Listening to Common has an almost meditative quality. His voice is smooth to the point of opulence, and he speaks with a thoughtful, melodic cadence. The warmth he exudes to a complete stranger is so reassuring. When half-jokingly asked if he’s ever thought of resting on the considerable laurels of his decades-long career, his mirthful laugh tells the whole story: it had likely never occurred to him.
“I believe that every day we’re on this planet, we have the potential to grow, to fulfill, to create, to spread love, and to spread light,” Common explains. “To bring that consciousness and spirit and good energy, there’s so much work to be done. I do believe that art has been one of the most impactful ways that I’ve been able to do it, and I just thank God that it’s one of my purposes.”
It’s a typically humble response from one of the most influential artists and social icons of our time. Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, Common helped define an era of socially conscious rap, while pioneering the Soulquarian movement with such legendary collaborators and luminaries as Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Questlove, and the late J Dilla.
He was invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to perform at the White House alongside other distinguished poets and writers, and later recorded the first ever Tiny Desk Performance from the People’s House. He even got to collaborate with his long-time hero Maya Angelou on the title track of his 2011 album The Dreamer. In his career as an actor, he has appeared on screen alongside some of his inspirations, including Denzel Washington and Ruby Dee, and just last year made his Broadway debut alongside the great character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson. And he has never stopped releasing thought-provoking and deeply soulful music for which he has been awarded, among many other accolades, an Emmy, several Grammys, and an Oscar.
Though he’s one Tony Award away from an EGOT, that doesn’t mean he has an ego. He speaks passionately about always working to evolve as a musician; in fact, he doesn’t believe you can ever truly become the master of anything, especially when it comes to life and art. He mentions listening to De La Soulagain in the wake of the death of founding member David Jolicoeur, better known as Trugoy the Dove, which coincided with the revered hip hop group’s extensive back catalogue finally making its way to streaming.
Common’s still learning from the music that he grew up with, and it continues to inspire him to strive for greatness. “I went back and tried to learn some of their raps in different ways, and I’m like ‘Man, the learning is infinite with this stuff,’” Common says. “There’s so much, you’ll never get it down. I don’t care if you’re noted as the number one emcee to ever live, you still can get better. And I feel like I always want to be better and get better.”
He can be most recently seen honing his acting craft in the Apple+ Original series Silo, a post-apocalyptic mystery based on the science fiction book series of the same name by Hugh Howey. His character is one of the ten thousand underground occupants of the titular structure, which is buried hundreds of stories beneath the surface of the earth in a seemingly toxic dystopian future. The story’s hook is irresistible: the inhabitants do not know who built the silo, or how long their people have been down there; they do not know why the world outside the silo means certain death; and they do not know when it will be safe to go outside, only that this day has yet to come. Curiosity regarding these bigger questions is, shall we say, disincentivized within the populace.
Common plays Sims, the head of Judicial Security within the subterranean civilization, who is burdened with preserving the status quo of the silo by any means necessary. The actor likens the Judicial organisation as a whole to ade facto governmental structure, with his specific department resembling a combination of Congress and the CIA.
As befitting a man for whom the work is never truly done, Common was in the booth when he first heard about the project that would consume the better part of the next year of his life. Since the pandemic, he has become even more intentional about how he spends his energy and values even more where he chooses to put his heart and soul. He usually doesn’t allow phones in the studio when he’s recording, but his manager and agent assured him they had an important opportunity to discuss. He was immediately intrigued by the project’s pedigree: it was developed by veteran creator and showrunner Graham Yost (Justified), with Academy Award nominee Morten Tyldum attached to direct and the acclaimed Rebecca Ferguson starring and executive producing. Once he began reading the script, he could barely put it down.
“Sometimes for my birthday, my friends and I get a boat down in Florida and just enjoy the day. I started it that day before we went out on the water, and I remember the feeling that I couldn’t wait to get back so I could read the rest.” His only caveat was working outside of the United States, since he had appreciated being home after the pandemic. But ultimately his enthusiasm for the project, not to mention the city of London, won out.
He describes his time on Silo as one of the greatest creative experiences of his life. “Being part of something you think has the potential to be great has been so fulfilling.”
Though he cuts an intimidating figure, permanently clad in sleek leather jackets and dark turtlenecks while oozing a controlled menace, Common is quick to locate the family connection that grounds the character. Sims has a son and a wife and desires more than anything to keep them safe. He also has a responsibility to protect the other residents of the silo, which unfortunately might mean suppressing any inconvenient truths that could potentially incite a rebellion or otherwise drive order into chaos.
