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Story By Ian Kirby
For this cover of the 2012 diversity issue, we bring you not only a Grammy winner, accomplished author, actor and model, but someone that has a true, burning passion for the campus market and college audiences.
It would not be an overstatement to call Common a legend. At just 40, he has been not only an award winning artist himself, but has been involved with music projects with some of the most influential and popular artists of the last 20 years including Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Prince, will.i.am, Alicia Keys, Nas, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, The Roots, Pharrell, Mos Def and more. He has been featured in multiple films such as Smokin' Aces, Terminator Salvation, Happy Feet Two and New Year's Eve. In 2011 he published his memoirs and was even invited to The White House by First Lady Michelle Obama.
What's even more impressive than his credentials? His passion. There can be little doubt when speaking to Common that he thinks of speaking to the youth of the college market as one of the most important and inspiring things he does. It's literally the first thing he says in our exclusive interview for the readers of Campus Activities Magazine. "First of all, I know how valuable students in college are. They are part of our bright future. These student who choose to go to universities and pursue a higher form of education are at the age where they are forming opinions for the rest of their lives. There is no better time to inspire and motivate them, they are in a period of transition and if I can be of any help it is extremely gratifying to me, and there will be no group of people that will more immediately affect our future than them. I want to help anyone in the world, but when I go to campuses I feel a very specific connection. I went to college and I know that when you have a vision or a dream for yourself sometimes you are in a great place, or a difficult place, or you don't know where you are at all. It is always good to get support and reinforcement and if listening to me helps provide them any clarity or direction because they have seen my path and are inspired by it, hallelujah, you know? Every time I speak at a campus, I look out on the crowd and think "Man, this is our future right here. This is the future for building a better country and better world. It is a very valuable and significant opportunity for me to come speak at the colleges and I am grateful for every one."
Common attended Florida A&M University, graduating with a degree in business administration. He says the opportunity to be not only in a culturally diverse environment, but one that's members were focused and driven all around him, provided him with the vision to follow his passion. "One of the most important things I realized when I was in college is that my dream was to be an artist. I wanted to be a musician and pursue the arts. The time in college was critical for everyone to put serious thought and work into what they want to do. When I start my speeches, I am looking at the audience with the same principle in mind. Because they are in an environment where they are shaping the direction of their adult lives, perhaps seeing one guy that 20 years ago was where they are now then, but now is in the place he dreamed of will provide them with the inspiration to not limit their visions."
This is not idle, pandering talk. If you could hear the passion and dedication in Common's voice, you would know it's true. Oh wait, that's right...you can. So much is the energy provided to Common by campus audiences, that he actually wrote a verse into a song from his 2011 album release The Dreamer/The Believer, specifically about speaking in front of college students, which he recites. "In fact I did do a verse in the very first song on my last album, the title cut called 'The Dreamer.' It goes:
'He introduced me, I stepped to the podium
Said peace, give thanks to the holy one
Put my water up, thought about my
daughter for a second
The youth, the living resurrection
Reflections of the sun glaring
through the window
Now an audience staring at my mental
Feeling like the world, the world is
at my fingers
'Bout to speak to an auditorium
full of dreamers
Kinda took me back to when
I first had a dream
To be like the king that sang Billie Jean
Now it's gold records, and
I'm on silver screens
At the mountaintop, you still gotta dream
To the dreamers'
Seriously, how freakin' cool is that? Almost as cool as the fact that Maya Angelou closes the song out with a verse? Any celeb can talk the talk to try to use their status to gain speaking dates in the market, but how many of them put their money where their mouth is in a more tangible way than that? "That lyric really sums up what I think about when I get the opportunity to speak on a campus," he says.
There was a time when Common could've taken advantage of the market by doing speaking dates and he didn't, due solely to his integrity as a performer. "I didn't even get into the world of speaking engagements for a while because I felt like I had to be worthy of it. I wanted to be good at it and really have something to say before I just jumped up and started talking to people. Shit, you are shaping people's future; if you don't do right by them then it could not only be a waste of everyone's efforts, but even a detriment to those people's lives. I don't mean to overstate my importance, but a speaker is not doing those students justice if they're not really bringing in something for them to walk with. Some words of wisdom, some food for thought, even if it is just being honest and open with your own experiences. I take these shows just as seriously as anything else I do to try and impact our culture."
The connection with college students comes from a positive and life-changing experience from his own campus days. "When I first went to college, I got to meet people from different areas of the country. The South Side of Chicago is very segregated in itself. Although I went to a predominantly black university, I still got to meet many different types of people from different walks of life. Getting to know how to relate to different people and things is important in life and I think the diversity of my career exemplifies that. Being able to wear so many hats professionally has allowed me to not only work with many different types of people, but has increased my skills, experience and perspective so that I feel I have something valuable to share. I inject those experiences into my speech."
There was an enormous controversy involving Common last year, when he was personally invited to the White House Poetry Night by The First Lady. The conservative news machine got ahold of some of his past lyrics, which voice support for someone some consider a political prisoner and others consider a terrorist. You can find the facts online and decide for yourself, but the general consensus (and that of Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" who interviewed Common about the fiasco on the September 14, 2011 if you want to check it out) was that the lyrics cited and the situation as a whole was taken way out of context. Whichever side you may fall on, one fact is for sure; in our over-saturated 24-hour news cycle, the old adage of "no such thing as bad publicity" held firm. "It ended up being a great thing, believe it or not," he says. "Large parts of the media had things misconstrued, which made people curious and allowed them to find out facts on their own. Once that aspect is understood, then you are left with the fact that Fox News, CNN and the other major outlets spoke at length about me to large masses of people who were probably not already in my fan base. That means new people have been exposed not only to the political situation I wanted to call attention to [ed. note: mission accomplished] but to my career in itself. I have to say it was disconcerting at first, but once the dust settled a little bit, I realized I owed FOX News a big thanks for shining so much light on me and my lyrics. The folks that took the time to actually look into it realized the reality of the situation, those that didn't are probably not going to hear reason anyway."
One thing is for sure, this is a dynamic, intelligent, articulate, personable man with an enormous public profile, an impressive career and a true passion for students. If this interview and story has not conveyed this by now, seeing it for yourself will, so why not check him out online and then call Sean Lawton at Keppler Speakers at (703) 516-4000 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on bringing him to your campus.