From the Oscars to UAlbany
By Michelle Checchi
March 3, 2015
Fresh off of the stage from his first Oscar win, Common came to the University at Albany with one particular word he wanted to talk to his audience about.
“Greatness is a state of mind and a lifestyle that every one of us deserves,” he said to the sold-out audience in the Campus Center Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 28. “Not good, not mediocre, not okay, not cool, not alright, not fine. But greatness.”
Common appeared at UAlbany as part of the World Within Reach Speaker Series. This year was the first time that Speaker Series coincided with Black History Month.
Common started off with a freestyle rap, which included UAlbany references like “U-A, You-Know,” shouting out the quads, Chicken Joes, and “podiating” on the Podium. Common got the scoop on these UAlbany insiders from certain members of the student media about 20 minutes before he took the stage.
Common outlined three steps that he believes can lead someone to achieve greatness.
“I came up with this formula, this idea of reaching greatness. You have to find your path, believe in your path, and live your path.”
Common started by sharing colloquial stories from his past that show how he was pushed to achieve greatness. At 12 years old, when he was acting foolish in class, a professor looked him in the eyes and said, “You’re greater than that,” which touched him.
Around the same age, Common played in a youth basketball league and was a self-proclaimed “buster” (e.g., a player who isn’t particularly skilled) who played in the second and third quarter. After failing to get any points or assists for weeks on end, his uncle, an assistant coach, saw Common moping, and decided he had had enough.
“He [my uncle] threw down his keys, and started saying some words that I don’t want to say at this prestigious university,” Common said. “But basically the gist of his words were, ‘If you wanna be good, if you wanna be great, then you’re going to have to work at it.’”
Common also shared the story of being nominated for five Grammy awards, writing three speeches in preparation for winning the awards, and losing all of them. Most upsettingly, he lost the title of Best Rap Album to his good friend Kanye West. Common’s belief that he would win the awards had not been enough to make the cut.
“Belief is only the second part to achieving greatness. The third is you have to live it. You have to live your path. So even though I believed that I was going to get those Grammys at that time, living your path means that everything that you want may not come exactly when you want it.”
“Things happen in divine time, when you are really, truly prepared to embrace it. And I’m here to really tell you that.”
The rapper, actor, and writer came into the hip-hop scene in the early 90s as Common Sense. His lengthy career includes working with West, producing 10 albums, working on upwards of 20 major motion pictures, and reading poetry at the White House.
At the 87th Academy Awards on Feb. 22, Common and John Legend preformed their song “Glory” from the film “Selma,” and the track won the Oscar for Best Original Song later in the evening. “Selma” takes place in a turbulent 1965 Alabama, immediately following legal desegregation in the South. The film is named for the famous march Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers made from Selma to Montgomery. Their actions helped lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“To achieve that award is really one of the greatest achievements in my life. For it to be for ‘Glory,’ and for it also to be a part of ‘Selma’ is the most rewarding thing, because it’s something that is meaningful, and it stands for something,” Common said before his presentation.
Although “Selma” is set 50 years ago, Common sees similarities between that time period, and present day racial issues.
“It’s still some racial divide and prejudices that have not been dealt with, and though during the times of the Civil Rights it was more outward, it still exists, and it’s still something that has to be solved,” he said. “And I think that’s where you get the meeting of the two: Selma 50 years ago, and today, present day issues that we have.”
“The message that I speak about is achieving greatness, and that means never settling for mediocrity, never settling for just being good. But truly striving and achieving greatness. And that would be my message: that we all can achieve that.”