like Nas, Lil Wayne, Drake, Mos Def, Andre 3000, Eminem, and Kanye West. He even mentioned his hope to collaborate with non-hip-hop artists like Sade, Radiohead, and Sweden's Lykke Li. Common also acknowledged up-comers like J. Cole and Kid Cudi. "They bring a fresh perspective while still respecting the culture of the music. They not only know hip-hop, they are musicians. They are into music."
Prior to the event, Crossfade was able to sit down with Common and squeeze in a few questions of our own.
Crossfade: How do you feel the current state radio?
Common: Sometimes I feel sorry for the disc jockeys cause I know DJs want to be able to play what they think is the new, fresh song. They all have various tastes. Since radio became such a corporate thing, stations became more formulaic, and now DJs have to play certain things. It's not their fault, you know? It's like man, this is their job, they have to play this song during their mix show. I say I feel sorry because it can become redundant and it can wear out your juice for the art, for the culture. Playing the same song over and over, you probably become numb to it. I feel compassionate, I know they want their chance to be a DJ, to pick records. [In regards to records] it still can bring exposure, but it doesn't make or break records as much as it used to. And I think in many ways, if the music is pure and good, it can emerge from the underground. The way mixtures come up on the internet, it's like man, your song has the ability to reach mass amounts of people without radio.
Off the top of your head, what would say is the most positive effect hip-hop has had on society and the youths of today?
It has given young people an outlet to really express themselves and be themselves.
What about the most negative?
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It has also provided a crutch where everyone wants to do it and they don't necessarily have a passion for the art. So it becomes "I'm doing it for business." Any art has to have some love put into it for it to really come out at its highest level. Art is a divine thing, it can't always be money inspired.
You do a lot of community outreach work, via speaking engagements and through your foundation. Aside from age, race, and gender, what is the most common thread among the young people you meet?
In their own words, they are saying they want to be loved. Loved means listened to, payed attention to, cared for, nurtured, and guided. Some of that guidance will come through parents at home, but when the parents aren't there, that's when the village has to step in. They have come in with ideas, support, and programs to help nurture them. From what I access, they want opportunities; to be active, to do things that are productive. I talked to some kids years ago on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Englewood, and they would just say "man we just want to have something to do after school so we don't have to be out here gang-bangin'." We need to help them find what they are interested in, find programs for them to outlet that. Writing, sports, photography...we need to open them up and help them develop that.