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Culture

Common: 'The first piece of fake news I read about myself? I was a one-man cult for Erykah Badu'

Each week, we ask one artist a set of quick-fire questions that all start with ‘the first’, from their first shows and paycheques to the first time they got drunk and fell in love. Up next is the legendary rapper, author, actor and activist Common, whose 12th album, Let Love, drops today

Rapper, activist, actor and author: Common isn’t just a hip hop legend, but an American pop culture god. Having spent the Nineties building a devoted underground following, it was in 2000, with his third album, Water For Chocolate, that the 47-year-old (AKA Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn) burst into the mainstream commercial consciousness. He spent this decade winning Grammys and launching a blockbuster acting career and has since starred in everything from Wanted, alongside Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, to Happy Feet Two via one of Keanu Reeves’ John Wick films. In 2015, he won an Oscar, a Grammy and an Emmy with John Legend for their song, “Glory”, taken from the film Selma, in which he also plays civil rights leader James Bevel.

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Common stands at the apex of the socially conscious rap scene. Beyond lending his voice to causes as varied as vegetarianism and gun violence (as well as Obama’s presidential campaign, HIV, #MeToo and the justice system), he is the founder of the Common Ground Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to empower underprivileged youth to be strong citizens of the world. This is a man with real heart, someone who cares deeply about his community. The title of his new album, Let Love, is taken from his New York Times bestseller Let Love Have The Last Word, a searing, eloquently written memoir that deals with self-discovery, self-love, prayer, understanding, community, parenthood and, most personally of all, recently recalling a repressed memory of childhood abuse. The album draws on the same overarching theme: leading with love, in all its forms, always, a simple but potent premise in our world's current social and political climate.

In honour of this, his 12th studio album, we sat down with a polite, sparkly-eyed, millennial-pink clad Lynn at a hotel in London's Soho to talk about his formative firsts. From falling in love with Erykah Badu to his first foray into proper political activism to buying himself a Mitsubishi with his first major paycheque, these are the moments that made the Chicago-born powerhouse.

The first time you realised you wanted to be a musician...

“It was when I wrote my first rap when I was 12 years old. I wrote it with my cousin. I was visiting him in Cincinnati and after I wrote it I said it to all our friends. They all loved it. They were just overwhelmed, like, 'Yo, this is fresh. This is really great.' So that is when I realised, 'Man, I want to do this. I want to be a rap artist.' I used to go to Bond Hill, the Cincinnati neighbourhood my cousin lived in, for the summers, because I didn't have a big family. There were these guys there who were like our older brothers, you know? They were dudes from the neighbourhood, the Bond Hill crew. They were like the Run DMC of Cincinnati. They were popular and being their friends made me believe that I could write a rap too. It was just one of those story raps, which I think went like this, ‘Well, let me tell you about a trip a time ago. I was going there to run a cold-blooded show. When I was there I saw some people jamming too. They called themselves the Bond Hill crew. Dr Ice Romeo and Master E, all of the Bond Hill crew rappin' to a T. I asked them could they rock with me.’"

The first time you played in front of a live audience...

“I was part of a rap group in Chicago called CDR, which stood for Corey, Deon And Rashid – my middle name is Rashid. We opened for an artist named Big Daddy Kane plus NWA and Too Short. I was in high school and that show was our first performance. It was at this legendary theatre called the Regal, where people like The Jackson 5, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross and The Supremes performed. By that point the theatre location had changed, but it was still a legendary, historical venue. That was definitely a moment.”

The first record you ever bought...

“The first record I bought was ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash, although I was about eight years old, so it wasn't with my money. It was my father who took me to get that. My father didn't even live with me, but he came to Chicago and I remember him taking me to get it.”

The first time you got involved in activism...

