Common is putting his heart at the core of his music and his outreach.
The GRAMMY, Emmy, Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning hip-hop artist’s latest studio effort Let Love goes back to basics, recalibrating that soulful production and lyrically profound subject matter he’s been delivering for close to three decades. Let Love’s lead single, “HER Love,” produced by the late J Dilla, reinvigorates that unconditional love reminiscent of “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Its follow-up “Hercules” features a harmonizing Swizz Beatz over a spine-tingling rimshot.
Let Love, Common’s first release for Loma Vista Recordings, is inspired by his bestselling memoir Let Love Have the Last Word, which was released this past May. He enlisted recording artists BJ the Chicago Kid, Jonathan McReynolds, Leon Bridges, Jill Scott, Dwele, A-Trak and Samora Pinderhughes to collaborate on his deeply personal sonic excursion.
The 47-year-old entertainer born Lonnie Rashid Lynn is steadfast about connecting directly with his fanbase and like-minded energy. He says the effort is what sparks real change in various communities. “Service is about listening and paying attention to others,” Common says. “It’s making a decision from that assessment about what others may need, being willing to sacrifice in order to deliver, and recognize that service is a living organism. It’s a consistent thing that may evolve.”
The lyricist known for critically lauded LPs like Can I Borrow a Dollar? (1992), Resurrection (1994), One Day It’ll All Make Sense (1997), Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Be (2005) and Black America Again (2017) has been on a roll delivering keynote speeches, town hall meetings and visiting schools and prisons.
But his involvement with underserved youth in his hometown of Chicago is where Common feels he’s most effective. His nonprofit organization, Common Ground Foundation (CGF), aims to empower and inspire junior high and high school students to become leaders. The participants engage in year-round activities and workshops geared towards mentorship, college readiness, health and wellness, nutrition, financial literacy, the arts, character development and professional development.
“You have to introduce kids to different things and let them gravitate towards the things that they really love,” Common explains. “It lets them spend their time in more productive ways. Those types of programs will be really helpful.”
The son of an educator, Common started his own recording imprint, Think Common Entertainment, and a production company, Freedom Road Productions. Having solid mentorship, he says, inspired him to strive for excellence and to use his influence to help others. “Because you had teachers that care,” the member of supergroup August Greene recalls, “you would get some pluses and get a little extra work and energy put towards your education. Those things didn’t always exist, at least where I was at that time.”
“If students have the drive to do something and maybe lose that drive for a moment, CGF is there calling your mom,” said Clark Atlanta University student and CGF participant Stokely Davis. “They have your phone number, your parents’ phone numbers, and email. They have people who’ve been to the schools that know teachers and folks at the Department of Education from the top down. They’re really looking at every avenue to help every student succeed. They understand that every student’s road to success is going to be different.”
Morehouse College student Deshaun Blake was accepted into 21 of 26 universities he applied to because of CFG’s support. Not receiving sufficient financial aid in his award letter, Blake earned over $40,000 in scholarships from CGF. Common and his mother wrote recommendation letters on Blake’s behalf to secure his enrollment.
“[CGF] checks on us,” Blake said. “To know that someone, a celebrity, took time out to say this person deserves to be here. I already wanted to come to Morehouse, but when I saw somebody behind me pushing, I knew this was the move.”
Davis and Blake both agree that Common is very hands-on and responsive with CGF. It wasn’t uncommon for Common and his team to play basketball with the kids in shorts and t-shirts. He actively chimes in during the town hall meetings and fireside chats with both boys and girls. When Blake became SGA President in his high school, Common showed up to show support.
“Common is very involved,” Blake said. “He definitely has a busy schedule being the celebrity that he is. He still keeps in touch. At any event that I show up at or if he comes to campus to promote his albums, if he sees you in the audience, [he’ll ask you to] come up or bring you to the back to talk. He cares about the work he’s doing.”
Davis, calling his mentor “Uncle Common,” concurs: “As long as you show an interest in the organization or an interest that you have in pursuing it, everybody in his organization is going to know you and is going to want to help you succeed in that. They really want to push the kids.”
To Common, the intersection between hip-hop and humanitarianism go hand-in-hand. “It’s very significant when hip-hop artists use their voice to do anything that’s positive,” Common reflects. “It has a big effect. When hip-hop artists use their voice because it has such an important impact on culture, it really has a wave to it. It really affects things.”
Common continues, “We’re human beings. You’ve got to do it when you’re sincere or care about it. It may happen at 23 or 46; you never know. Those that do care or talk about it be about it. That’s really what it comes down to.”
“Common is someone well-known for his leadership, commitment to service, and his willingness to speak out on issues that matter,” said United Way of Greater Atlanta president and CEO Milton Little, Jr.
Helping others recognize their spark is the greatest reward for Common in his storied career. He appreciates having a voice that can reach both young and old. All he aspires to do, he says, is instill hope into people’s lives.
“One of the things I’m most passionate about is giving young people opportunities, access and creating things for them so that they can go out and be the best and operate in their purpose,” Common declares. “I’m proud when I see the kids do that. I always want to be a part of things that I do believe can be effective.”