Common on the Power of Education, Helping Kids See Past Instagram Fame & Why a Seven-Track Album With Kanye Would Be 'Incredible'
Altruism is the name of the game for Common. The MC was who once willing to give up an arm and leg to maintain the purity of the culture with his 1994 breakout hit, “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” remains selfless to this day.
Last Thursday (July 19), Common and his mother, Mahalia Ann Hines, teamed up with AdoptAClassroom.org and Burlington Stores' annual back-to-school fundraiser to give financially-stifled schools a better chance at succeeding in the realm of education. This year, Common visited P.S. 111 in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood and injected fruitful words of wisdom onto the school's rising students. The self-denying MC also donated $10,000 to help teachers buy classroom supplies after learning they were purchasing school materials on their own dime.
"First of all, teachers need to be paid more," Common tells Billboard. "When I found out teachers were splitting their money to help the students and get resources for the kids in their classes -- ninety-six percent of the teachers spend their money to get supplies for kids -- when I thought about that, and I seen the joy when we did it before and we brought the $10,000 in, [I knew I had to do it again]."
Beaming with jubilation, Common later zoomed upstairs and sat inside one of the classrooms after he presented P.S. 111 their $10,000 check. There, he watched a handful of students recite captivating songs and poems centered around social injustice. Moved by their stirring renditions, Common dived into his 2015 record "Black America" and then, out-of-nowhere, whipped up an impromptu freestyle.
"To be able to take their tough situation and write something powerful about it [is amazing]," he says. "It’s tough to know that they have to write about that right now. I know I didn’t have to write about those things, but that’s all they’re seeing right now."
Billboard sat down with Common to discuss his mission to give back, the power of education, why Instagram is misleading the youth, and his favorite G.O.O.D. Music project. Check it out below.
How was it to return as ambassador for AdoptAClassroom? I know this isn’t your first experience with them.
I felt grateful to be able to be a part of it again. The teachers here at P.S. 111, these kids come from tougher environments...some kids live in temporary homes and shelters. I look at the kids and I’m like, “Man, they deserve extra love.” Helping the teachers is helping the kids.
I want to really help our young people to go out and pursue their dreams, to be educated, and have opportunities. We need to help the teachers so they can help our youth.
It had to be refreshing to see how young and knowledgeable these kids were on social injustice, despite their current circumstances. The one girl who recited her song about Junior Guzman -- the Bronx teen who was jumped and killed by five men last month -- that was a chilling performance.
It hit me and it let me see how incredible the kids are. To be able to take their tough situation and write something powerful about it [is amazing]. It’s tough to know that they have to write about that right now. I know I didn’t have to write about those things, but that’s all they’re seeing right now. I want them to be kids, first and foremost. The fact that they feel the responsibility or the natural knack to want to write about something like this is powerful because it shows that they care. It’s one their mind because they want a better place to live. They want a better world.
The time we’re in now, social media is so crazy. It’s showing kids how they can get money fast. For boys, they can rap, or play sports. A girl can =do reality shows or model. Despite what’s going on in this generation, how can education play a vital role in a kid’s life?
Education will give the kid a real solid foundation. The stuff you just mentioned about maybe rapping, yeah, you can rap, but if you’re not educated, it’s not going to surge you in the way that it could. I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine saying, the most educated people will excel in their fields no matter what. People talking about Lebron James is the smartest player to ever play the game.
I just read an article about Kendrick Lamar and he was saying his teacher was really impressed when he was using the word -- I forgot which word it was -- that fit great with what he was doing. It just showed that having a good vocabulary and intelligence provides a foundation, no matter what you do. Kids think about taking a fast track to IG fame or rap fame but still don’t want to be educated, but it will benefit you no matter what field you go into.
What's funny is, when you were in school, you were dabbling in rapping as well. You were balancing both education and rap.
I was a great student, to be honest. I wasn’t rapping for a living so I had to make sure I was educating myself. That was the key. That was the main thing and music was one of my outlets. I was working on it just as hard. They were actually helping each other. The more I learned in school, the better my writing became. It’s as simple as that. Ultimately, like I said, intelligence, information, and knowledge, is something that really allows you to advance in whatever thing you do. I was making sure I was on my books while I was working on demos.
