A dose of Common sense

Lonnie Lynn led his son to believe that his middle name, Rashid, means childhood love.

Turns out, that's not true.

But that didn't stop Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., better known by his stage name, Common, from running with it.

"I believe that love is the greatest gift we have, because if you love your creator and you love yourself, that start right there is amazing," said the 42-year-old hip-hop recording artist and actor, whose casual ensemble during a speaking engagement in Irvine on Thursday included a green track jacket and black high-tops. "If you really truly love yourself, then you're actually going to be able to love others."

Common told his audience at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center that respect and a quest for truth are other values that anchor and guide him.

Titled "Common Conversations," the event was part of "New Narratives: Conversations on Identities & Culture," a series introduced in 2013 by Thomas Parham, vice chancellor of student affairs.

A longtime proponent of diversity, Parham added that recent observations have led him to believe that people of color are fully capable of oppressing others just like them. One such incident occurred last year when the university's largest Asian American fraternity, Lambda Theta Delta, made headlines for a YouTube video showing four brothers dancing to "Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake. A member portraying rapper Jay-Z was in blackface, drawing a swift backlash.

"This is my way of saying that the old narrative where racism, cultural insensitivity and discrimination are restricted to just dominant groups like white people, like men, like heterosexuals, had to give way to what I call a new narrative, which is designed to help everybody examine the biases and assumptions they bring with them into whatever spaces they occupy," he said in a phone interview.

Eventually, he added, the success of "New Narratives," which has featured film screenings and panel discussions, doesn't depend on the praise or criticism levied at it. Instead, the yardstick lies with those who dare to have conversations about topics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities and sexual orientation, that their peers might find discomfiting.

According to Parham, Common, who starred in "American Gangster," "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" and "Now You See Me," was the perfect fit because he has utilized the cultural relevance of hip-hop to communicate a "strong sense of faith, keen intellect and social consciousness."

The author and winner of multiple Grammy Awards was greeted with a standing ovation in the partly filled 6,000-seat, indoor stadium and drew laughter and applause during his hourlong discussion with Parham that meandered through his career and childhood to a rap battle with fellow musician Drake.

Born into a lower-middle-class household on the South Side of Chicago, Common grew up surrounded by drugs, gangs and violence. Counting Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, KRS-One and Run-D.M.C. among early musical influences, he said hip-hop quickly became an outlet for expression and understanding, triggering a drive to create his own.

"My passion for music started from me ... looking at where I lived, looking at the people I was around — the good people — people who were impacting the world and deciding that I wanted to be something in life," he said. "I wanted my life to have purpose. I wanted people to know that I lived on this Earth."

The "higher purpose," as Common called it — penning poetic lyrics that captivate listeners by being honest and evocative — came later as he evolved as an individual and also a musician. A believer in art and culture's inherent ability to move people, he admitted to not even attempting to be politically correct.

Common, an actor on AMC's "Hell on Wheels," was 6 when his parents divorced. He was raised by his mother, Mahalia Ann Hines, a teacher, who now presides over the board of directors of his nonprofit, the Common Ground Foundation. The organization aims to empower disadvantaged urban youths by offering mentorship in character development, creative expression and healthy living.

Sharing personal stories of writing book reports for his mother, who placed a high value on education, Common also spoke about having to work toward forgiving his father for not being around in his younger days. This, he said, aided his concerted effort not to "walk with anger," an emotion he thinks is born of a "lack of love."

"It's easy to be nice to people when you're feeling [good] yourself ... but when things are tough, you're feeling broke, things aren't going right for you that day or that moment, how do you treat another individual then?" he asked attendees. "How do you treat a person that's poor, a person that doesn't have anything to offer you?"

After hearing Common's thoughts on adversity and using struggles to polish character, Parham opened up the discussion to audience members. Students who picked up tickets the week before the event had been given the chance to contribute questions, five of which were then posed by student leaders.

The topics ranged from Common's desire to give back to society as well as his ability to convey his identity through his music instead of adopting the chauvinistic and money-minded undertones of popular rap.

"When you're a writer in hip-hop, you're kind of required to tell some of your truth," said the musician,whose newest album, "Nobody Smiling," is slated for release in a few months. "And if not, eventually people will be like, 'Yo, you a hit maker,' but then they kind of lose touch with you because they don't feel you as a human being. I feel like I can't waste time on the mic."

Although his goal is to inspire listeners, Common noted that he can only do so by making sure his sound is "dope" and "fresh." He will lose his fans if they can't rock to or connect with his music.

Common finds that artists who have successfully stood the test of time have bared their souls. Taking a page from their books, he tells his story regardless of whether its chapters orient themselves around joy and the discovery of love or, alternately, sorrows, fears and insecurities. He stays grounded, he added, by reminding himself that his life and the opportunities that abound are a gift from God and come with an equal number of crests and troughs.

In closing, Common, who made the "Rip 'Em Eaters" hand sign and said "Zot, Zot, Zot," causing the venue to erupt into applause, improvised a rap at Parham's suggestion on the word "integrity." Before this, though, he offered advice to students about being aware of cultural differences.

"We have to educate each other on each other's culture," he said. "We have to be willing to be around people that are different than us and be accepting of that, and by the same token, be proud to be who we are. I'm not afraid — I'm proud to be black. I'm pro-black, but I'm not anti any other nationality."

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