Academy Award-winning rapper anchors First Amendment Week at LMU
By Emily Barnett
Hip-hop artist and actor Common took to the mic last Tuesday at Loyola Marymount University as keynote speaker for the school’s First Amendment Week, an annual celebration of our constitutional rights to free expression.
Just two days earlier he was in front of a very different crowd — at the Oscars, where he and John Legend (a prior LMU First Amendment Day speaker) performed their song “Glory,” which was written for the film “Selma” and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
With more than 700 students and community members on their feet, Common (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn in 1972) approached the stage with a warranted swagger.
“Peace, everybody,” he said with a grin, getting the crowd going with a freestyle rap before launching into a TED Talk-esque motivational speech on “greatness.”
“In the Common dictionary,” he said with an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek confidence, “greatness is using your potential and your gifts to the highest level to inspire others to reach that greatness.”
Previous First Amendment Week speakers have included James Carville, Ann Coulter, Arianna Huffington, Bill Maher, Karl Rove and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane.
While Common’s connection to the topic of free expression is obvious, it’s also not so obvious. He plays a lesser-known role as founder of the Common Ground Foundation, a nonprofit that employs the arts as a tool to empower underprivileged youth and expose them to new educational, leadership and creative opportunities.
So it wasn’t politics or protesting but an inner awareness of one’s personal strengths and motivations that drove Common’s speech emphasizing the importance of pushing for personal excellence and not being afraid to “wear your greatness.”
“I made a choice in life to be great,” he said. “At one point I was open to just being good.”
Recounting a story from his years in grade school, Common said he would stir up trouble in class trying to win girls’ attention. In math class, this meant frequently passing gas — until one day a teacher scolded him that he was “greater” than the way he was behaving. Those words stuck with him, and now he believes their effect was an awakening that someone believed he had the potential to be great.
At first he directed his efforts at becoming a competitive basketball player, waking up early to practice before school and continuing to train after school.
“Fast forward, I’m NBA material,” he laughed. “But that came through practice.”
He traced his beginnings as an artist to freestyling with his friends at school.
Recalling his mother’s initial skepticism when he first started making music, he said she changed her tune once he became famous: “She like, ‘Hurry up and write a new song. I need a car.’”
For Common, composing lyrics allowed him to find his voice and recognize the power of words.
Common stayed to answer questions from audience members and won their hearts when he invited them up to the stage to take selfies with him.
He encouraged students in the crowd to find their own voice and to always work with passion — saying you cannot achieve greatness without putting in the time and effort, but stressing that believing in yourself is most important.
“Find your path, believe in your path and live it,” he said.