When you were giving your speech to the kids, you mentioned your love for James Baldwin. How did you take those elements that displayed on the writing side and combine that with what you got from a Nas or Jay-Z?
I was listening to Illmatic the other day and it was like, man, this is really great American poetry and literature. It’s rap and they’re songs, but if you just took the words and read them, this is beautiful writing. The world of James Baldwin, that was a different time and he’s his own writer and voice. And Nikki Giovanni, it’s her own voice, but it’s still coming from the experience of someone who struggled, someone who’s known pain, joy, and taken those things and figured out how to express them themselves.
I think it’s a similarity in that way, but it’s also when you’re listening to music, it’s different than just reading something. I picked up the information from all of it and just was like, “Man, what things spark my thoughts?” Or I look at it and I’m like, “Wow, that’s an incredible way to say that.” I think that’s where the similarities lie.
Your mom played an integral part in your life and also in this last collaboration with AdoptAClassroom. What values did she instill in you growing up, especially with her being an educator?
I think discipline was something that she really instilled in me. Also, even just taking me to church was really good, to be honest. The foundation of spirituality was something I knew I needed, a relationship with God. For someone to say this is what I needed to do, then, I get to develop my own from there; that was really important. Discipline was the most important thing. She would make me read and I couldn’t watch TV if I hadn’t finished my work. I think that has really paid off for me. When I work, I’m really focused on the work, then I know when it’s time to go have fun. I love the work and enjoy it, but I don’t let other elements that don’t have anything to do with the work get in the way.
For kids who lack a parent or family member that’s an educator, or are even without a two-parent household, what advice would you give them as far as trying to survive in the school system?
You still have the opportunity to be the best human being you can be. You still have the opportunity to be a great architect, or great interior designer, or great teacher. You still have the opportunity to get the best education possible and you have the responsibility to go beyond just what you get from school. You have to take that and figure out ways to learn on your own and, sometimes, read things that aren’t the assignment.
You've got to go work on aspects of academics or art that you want to put your focus into. You have the ability, because there are so many of our great people who have come from single-parent homes, foster homes, and some kids have been homeless and still achieved incredible things. You could come from the most dire situations and become a great human being on this planet.
When you were in school, did you ever envision yourself being this successful? You’re a Tony away from notching an EGOT!
When I was in school, I was just mad excited to work hard and write raps. My dream was just to be heard. I wanted De LA Soul, KRS One and NWA to just know who I was. I wanted my friends to just enjoy the raps. I wanted to be dope, and you know, things just evolved. I started creating music and records and was like, “Wow, this is affecting people’s lives.”
People came up to me and said a song really changed the way they thought about something, or, “I decided to have my child because of that song instead of having an abortion.” Those are the things where you see the value in what you’re doing at a higher level. Now, I feel like there’s no limit. There are so many things that can be accomplished. I haven’t even dreamed of them all yet. I’m just moving forward and doing my best to learn, grow and be the best I could be.
When it’s all said and done with your career, do you see yourself one day teaching?
Nah, I don’t see myself in the classroom [laughs]. That’s why I salute the teachers. I respect them at a whole other level. That’s why I’m saying teachers deserve to be paid more and to have the resources. That’s why I’m happy to be a part of this partnership, because man, these are the people who really grind it out and work hard and do important things for society. Everyday, they’re with the kids. It’s a sacrifice and giving that, I don’t know if I could do it. But I do like being able to motivate and inspire our youth.
Before we go, I have to ask you about your thoughts on G.O.O.D. and their five-album rollout. Who had the best project to you?
I really enjoyed DAYTONA. Pusha really brings it on the raps and it feels like him and ‘Ye really hit a spot. It just hit a vibe and it really came across. You could really hear him just feeling at home on those beats. He’s just being Pusha. He don’t change for anybody. He’s one of the dope dudes out there.
Kanye has been a groove. I know we would love to another Be caliber-album from you two.
Man, if we get in the lab, we're going to cook something .
Would you be interested in doing a seven-track album with 'Ye?
Oh yeah, I would love to do something with 'Ye. That would be incredible.