Thousands of University of Michigan students and local community members filled Hill Auditorium to hear American rapper, actor, philanthropist and activist Common speak at the Handleman Lecture on Thursday night. Answering questions posed by Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School of Business, Common discussed how he aims to use his platform as a force for positive change.
Hosted by the Business School and sponsored by the Joseph and Sally Handleman Charitable Foundation, the annual event invites a prominent figure to campus each year to speak on relevant business topics. As part of their curricular activities, all first- and second-year Business students were required to attend.
Common opened the event by sharing how he found his voice through rap at the age of 12. Seeing the love and joy his work brought, Common said he knew he wanted to become a rapper when he realized his work had impact.
“When I found my voice, I started to figure out what I stood for and who I am,” Common said. “My voice really became something that I knew was mine when I found out it had purpose,”
When asked about formative moments in his childhood, Common said learning the story of Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old who was lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955, has been the strongest influence in shaping who he is today.
“Me seeing that as a little kid and knowing that he was just like me, from Chicago, it made me feel like I had to live for something greater,” Common said. “It made me realize, someone died just because he whistled at someone, so what am I going to do with this life?”
According to Common, much of his conviction to do good is also rooted in his spirituality. Pointing to his heart, he said he believes God gives everyone a purpose, a value he said keeps him grounded in all the decisions he makes.
“I take my time to pray, I take my time to take it in,” Common said. “And if it don’t feel right for me right here, no matter what my manager says, what my agent says, what my mother says, knowing what my core purpose is and my function is, then I don’t do it. And I don’t let anything sway me away.”
Speaking on the role of business in his work, Common compared business to an “amplifier” which gives his music a platform to have widespread impact. He also encouraged the audience to maintain integrity and pursue their passions regardless of monetary temptations.
“It’s nothing to profit and get so much money but lose your soul for that,” Common said. “No matter how much money you gain, if you lose yourself in it, that’s a recipe for unhappiness.”
DeRue then posed a question from a student to Common about how to navigate race relations in an increasingly divided United States. To much audience applause, Common said the country needs to first recognize the suffering of Black Americans.
“America, white America, and especially the ones in government who hold a lot of the keys to what history, what the conversation is about, need to acknowledge the pain, enslavement, the dehumanizing of black people in America,” Common said.
In addition, Common shared he believes Black Americans should also strive to heal for themselves.
“We owe it to ourselves to not carry the weight of oppression,” Common said. “We owe it to ourselves to not carry the weight of that hatred … I’ve got to forgive, because if I carry this with me, I’m not going to be the best human being I can be.”
To close, Common urged students in the audience to pursue their dreams in ways that better other people.
“Love for God, love for self, and love for others as self — if we can apply that each and every day, we will all be bettering the world,” Common said.
Norman Bishara, Business School associate dean for undergraduate programs, explained the school brought in Common as the speaker for the event as part of their focus on integrating the arts and humanities in business.
“I think you can judge from the reactions of our students that they were engaged, that they learned a lot and also got a lot to think about,” Bishara said. “In classes, students are talking about the role of business in society, so it’s really important for students to appreciate how all these different things come together.”
To Business freshman Dele Ojo, it was refreshing to hear Common encourage the audience to trust their instincts and pursue their passions.
“The part that most inspired me, I think, was the part when he said to follow your gut feeling,” Ojo said. “Right now, I’m at the stage of life where you hear so many voices, so hearing someone’s who’s gone through the struggle and really taken the leap to follow his dream and use that dream to help others, it motivates me to keep pursuing that I want to do.”
Similarly, Business freshman Lindsey Azu shared she was especially inspired when Common spoke on pursuing one’s passions even if others may not believe in them.
“He talked about business as a platform, and that’s what I want to do, because I want to go into non-profit,” Azu said. “I want to be part of the platform that gives to people.”
Tierra Jackson, University alum and Ann Arbor Public Schools teacher, said she loved how Common spoke from the heart.
“When he talked about how we have to forgive first, I mean, that’s what we’re teaching our kids, right?” Jackson said. “You can’t just be angry. Can you get everything you need when you’re carrying that weight on your shoulders? I really hope whoever was here tonight really hears that, so we can move forward as a country.”