Hip-hop artist, television and film actor, author, businessman, philanthropist, father -- Lonnie Rashid Lynn, better known as Common, has taken on a wide range of roles since he first burst into the public eye with his first album, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, in 1992. The two-time Grammy winner has since released eight more albums, most recently 2011’s The Dreamer/The Believer, with a new album -- featuring Kanye West -- due out in the fall. He’s had roles in nearly 20 movies, including Smokin’ Aces, Street Kings, and Date Night, appeared in Gap and Microsoft ads, and read poetry at the White House.
Your Common Ground Foundation, originally launched in 2001, provides summer youth camp and mentoring for kids in the Chicago public schools. It’s been recognized by CNN Heroes and BET Hip Hop Awards. What was your inspiration for creating it?
"Growing up, I was always looking around and seeing that my friends had more difficult situations than I did. Nobody’s perfect, but I had a mother who was there and provided and cared, and a stepfather who was there for me, and a lot of my friends didn’t have that. I always wished I could give them that support. Once I was able to afford it and was blessed with the platform to do art and music and business, I wanted to utilize it to help others."
Do you have any standout memories from your work with the foundation?
"It’s funny, at first the kids don’t want to be out in a place where there’s no cell phones, no tech. A lot of them are closed off to being out in nature and developing in that environment. Watching them start opening up and communicating, and how the camp affects them, is great. I remember specifically one time when we were doing programs at the Chicago Lighthouse in Englewood, and this young lady’s grandmother asked if I could get on the phone. She just said thank you -- her granddaughter had lost her mom, and didn’t have a lot of direction, and the program finally gave her something that she was enthused about. That really touched me."
Your 2011 memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, was co-written with your mother, and your mom plays a key role in your foundation. How do the two of you work together?
"My mother is a really important part of my life. She’s provided a lot for me, and she’s always encouraged me to do more and help out more. As a teacher and a principal, she has always wanted to be present in the lives of young people, so working with the foundation is like one of her callings. Working with her on the book was really great. It was natural -- just her talking about her love, and her ideas, and the surprises and different things about dealing with me. It was really enlightening for me -- I didn’t know it would be so much fun!"
Tell us about your new film, Now You See Me.
It’s a thriller/action movie, about magicians who rob banks and then give the money to the people. It’s a well-written story, very action-packed, and featuring a lot of incredible actors: Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher. I play the head of the FBI division on the hunt to find out who these magicians are going to be robbing next."
You’ve said that the birth of your daughter was a transformative moment that left you with a new take on your responsibilities as an artist. Can you talk about the first time that really hit you?
"It hit me, really as soon as I knew that Kim, her mom, was pregnant: and, 'I’ve got a responsibility! I’m about to be a father.' It was like a mountain I felt I had to climb. I was just a young guy having fun and being creative and living out my dreams, but then I started thinking about what can I do to be a good father and take responsibility -- and also think about how my music can affect young people, and what type of world I’m going to create.
"It wasn’t that my heart wasn’t always into that, I like to create positive vibrations, but it became more of a duty to do that. I knew that it was time for me to start having even a greater purpose in my music. That was a turning point, a shift. As much as I had to be responsible and say something in my music, I also have to be honest and true to where I am. Just because you become a parent doesn’t take you away from being a young man, a fun-loving person."
What has been your toughest moment as a father?
Truly, I think one of the hardest things has been just not going forward in a relationship with my daughter’s mom. That’s a hard thing because, you know, hey, I’m supposed to be here and be present, but I don’t necessarily want to be in a relationship with the person, so what do I do? I knew if I wasn’t happy I couldn’t be a good father and a good person, so I had to choose to be the best father I could be even though we might not be the traditional married family. It’s also hard because I have to make sure to allocate time to be the best father I can be when I’m in an industry that’s so demanding, especially when you’re the artist. You gotta show up when some of the other people on the team don’t have to physically be there.
You’re about to start filming the third season of Hell on Wheels, the AMC post-Civil War drama about the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. How has playing the emancipated slave Elam affected you?
It definitely has led me to understand American history more, and the relationship between blacks and whites -- it wasn’t all "black and white." I’ve learned how significant the African people were to the struggle and the building of this country. I knew that, but when you start learning more details about what black people went through in the building of this country...honestly, along with the president being who he is, doing this show helps me to feel more American. Like, okay, I’m a part of this country!
You’re now 41. Does being in your 40s change anything about how you look at your life or your health?
I believe I started my health quest somewhere around 25 or 26, and it’s constant growing and learning more about diet and exercise and mental and emotional and spiritual health. I don’t think 40 really gave me a jolt or anything. I didn’t get more stiff or anything like that. In fact, I feel fresh and good! It’s a blessing to be here.
What’s your best health habit?
My best health habit, for me and my diet, is not eating pork and beef -- and exercising multiple times per week. When I had to train for the movie Just Wright, I was doing a lot of active sports-type of training, and I really enjoy that. Sometimes I do those football drills where you move your feet real quick. I like those, because they’re challenging. They keep me working on my speed and agility and explosion and things like that.
Besides keys, wallet, and phone, what’s the one thing you never leave home without?
Water. I always take water. I love water, I’m a water sign!
What disease or condition would you most like to see eradicated in your lifetime, and why?
Cancer, for sure. So many people die from cancer. I lost an aunt to cancer, and one of my friends’ moms just passed from pancreatic cancer. I’ve seen it do so much. I think probably anybody in America would want that disease to be eliminated.
Imagine that you’re president for the day -- and you get to have all the power of Congress, too. What three policies would you pass?
First, I’d pass something to put more money into our education system, especially in the lower economic areas, but also just education in general. I also would sign a bill that would expand health programs for kids. And then, I would stop any wars that I had the capability to stop.
If you could star in a movie opposite any actress you haven’t already worked with, who would it be and why?
Kate Winslet! She’s one of my favorite actresses ever. She chooses great work. I loved her in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and since then she’s been somebody I’m heavily inspired by and I would love to work with.
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