The University of Rhode Island welcomed rapper Common to Edwards Auditorium on Saturday night when he gave the keynote speech that concluded this past weekend’s DIVE RI 2016 Conference.
Common, whose real name is Lonnie Lynn Jr., is one of the most respected rappers in the industry today. In addition, he is also a poet, author and Academy Award winning songwriter, having co-written and performed the song “Glory” from the acclaimed 2014 film “Selma.” The theme of Common’s speech was “greatness,” something he was able to relate to in every part of his varied career and life.
After a brief introduction, Common came before the audience in Edwards, choosing to stand at the podium instead of the stool that was set up for him in the center of the stage. While it wasn’t expected that he would demonstrate his rapping abilities, Common won over the crowd immediately by performing a freestyle that name-checked several local Rhody landmarks, including Mews Tavern, Wiley and Garrahy Residence Halls, Ram’s Den and even a shout-out to URI alumnus, Lamar Odom.
Following this, he began his address by asking the crowd, “What are you willing to die for?” This was a question that was asked of him on the set of “Selma,” reminding everyone that Civil Rights leaders were willing to die for freedom. Common said this question made him think what he was willing to die for, which in turn led him to ask what he was living for. According to him, the thing that came to his mind was “greatness,” something that he said each and every one person has. For Common, the definition of “greatness” means using your gifts to perform at the highest level, and by doing so, inspiring others to reach their highest potential as well.
He said that in order for one to achieve greatness, you have to “find your purpose, achieve your purpose and live your purpose.” The rapper then related his own story and constant strive for greatness and purpose to the crowd, discussing his upbringing in Chicago and his navigation through the complexities of the entertainment business.
Common also discussed several major events in his life and career that shaped his beliefs and ideals. He said that every life event has helped shape who he is and his purpose; whether it was a quote from a teacher who expected more of him, his decision to drop out of college and become a rapper against the wishes of his mother, the soul-searching he went through after his breakup with singer Erykah Badu or his first time at the Grammys, where he lost all five awards he was nominated for. Despite the overall seriousness of the topic, Common was still able to get some laughs from the crowd with his Grammy story, especially when he brought up losing Best Rap Album to his friend Kanye West.
While talking about his early days as a rapper, Common stressed that other people might not fully grasp your purpose, but that it’s still entirely up to you to act on it.
“Some people that don’t know your purpose, whether it’s your mother, your father, your aunts, your uncles, your professors [or] your pastor, they may not know your purpose,” Common said. “They may love you, but they may not know your purpose. You know your purpose. Your purpose was given to you.”
Common closed his 45-minute speech by reiterating that everyone in the auditorium had the potential for greatness, ending with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that brought his address full circle.
“If you want to be important, wonderful,” Common said. “If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great- wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”