Common is many things to many people: To lovers of socially conscious hip-hop, he’s been in the game since 1992’s Can I Borrow a Dollar?. To film and television fans, he’s an actor (John Wick: Chapter 2, The Tale), producer (The Chi), and 2015 Oscar winner for the song “Glory” from Selma — he pulled double duty, also playing civil rights leader James Bevel. In his spare time, he’s the voice of Microsoft AI ads. But Common is also a memoirist. The second volume of his life, the newly released Let Love Have the Last Word, tells hard stories of putting work before his daughter, failed relationships, and the stunning revelation of being molested as a child.
The new book is the first reason that Common will be at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books on Saturday, June 1. His second stop, however, is to visit friends at the Mann Center later that day when he stops by the Roots Picnic. Common just happens to be on Things Fall Apart, the 1999 album that Questlove, Black Thought and co. are celebrating with special guests.
By the time of Can I Borrow a Dollar? you transformed from Lonnie Rashid Lynn into Common Sense, and then Common. Would you say that Rashid is still part of everything you do?
I created ‘Common’ as a name, and never really looked at him as a persona so different from me. I was never like ‘Yo, this is my superhero name.’ But, but, I will say that there were a lot of things that I felt like I was expressing as Common, in music, that I didn’t say in my everyday life. That name gave me a safe place to say whatever I wanted. … Rashid is an open person too, it’s just that Common can say anything and everything.
You are a young man, already on your second memoir. When did you realize there was much more to tell?
I didn’t know until after I finished that first book, and was on its tour. I knew I had more to say, but, I didn’t know what that more was. A book is a different experience than any other kind of art. A book gives an audience an opportunity to sit, contemplate and digest information in different ways. I use books to gain information and to learn step-by-step rules as to how to apply that information. I love self-help books, books that help me get in tune with myself. I knew that I wanted to write something that was concrete and practical, the same way I got things from Malcom X’s Autobiography or Return to Love from Marianne Williamson. These books shook me and shaped me. I wanted to write something inspiring to people, that shook and shaped them.
As a black man – any man – telling the world that you have been sexually abused can be a rough task. What level of catharsis comes from such a revelation?
I first wrote about being molested in a song on my new album inspired by the book. I hadn’t actually written about the situation of being molested and how I felt about it in the book. Then I shared the song with someone on my team, and she as like ‘Man, this happened to you?’ I told her ‘Yes,’ and that it would only make it to the album. She was surprised as to why I wouldn’t put it in the book. Thinking about how I use books to heal and inspire people and give people insight as to how to help themselves became my motivation to include that story in the memoir. It was a true journey to remember all this and that — go through the steps, recall where I was, what I felt, where this person touched me — that was hard. Trying to remember and get through memories I had tucked and pushed away was difficult. Writing it though was a release. I felt free. I felt even more free as I started getting interviewed about it. Now, I’m getting asked about it all the time. It felt therapeutic to them and me. I felt as if I was doing God’s work.
Why is this time the right time for you to say all this?
It took some soul searching, some therapy, the pain I see in other people, and the cycles I see repeated in individuals and families going through these same things that made me speak out. Where we are at in society now? I want to talk about feelings. I want to talk about stopping these cycles. I want to be active in it.
Since the new album and the book share the same name, is it fair to say that the upcoming record is more personal and connected to you, than the socio-political and communally-oriented Nobody’s Smiling and Black America Again?
Those two albums talked about we, us. The new album talks about what and how I have experienced things, my joys and pain, my flaws and victories. Looking inside my soul, and inspiring to others, hopefully. And it has elements of hip hop in it.
Your love affair with Philly is a long-term relationship, and a lot of it starts with The Roots. They are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, of which you just happen to be a part.
Philadelphia has allowed me to have the best gig partners and musical relationships in my life. The soul of Philadelphia is something I’m always drawn to, revered, and held high. I’m grateful to be coming back for the Picnic.
1999 was a crucial time for that band and for you.
You’re right about 1999. It was the moment. Erykah’s Mama’s Gun, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and my album Like Water for Chocolate all came after Things Fall Apart. Let me tell you — that album helped me change myself. Musically, The Roots were pushing the envelope. Ahmir was a visionary. Black Thought taught me a lot. Dude’s incredible. They helped me see things in a way I had never experienced, and gave me a chance to be among my brothers. They were innovative and inspiring. In fact, the first time I realized that I could do something banging was when they called me on stage. I wasn’t a kid, either, when I was hanging and touring with them then. I was 25, 26. Seeing their achievements made me realize I could do it too.
12:30 p.m., Saturday, June 1, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books, The People’s Sanctuary, 5507 Germantown Avenue, unclebobbies.com