An Exclusive Interview with Rapper and Activist Common
BY: TARYN DANIELS AND LAUREN LUMPKIN
On Wednesday night, American University welcomed rapper, actor and activist Common. Best known for socially-conscious tracks like “I Used to Love H.E.R., “The Light” and “Glory,” Common has used his platform to turn art into activism. Through music and acting, Common has tackled issues like police brutality, criminal justice reform and education.
Before he took the stage, The Blackprint and WVAU got the chance to interview the South Side Chicago native.
While sipping a cup of green juice, Common shared some of his favorite artists, his thoughts on the future of Chicago rap, and dropped the names of some of the wokest people he knows. Listen to the interview below.
On what music he’s listening to right now:
Common: I’ve been listening to the new Kendrick Lamar songs. But I really listen to a lot of John Coltrane. I like Anderson .Paak a lot [too.] I go from classic stuff, to Solange, to older stuff. Kendrick and Chance [the Rapper] are the [only] new artists that I really listen to. Other music I listen to, and I’m like “alright, I hear it but I don’t really listen.”
On knowing music was the right career for him:
Common: I really knew it was something I loved to do and I kept thinking about how I could make this a career, after initially being like “man, I love this! I love this!” I just felt so much passion towards it, and I was thinking about it all the time. I saw certain artists that inspired me enough to make me say I wanted to be an artist, and I also saw the reaction to what I would write and what I would do as a musician. I had not only a passion for it, but the ability to grow in it and be great in it at some point. I guess the contrast is when I tried to play piano. I wasn’t good at it. So I knew that wasn’t my thing. In things that you are passionate about, you aren’t going to start off the best. Like I listen to some of my old material and think, “damn, there’s things I could have improved on.” But you kind of get this intuition that lets you know that not only are you passionate about something, but you are willing to work to be great at it and have the capacity to be great at it.
On the future of Chicago rap:
Common: I think Chicago hip-hop culture is always progressive. For me, it is always authentic and progressive, from the first days of it to now, where you do have a variety. You have Chance, you have Noname, you have Sir the Baptist, you have G Herbo and Lil Bibby. It shows the diversity of what Chicago is. I think artists always brought that to the table coming from Chicago. When I came out, you had Twista and this group called Do or Die. Then when Lupe was out and Kanye, no one could say they sounded the exact same. [Now,] you could hear that Chance is being himself. That’s one thing I feel like you get out of Chicago artists. I mean Noname, she don’t sound like anybody.
On advice for students who want to mix art and activism:
Common: I think some of the best advice from me to you is to identify things you are passionate about and make it part of your daily activity. I had to learn that myself, also. I work at music everyday, I work on my acting everyday. If I’m going make a declaration that I’m an activist, even if I just stumbled into it…You have to work at that daily and identify the things that you are passionate about changing and do that. It doesn’t have to be everything, because everything may not be your passion. LGBTQ may be one of your passions or it might be about equality, which still might tie into LGBTQ but you might decide on a specific group to support. Then you identify those things and start looking to make change with those things. That happens with your talent, your gifts, your creativity and putting them into daily activity.
On integrating themes of faith, women and social-consciousness into his music:
Common: I think it begins with faith. My faith in God and my relationship with the creator is what makes me look at things from a creative space in my life and say, “What am I doing in my life that’s purposeful? What am I doing to uplift others? What am I doing to love myself and others? What am I doing to represent God the way I want to?” That doesn’t mean that I am perfect, because I recognize that I am not. But it starts with faith — that’s the foundation. If you have faith and are practicing it, then you are going to treat women with respect. I definitely express that in my music, but also that comes from my relationship with my mother and my grandmother and just how I look at human beings. Nobody should be treated less than. And because I grew up with the ability and blessing to express myself, I ain’t afraid to do a love song, talking about my relationship with a woman. I’ve even talked about abortion in my songs. The church I grew up going to [used to say] “unapologetically black, unashamedly Christian.” For me, [that’s] about how you can be who you are. My environment helped that. My boys growing up, we’d be faking, just trying to hide under something. If you were doing something wrong or goofy, we were going to call you out. But it was all love. That allowed me as a musician to talk about that. I talk about social things because I care about people, but if I see people as a whole or certain pockets of society is not getting justice or equality or not getting the resources [they deserve], then I feel like I have to talk about it. That’s what I have a microphone for.
On the wokest people he knows:
Common: I have several friends [that come to mind]. My good friend named Sharif, he’s an awakened brother. Ava DuVernay is awakened. I feel like my team here is awakened. You don’t have to spit the laws of certain books or know everything intellectually, though you have to know some things, but it’s [more] about an emotional and spiritual intelligence. That, to me, shows being awakened. I just recently visited four prisons in California and met some of the most awakened individuals in my entire life, and it awakened me more. I’ve been in the presence of our former president and first lady, I’ve been in the presence of Nelson Mandela, [which was] a blessing. But I feel like I met some of the most awake individuals in that prison. I’m saying that to say, I think if you look, you can find people that are woke all over and you might not even know what package it’s coming in.
All pictures taken by Lauren Lumpkin.