Common: Chasing Uncommon Ambitions

Chicago-born rapper and actor Common (born Lonnie Lynn) remembers first hearing music at the feet of his babysitters. He was three years old when he started to absorb the songs that would change his life. His babysitters, two sisters from a music-loving family, would play vinyl records from acts like Chaka Khan, The Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire. To this day, Common says, parts of Chicago still feel like they’re living in the 1970s with the familiar fashion and melodies swirling in the air.  

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A few years later, Common acted in his first school play. He already loved movies and he quickly fell for the stage. But after performing in a modest production, Common says, he didn’t quite get the proper adoration he’d hoped he’d get from the audience. Thus, his momentum for acting slowed. Nevertheless, for Common, whose father was a professional ABA basketball player and whose mother was an influential educator, success in the spotlight was in his DNA. Armed with his passion for music, he began to write lyrics. This, of course, would soon lead him to win three Grammys and an Oscar in 2014.   

“The first raps that I wrote,” Common says, “the way they made people feel, the way they made me feel, made me want to pursue music. It was amazing to me. I saw the joy in my neighbors and my friends. Music was the first thing that allowed me to be my confident, young Black self. At home, it wasn’t like I was walking around bragging. Because somebody was going to humble you. Through music, though, I was able to express things that I felt and use my imagination.”   

Common released his first rap record, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, in 1992, when he was 20 years old. The album, though a bit rough around the edges, showcased the artist’s acumen for wordplay and dynamism on the microphone. One thing was immediately clear: Common (known then as Common Sense) was charismatic and engaging. The famed Windy City producer, No I.D., who famously mentored countless Chicago musicians, including Kanye West, bolstered the debut LP with expert craftsmanship. The album became an underground hit. But while songs and the freedom and synergy he found within hip-hop heavily influenced Common, language remained at the center of his artistry.  

“I love the power of words,” he says. “I love great writing. To this day, it’s the great writers that inspire me, whether poets, scriptwriters, songwriters. Great writers really get me going.” 

The emcee, who’s released a dozen studio records, dropped his sophomore release, Resurrection, in 1994. With each album, Common’s reputation grew. He mixed humor with philosophy, 40 ounces with puns. In 1997, he released the LP, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, and three years later, he released, Like Water for Chocolate. The albums proved to be larger hits. Suddenly Common wasn’t “just” an underground backpack rapper. In fact, his 2001 single, “The Light,” earned him his first Grammy nomination. With that newfound recognition, though, Common’s creative mind began to wander. He wanted to experiment even beyond music.  

At the time, Common was a part of a significant collective—a group of artists who acted together more like a contemporary salon than a social circle. They included the legendary hip-hop groups, The Roots and Black Star, members of which have gone on to distinguish themselves in any number of prestigious creative endeavors, from songwriting to the silver screen.  

“It was such a talented community,” Common says. “We were able to coexist so well because, as much as we were musicians, we also loved many other aspects of art. We loved to learn. We were nerds, as much as you can be, having come out of the respective places where we came up. Together, we were around like-minded people who we knew we could respect and who we loved and could grow with.” 

All photos by Jalan and Jibril Durimel

With a Grammy nomination for “The Light” under his belt, Common looked to grow his oeuvre. He remembered his school days as a fresh actor. He remembered feeling that he lacked the confidence to pursue the craft. Since he didn’t have the immediate pat on the back for early shows or any other friends at the time who wanted to go out for the drama club in school, Common put his aspirations for acting aside. But, over a decade later, it had begun to appeal to him again. Then at 26 years old, he began to both indulge in the idea of acting and, simultaneously, in creating his most experimental record to date.  

“I had just released an album that did very well for me, Like Water for Chocolate,” Common says. “I was getting a lot of love, and I really wanted to do something more. In my mind, I wanted to do something outside of what hip-hop sounded like. That’s when I embarked on Electric Circus.” 

Common remembers talking with a colleague about his renewed interest in acting while he was making the mind-bending LP Electric Circus in 2002. That colleague then recommended an acting teacher, whom Common still works with today. He laughs, recalling the first day he met his now-teacher. At the time, Common was doing a music television spot, and he remembers being buzzed on some beer, having a good time. He thought the next day that she might not take him as a student but, thankfully, she accepted. She recognized his potential, his charm. From then on, Common was one of her best students. Each day, he realized he loved the art form more. He was discovering more about himself through the process.  

“I was getting to know myself more,” Common says. “I was just expressing things that I never, ever would normally. I kept going to class. We would be on tour for Electric Circus, and whenever I got off tour, I would go to class.” 

As he began to feel more confident, Common went to the agency that represented him and told them he wanted to field acting opportunities. He wanted to book some auditions. Not long after, he booked his first gig, a role on the popular,  groundbreaking television show, Girlfriends. With that, more came. But that didn’t mean all the auditions went well. After one especially rough audition, the producers told his agent he was too “green.” This, however, only motivated him more. Common nailed his next audition and got a part in the movie Smokin’ Aces. The picture features myriad big names, from Ben Affleck to Ray Liotta to Alicia Keys.  

“Them saying I was green made me be like, ‘Oh, man. I’m about to prove to them I’m an actor!’” Common says. “Getting that role really felt great. It was one of the most joyous times in my life, to get that call from the director saying, ‘I’m giving you the role.’ I remember it like yesterday. I was jumping up and down in bed. I called my mother and tears came to my eyes.”  

