By Ken Simmons
The personable rapper from Chicago transformed the venue into an intimate cabaret, connecting with the audience as if he was welcoming everyone into his own living room. During his 90 minute, 21 song performance, he constantly gave thanks for their presence, and for his success. He revealed how appearing in the movie Selma directed by Ava DuVernay, and winning an Oscar with John Legend for Best Original Song for “Glory,” gave his life a new purpose.
“I honor the people who marched so we could be here, he said in tribute to the civil rights heroes of the 1960s. “The film inspired me to be a better person,” he said. “Each 24 hours, I have to do something to help someone.”
Sharing the stage with two keyboard players, a drummer, DJ, and female vocalist, Common chronicled his life and career, touching upon each of his ten albums. He was grateful for his triumphs, and did not shy away from his criticism.
The rapper/actor began with his first rap, written when he was 12 years old.
“I was in the seventh grade and I would spend two weeks in the summer with my cousin in Cincinnati,” he recalled. “It was there that I found my voice. I found out who I am.” Moving forward 13 years, he remembered how his life changed in 1997 when his girlfriend informed him he was pregnant with his daughter, Omoye Assata Lynn. He rapped about how he was not prepared, yet accepted the responsibility of being a father, and for the first time, became serious about life and providing for his child.
Common also reminisced about his friendship and his work with the late producer J Dilla, who passed away in 2006 from a rare blood disease at the age of 32. He poignantly described how he did not understand why Dilla gave him a television stand as a present. Today that stand has a powerful memory of their relationship, as it holds his Academy Award.
Common has always been admired as a conscious hip-hop artist, however his street credibility hit rock bottom following the release of his 2002 album, Electric Circus. It was an experimental blend of hip-hop, pop, rock and electronic music, and he remembered how some said it signaled the end of his career.
“I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd,” he says in explaining his musical detour. “People said, ‘Common was trippin’. Wearing crochet hats and pants. Becoming a vegan. that girl did it to him.'” Common told the MIST audience, “It was not Erykah (Badu, his girlfriend at the time) who made me go vegan… I wanted to wear crochet pants.”
“It was the first time I received heat from my friends,” he said in retrospect. “Some were saying I couldn’t come back from Electric Circus. People wrote me off.”
Common proved his critics wrong, hooking up with another rapper from Chi-Town, Kanye West, for one of his best selling albums, Be, in 2005. He reminded the crowd of his “comeback” ten years ago, hyping the room with his pulsating “Go!” from his gold CD.
He recalled how recording with West was a turning point in his career. “He challenged me as an artist, he raised my game.” The Chicago duo collaborated again for Common’s next album, and for the second straight time, they hit number one on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart with Finding Forever.
“On this album, I expressed my calling,” he said proudly. “To inspire, to uplift, to go beyond just being a MC.”
Of course, Common addressed the uproar over the deaths of black youth and black men across the country at the hands of police, naming Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray as he remembered them with the song “Black Maybe” from Finding Forever.
As the violence polarizes races, Common called for unity. “We all are in this together, black, brown, white, Asian, Native American,” he stated. “We all need to move forward, together.” Confidently, he predicted, “We will get the equality as one nation, as a people.”
Common also commented on the violence in his hometown of Chicago, and he sees beyond the darkness. “People are dying, but we have to be a light of hope. We have to make it better for our kids. One of the keys to get them there is love.”
Common filled Madiba Harlem at MIST with love, and “Glory,” his final song. He has a heartfelt commitment to spreading that love, to achieve justice and peace for all races.
In the words of his 2011 album, he remains an optimist in the wake of death and injustice. He will always be, The Dreamer/The Believer.