“It was participating in something called Black August, which was to help political prisoners who were in exile, when I was about 25 years old. A lot of black figures in the late Sixties and Seventies who were really trying to fight for freedom were killed and some were run out of the country, so this was to raise money for some of those who had been in exile. That was the first time I felt like I was part of a movement. I'd done community things before, like stuff for elementary schools, but this was an organised activist movement. It was for people like Assata Shakur, who's someone who really inspired me, she's my daughter's middle namesake. She was a Black Panther who is still in exile. Actually, I don't even know if I can talk too much about her, because the government is still after her."

The first time you got drunk...

“I was 14 and I was in the parking lot of this school by my house called Chicago Vocational School. I was with my godbrother and one of my good friends Marlon, who's now a doctor. Now we get drunk on his boat. We were sitting in the back of the car. We had some beers and, man, I just remember feeling so happy, hanging out, talking shit, but it felt good. I didn't throw up or anything, because it was just beers and we could only afford so many, so we drank until we ran out.”

The first time you fell properly in love...

"I would say that that was with Erykah Badu. I was like 25, 26 and I fell in the kind of love where all that mattered was that love, you know? All I wanted to do was just be in that love and that love was creative. It was fun. I was learning a lot and it was that feeling of butterflies in the stomach that lasts for a really long time. Also, at that time, I was striving to be a man who was willing to sacrifice and give things to build in a relationship."

The first piece of fake news you read about yourself...

“It was based around Erykah, saying I did all this stuff for her, like becoming a vegetarian. I grew into being a vegetarian! The news was also that I wouldn't have sex. It was written like I was in a cult, a one-man cult for Erykah. That was the first piece of fake news and then I think another that I remember was when it was reported how much money I had. It was a ridiculous estimate, to the point where the mother of my daughter came after me.”

The first time you blew a paycheque frivolously...

“When I got a car, a white Mitsubishi Diamante, which was big for me at the time. I was in my early twenties. I remember getting it, riding around the neighbourhood and my boys just looking like, 'Damn, you’re doing it.' Some were a little jealous, but mostly they were happy for me, seeing their boy climb. But in conjunction with that, somewhere around the same time, I bought a building too. And I know that ain't, like, flexing, but it was for me to live, where I could also rent it out as apartments. I actually stayed in the basement and created this whole really fly basement apartment with a Jacuzzi and a leather couch that, at that time, was expensive: $2,500. So I thought I was doing it.”

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The first time a politician made you mad...

“Probably George W Bush. It was pre-Hurricane Katrina. That was something else entirely. The way he was talking then was the final straw, but the way he did his campaign, I felt like it was final for me then. I felt that this dude would not be good for the country. In fact, that was the first time I voted, because I had to vote against him. I was, like, 'There's no way I can say I'm doing something for the people and standing up if I don't vote.' I was also really mad at a mayor we had in Chicago called Richard Daley. They just weren't doing the people right, not taking care of the poor communities and the police department was doing really tough, bad things to black kids. I rapped about that anger at some point.”

The first thing you’d do if you were president...

“I would change the prison system to be truly rehabilitating. Actually, you know what? The first thing I would do is go into all inner city communities that are underserved, build schools and build businesses that create a whole range of jobs and have mental health programmes. Those schools would teach emotional health and nutritional health as well as academics. They'd have yoga and mindfulness meditation, creative arts. I would do that every state where there's poor people.”

The first time that you felt like you had a genuine understanding of what happiness is...

“The first time I felt like I had a genuine grasp of what happiness is was when I created this album, Like Water For Chocolate. I felt like I was really being true to who I was and I accomplished something that I really had a vision for and had set my mind to. I wasn't being boxed in by any of the things that I'd previously grown up around and I felt free to be me. And I saw the results in the music that I was creating and that music helped go on to change my life in many ways, because it created a song called 'The Light', which went on to be one of the biggest records I've ever done.”

Head to GQ's Vero channel to watch Common share his three rules to live by, spit the lyrics he's most proud of and share the moment he'd felt like he made it, plus his film, TV, book and music recommendations. Join GQ on Vero now for exclusive music content and commentary, all the latest music lifestyle news and insider access into the GQ world, from behind-the-scenes insight to recommendations from our editors and high-profile talent.

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