Thank God for hip hop: Common performs at Hill

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By Adam Theisen, Senior Arts Editor
Published April 19, 2015

Less than five minutes into his concert at Hill Auditorium last Friday, Common was already one of the common people.

During one of the set’s earliest songs, “Blak Majik” from last year’s Nobody’s Smiling, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning rapper left the stage and ran into the crowd, high-fiving jubilant fans as he moved through the aisles and continued to perform.

It was an early highlight of an especially intimate performance from Common. In front of fans that included Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (with the latter sporting a “Do The Right Thing”-inspired Radio Raheem t-shirt), Common played a career-spanning set ranging from songs that were less than a year old to tracks that he laid down over two decades ago.

Dressed simply in jeans and a blue jacket over a dark shirt, Common looked confident and relaxed, happy to be there yet entirely ready to deliver a top-notch set. Early on, he listed off all of his albums in order for the crowd, getting cheers for each one while mentioning that he was “still hungry” for more. Common connected with the crowd and turned Hill into an intimate performance space during energetic favorites like “Go!” and “Get Em High” as well as more dramatic work like “Testify.” In fact, he completely shattered the performer-fan divide when he brought a fan from the front row onto the stage, dancing with her for a bit before sitting her on a stool and performing for her.

“I’ve always felt like Michigan was a second home to me,” Common said from the stage, referencing to the Fab Five and the late great Detroit producer J Dilla. He backed up those words later when he stopped “I Used to Love H.E.R.” to launch into a freestyle that name-checked Ann Arbor landmarks like State Street, South Quad, the Fishbowl, Skeeps and Rick’s.

“I'm sorta like Jalen / the way that I Rose,” he improvised.

The show was organized by MUSIC Matters, with the proceeds from the concert going to a summer camp for Detroit youth, and Common gave the evening an extra helping of socially conscious credibility. Though fearless with his power to put on a great show, Common also took care to emphasize that he never let celebrity get to his head, telling the crowd that no matter how long he rapped, he would always stand for the people.

The night felt like a celebration of hip hop and old-school soul music as much as it did a Common concert. For an extended period of time during the show, Common let his DJs spin golden age hip-hop tracks, from Biggie to Naughty by Nature, while the crowd cheered and grooved. In addition, opening act Antwaun Stanley and the Detroit creative collective Video 7 started the night with Stanley singing a medley of classic soul, including “What’s Going On,” “O-o-h Child” and “Love Train.” Musical references to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest also made their way into Video 7’s performance, and there was also a fantastic reimagining of J Dilla’s “Dime Piece,” featuring just a harp, synthesizer and vocals.

The bittersweet memory of Dilla, in particular, hung over the entire show. Common even took some time to recall a moment long ago in Downtown Detroit, when Jay Dee picked him up, and Common became enthralled with the music playing on Dilla’s speakers and was amazed to discover that the tracks were Dilla’s own productions. Fittingly, it was the Dilla-made “The Light” that got the night’s loudest singalong.

Of course, the show’s most poignant moment came near the end, when Common performed a stripped-down version of “Glory,” his song with John Legend that featured in the end credits of “Selma” and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song just a few months ago. Accompanied by just a piano and back-up vocals, Common dedicated the song to Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and so many others “who have lost their lives to ignorance, to lack of humanity, to law enforcement who have no respect for life,” Common said.

“We all come from the one true creator, the most high,” he continued. “And it’s going to be up to us to change the system. It’s up to us to go out and change the situation. We can’t just tweet about it and Instagram about it; we gotta plan and strategize and be active out there supporting groups, voting, organizing ... and as you all go out as college students and people in the community, the things that you want to change, change it yourself.”

A hush fell over the crowd as Common performed the verses quietly and reflectively, ending the song not with a note of triumph, but with the knowledge that more work is still necessary if the Glory is going to come.

Outside of Hill after the show, Common posed for a picture with members of MUSIC Matters, commending them for the job they did and encouraging them to continue with their work.

“I think it’s super important that we provide opportunities not only for ourselves and each other but for the young people that’s coming up after us,” he told the group.

“I know hip hop, for me, was a way to express myself in ways that I never had done ever before, so art and music and culture and just being able to be you through the art is an important thing,” he continued. “So if we empower our young people to be able to do that through MUSIC Matters and other organizations that are supporting that, I’m telling you we’re gonna make a better world, because I know that without hip hop, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be here.”

Thank God for hip hop.