Common delivers keynote at ‘State of the Black Union’

Emma O'Connor

When two-time Grammy-winning rapper Common woke up Monday morning wondering what he wanted to talk to Northwestern students about, only one word came to mind: greatness.

“Everyone I’m speaking to tonight has greatness in them,” Common said to the approximately 450 attendees who came to Cahn Auditorium on Monday for For Members Only’s third annual “State of the Black Union” address .

As the event’s keynote speaker, ComMonday, who performed on Dillo Day in 2008, discussed his childhood growing up on Chicago’s South Side. He said he wanted to inspire others to achieve their highest personal potential.

Common’s own outreach organization, the Common Ground Foundation, provides leadership training and educational and personal mentoring for youth in underserved communities, according to its website. The rapper’s work with the program, coupled with his star power as both a rapper and an actor, made him an appropriate choice to speak at this year’s address, said Kellyn Lewis, FMO’s vice coordinator of external relations.

“Common is a well-known name to most Northwestern students. He is also a person who is very engaged in giving back,” the Weinberg junior said. “We hope that by bringing ComMonday, a large amount of students will show up and hear his message.”

State of the Black Union was co-sponsored by the African American Studies department, the Latina and Latino Studies program, the Asian American Studies program, the Center for Civic Engagement, the Black Graduate Student Association and the Office of the Provost. It was presented with the support of the Coalition of Colors.

The objective of State of the Black Union is to engage NU’s black community and the greater Chicago-area black community in “an intellectual, political and social discussion,” said Samuel Lozoff, FMO’s vice coordinator of programming.

“This year, our goal is to address what’s going on directly in Chicago and discuss things like mentorship programs,” the Weinberg junior said. “We’re looking at what the urban youth of 2010 are facing and what university students can do to help change their trajectory.”

Common began his talk with a freestyle rap about his NU audience that name-dropped such campus cornerstones as Sheridan Road, the Rock and The Keg of Evanston.

He then discussed the importance of embracing one’s own talents – a lesson he learned through a painful breakup with singer Erykah Badu .

“What I discovered through that breakup was that I was afraid to wear my greatness,” Common said. “I was okay with being second fiddle. I was okay with dimming my light for others.”

His friendship and professional collaborations with another artist, Kanye West, taught Common to have confidence in his work.

“You all know that he has no problem with believing in himself,” Common joked about West.

Students said they were impressed with the speech.

“He was fantastic,” said Rema Rahman, a Medill graduate student. “I’m a big fan of his, and his talk was inspirational.”

Common particularly emphasized the importance of emotional endurance.

“When you come across obstacles, you turn obstacles into possibles,” he said.

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