As an artist, Common is tireless. He won his first Grammy in 2003 for the song “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop),” which he wrote with his then-romantic partner, Erykah Badu. The song echoed Common’s beloved 1994 track, “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” from the album Resurrection, which, like the couple’s Grammy-winner, personified the genre of hip-hop, lamenting its downfalls and celebrating its best qualities. Common won another Grammy in 2008 for the song “Southside” with Kanye West only two years after Smokin’ Aces came out. In a way, Common’s career at this juncture mirrored that of Frank Sinatra decades prior. He was a man at the top of his musical game who was becoming a box office draw in real-time, even if it was a touch rocky on occasion.  

“I was okay with some people being like, ‘What are you doing?’” Common says. “I’m a person—I’m curious, I’m a seeker. When I’m passionate about something, I will achieve greatness in it. I felt like, ‘Okay, yeah I may not be at the level that some people are at, but I’m going to work to get there.’” 

Common took a lesson from his musical career and applied it to his burgeoning acting path.  

“I like when I perform for a crowd that doesn’t know me or doesn’t really want to hear me at first,” he says. “But then you win them over. I enjoy that because I have the type of mentality where I want to be better everyday.” 

At various points along the way, it began to feel like the new endeavor clicked for the emcee and actor, just as music once had. One such point came in the 2010s while shooting the Western-themed television show Hell On Wheels. It was perhaps the first time he’d felt totally locked into a role. Another came while filming the blockbuster movie, John Wick 2, which also stars Keanu Reeves. In the film, Common plays a vengeful assassin, a role that, perhaps more than any other, featured arduous, detailed stunt work. With long stretches of hand-to-hand combat, it was as much physical labor as it was delivering lines.  

“We were so into that world,” Common says, “that we would rehearse the fight scenes and change them in the moment, right before we filmed. Once you get in that space, you see, ‘Oh, this would be cooler if we did it this or that way.’ I was dialed-in.”  

When considering Common’s prolific career, there is no bigger achievement of songwriting and acting than his time with the Oscar-winning 2014 film, Selma. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the movie depicts the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches, led by Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, among other prominent figures. Working on the movie proved to be a crucial turning point for Common, as it literally and figuratively bridged his two main creative passions. Not only was the story that inspired the movie something to marvel at, but by throwing himself into the production so completely, Common was moved to write an original song for it, which he’d never before done for a film in which he appears.

Selma was such a gift,” he says. “It was one of the greatest experiences and pieces of work that I ever got to be a part of. Starting with Ava DuVernay and all these incredible Black people in filmmaking, from our director of photography to our costume designer and head of makeup. We had an incredible team.” 

Common says he was so moved by the film’s production that while mid-conversation with his manager, a thought struck him. Out of the blue, he picked up the phone in a flash to call his fellow Grammy-winner, John Legend, with an inspired idea for a new song. Common felt so in tune with the movie’s subject matter that a song was simply just an extension of his place in the creative process. It was a true flashbulb moment. 

“I felt so connected to the movie,” Common says. “I wanted to write and submit a song. So, I ended up calling John Legend. That’s one of those moments when you listen to your intuition, your gut. John hit me back with the melody and music soon after. That turned into me writing my verse. We just created it.” 

As one might expect, Common has ambitions to continue climbing the metaphorical acting mountain. He wants to work with more established directors and the highest caliber of cast and crew. But this admittedly comes with a tough line to walk, at times. Since Common is known as a songwriter, rapper and musician first, he can sometimes find resistance from a production team, even if he’s well suited for the role. It’s a bit of a catch-22. In one way, as an established musician, he brings an audience to the film. But in that same way, some people look at him as a musician only. Of course, though, Common just uses that as inspiration to be better. His goal, he says, is to get lost in a role, and when he does, he’s giddy.  

“One of my biggest joys,” he says, “is when people don’t even see me. Oprah told me once after watching Selma, ‘Common, I didn’t even see you.’ And you know Oprah doesn’t give compliments if she don’t believe it.”   

Common works often, diligently. He’s motivated by a desire to get better, to explore his curiosities and, simultaneously, to provide for his loved ones. But there is another, perhaps more philosophical motivation that comes with his ambitions. Common, a man who believes in God, also believes that if he is given a gift, then he should then offer that gift to others.  

“I believe that when God gives you a gift,” he says, “You want to be fruitful with it. As the great Khalil Gibran says, ‘Work is love made visible.’” 

Today, Common is in a romantic relationship with the famed actor and comedienne, Tiffany Haddish. She is one of the sharpest minds in entertainment and is also one of its most successful. Together, Common says, the two bounce ideas off one another as they plot their professional futures. To each other, they offer advice and experiences. Just as Haddish doesn’t know what the life of a musician is like, Common learns lessons about what the underground comedy scene offered her. Still, they’ve been able to share adorable (and sultry) social media photos and videos along the way.  

“Tiffany is very talented,” Common says. “She has a really smart mind. She thinks about the world in unique ways, but also really intelligently. She works a lot; she’s offered a lot of things. We definitely discuss which works are more powerful. At the end of the day, if I’m in a relationship with someone, that means I trust their tastes.”  

The red carpet couple is one more example of the high points Common has earned from his dedication to his craft. Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day and neither is a substantial, long-lasting career. But between moments of success, between reaching from one proverbial rung to the next, music has subsisted in Common’s life. In that way, it has been the thread that binds the different creative patches of his history, making them whole. From the first bars he spit to his classmates as a kid, to his first role, to accepting an Oscar with John Legend for their song, “Glory,” written for Selma, Common has fostered a passion for creativity and for discovering what’s just around the corner.   

“What I love about music,” Common says, “is that it connects me to people around the world who I would normally never get to know or meet. I love how it can bring all these people together who come from different walks of life. But when the music is on, we all feel the same thing.”   

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