Common at UCI
“I wanted my life to have a purpose … and I saw music as a way to express myself,” said Common at the Bren Events Center. Jocelyn Lee / UC Irvine

UC Irvine students and community members enjoyed a spirited talk last week by Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist and actor Common at the Bren Events Center.

In a chat moderated by Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham, Common touched on his Chicago roots, his faith, and growing up as the only child of a single mom. He charmed the audience with freestyle rapping and a “Zot! Zot! Zot!” shout-out and even referenced his reported “beef” with rap rival Drake.

Common, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., visited UC Irvine as part of “New Narratives: Conversations on Identities & Culture,” a yearlong series of events promoting healthy intergroup communication and cooperation that’s sponsored by Student Affairs.

He sat onstage beside Parham for the hourlong discussion. It was a rare opportunity for the campus administrator. “This is a treat for me,” Parham said. “Most folks I interview are academics and scholars. This brother here has a whole other level of insight.”

Common was influenced by his mother, a dedicated public school teacher who pushed her students to succeed and supported her son’s musical and career ambitions. He described his upbringing as “lower-middle-class,” in an area surrounded by poverty.

“I grew up seeing people who didn’t have anything,” Common said. “I didn’t grow up in the projects, but I have always felt compassion toward people who didn’t have anything. Giving back is just something I’m supposed to do.”

He talked about his musical influences as well.

“My passion for music started on the South Side of Chicago,” Common said. “I wanted my life to have a purpose. I looked up to stars like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, KRS-ONE and Run-D.M.C. I had a true connection to their music, and I saw music as a way to express myself.”

The recording artist has also acted in such films as “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” and “American Gangster” and in 2011 published a best-selling memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense. He commented on what draws him to projects: “I ask myself, ‘Can I find truth in it? Is the truth in my songwriting? Am I truly feeling this song? Am I expressing something pure?’ And if I’m playing a murderer, ‘Can I make him a human being?’”

Common was brought to UC Irvine with the help of Milo Dodson, an intern in the campus’s Counseling Center and a Ph.D. student in counseling psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also directs the Dreamers & Believers summer youth camp for the rapper’s Common Ground Foundation, which fosters character education, creative expression and healthy living among underserved youth.

“Working for Common is a dream come true,” he said. “I’ve been listening to his music since high school, and he’s a role model.” Dodson, who runs a support group on campus for black men, thought Common would be a good fit for “New Narratives,” as his music addresses social issues and reflects a vulnerability not often seen in the hyper-masculine world of hip-hop.

An avowed Christian, Common spoke about his core values of love, trust and respect and stressed the importance of honesty and integrity in everyday life. He acknowledged often falling short of these ideals – as in his feud with Drake – but said that such lapses should be seen as learning experiences.

At the end of his appearance, Common was given an Anteater baseball cap by Dominique Doan, vice president of student services for Associated Students of UC Irvine. He placed it slightly sideways on his head and broke into a freestyle rap, which elicited roars from the crowd.

Ayana Baines, a third-year political science and sociology major, attended the event with fellow members of the campus’s Black Student Union. “I really enjoyed how honest he was,” she said of Common. “His answers weren’t cookie-cutter, and he spoke from his heart.”