Musician and actor Common came to the University of Colorado on Tuesday evening to urge several hundred people inside Macky Auditorium to recognize the path they need to recognize and walk in order to achieve greatness.
However, since the Chicago native started of as a rapper, he dropped a two-minute freestyle verse touching on everything from how it was colder in Colorado on Tuesday than it was in the Windy City to shouting out to CU English Professor Adam Bradley, who worked the rapper write his memoir "One Day It'll All Make Sense." (Bradley introduced Common before he took to the stage.)
"This is the latest," he concluded. "I came to talk to CU about greatness."
Common has won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Grammy for his work. Although he started his career in hip-hop under the name Common Sense, he has branched out to acting an appeared in, among other films and television shows, 2014's "Selma." He is currently nominated for an Academy Award for the song "Stand up for Something."
Common, whose given name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., said that in order for a person to achieve greatness, he or she needs to learn their path, believe in their path and live their path. He said that a person's path won't be magically revealed one day but is something that needs work.
He said that, among other people, he found inspiration in Emmett Till, a Chicago boy who was murdered by white men while visiting his family in Mississippi in the 1960s for whistling at a white woman. Till's mother gave her son an open casket funeral — in spite of the horrible injuries he had sustained — because she wanted the world to see him.
Common worked as a ball boy for the Chicago Bulls when he was about Till's age and the photos of Till's body spooked him to the point that he was afraid to walk through a tunnel between the two locker rooms for several days, but he eventually toughened up and forgot about being scared.
"I felt it was the spirit of Emmitt Till telling me I had something great to do in this world, and his life wouldn't be in vain," he said. "I didn't tell anyone that until we started working on the book, and I started speaking at colleges."
He said that he was drawn to hip-hop music and eventually decided to pursue it as a career over the objections of his mother, who was a schoolteacher and wanted her son to stay in college.
"You might be challenged by people you love," he said. "You might be challenged by your parents, your loved ones, your lover, your friends."
He said that he has strived to make himself better in the face of setbacks, giving as examples his breakup with singer Erykah Badu and losing out to rapper Kanye West, who is his friend, at the Grammy Awards.
He added that he has taken cues from West — who is not exactly known for his modesty — for improving his belief in himself by watching West at "listening sessions," where journalists and other trend makers are invited to listen to albums before they are released.
"Kanye would play 'The College Dropout' and jump up on table," he said. "I would be like, 'Man, there are songs on the album that I don't even like that much, but I'm starting to because he believes in them so much.'"
In addition to rapping and acting, he is a social activist and the founder of the nonprofit Common Ground Foundation, which serves underprivileged youth. He said that during one of his setbacks — of which he has had many — his mother told him to go do something for someone else.
"She said, 'I feel bad for you. You know what can help you — go out and do something for someone else,'" he said. "I'd been offered a chance to talk to a group of high school kids, and once I got around the kids, I started to feel better. I stopped being so 'me, me, me' and thinking about other people there. All the pain didn't go away, but I felt better."