“He has to manipulate things sometimes to keep control, which is something we know that governments do,” he says. “They plan, they are very smart in certain ways, and do things to keep people distracted, keep people in fear, keep people in order. Because the silo’s a difficult place to be in, but also people realise that it’s their way of life, it’s their culture, and they want to protect it.”
The metaphorical timeliness of finding yourself stuck inside, being unsure if the government is lying to you, and feeling as though you are slowly losing your rights is not lost on Common, but he insists that governments have lied to their people since the beginning of our history. There is nothing new under the sun or, in this case, under the dirt.
While he allows that the comparison is salient, to him these are larger philosophical questions. “If we think about the silo, people are being told that what’s on the screen is what it’s actually like outside, but they have no idea what the truth really is. And I think that’s one of the things in society, and I’ll speak to America — people have to discover for themselves what the truth is. Certain things are true: a bird is a bird, a tree is a tree. But individuals have to be allowed to develop their own perspectives too, along with certain universal truths that exist. And in the silo, you get to see how this structure doesn’t allow you to develop your own way of thinking.”
The feeling he describes, however, couldn’t be further from the experience of actually making the show. “I feel like I’m working on one of the projects that I’ve been most inspired and enthused and fulfilled holistically.” The actor also recently completed a run on Broadway in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Between Riverside and Crazy.
“All the actors I knew, not to mention acting teachers, told me the stage was going to be the most challenging experience for me as a performer,” he recalls. “Some also said it would be the most fulfilling, and I think both were right.” For someone who had grown up loving theatre, it was a dream come true. He knew he had the acting chops and had certainly rehearsed enough in his acting classes — but until he stepped on that stage, he would never truly know what was demanded of him.
What was incredible for Common from the jump was the amount of preparation involved in the process, not to mention the discipline required to actually carry it out. During early read-throughs, he found it very challenging to sit at a table for eight hours a day, which he realised he likely had not done since his last menial job at 18. But he acknowledges the hardest part for him is just showing up.
“To do the work every night, that’s the biggest choice. To actually go out on that stage every night even when you’re thinking, ‘How am I gonna do this?’ You’re tired, maybe you’re concerned about something going on with your family, but you still have to go out and do the work.”
The demands of the schedule took a toll on his health. In the course of the rehearsal period and three month run at the Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th, the actor suffered everything from COVID to an upper respiratory infection to laryngitis to a stomach virus. As Lee Strasberg may well have said at one point in his career, theatre is no joke. And yet Common’s enthusiasm was hardly dampened. “It’s something where I think, I want to do this for the rest of my life, and I’m already looking forward to doing it again.”
Common recognizes how lucky he was to be working with such accomplished collaborators in his first foray on the stage, and also admits he may well have been spoiled by the experience. “I was working with Stephen McKinley Henderson, one of the greatest actors of all time. Not everybody knows his name yet, but when they came to that theatre they got to see a true master. And I was able to learn from him and bounce scenes off of him and absorb his wisdom.” Henderson reprises his role from the original off-Broadway production as Walter ‘Pops’ Washington, a retired New York City policeman who is in the process of suing the department after being accidentally shot by a fellow officer.
Common stars as his recently paroled son Junior, who moves back into his father’s home with girlfriend Lulu and sober buddy Oswaldo in tow (played by original cast members Rosal Col.n and Victor Almanzar). The play deals with the domestic struggles faced by this makeshift family while they attempt to hold on to one of the last rent-stabilised apartments on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.
This experience has only deepened his respect for those who dedicate their lives to the stage. “I want to acknowledge everybody that participates in theatre, whether it be regional or across the board, Broadway, off-Broadway, West End. It’s a real collaborative team of passionate people that do theatre,” Common says. “From the people dressing us, doing costumes, to the people that did the lighting, they’re just there for the art. Obviously you have to make a living, but they care about this art form. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and it comes through in the passion they bring to the work.” He also has nothing but the highest praise for Stephen Adly Guirgis, who he calls one of the great playwrights of several generations.
When he first read the play, he was not only blown away by how funny and raw it was, but by how the material had only become more plangent over the years. “That’s what it’s like to experience something that’s timeless. The immediacy of great art can speak to now and forever.” When asked if his view of the role of the artist in society has changed over the years, Common doesn’t hesitate. Looking back on who he was as a person when he recorded his first album, he realises he had no idea there was so much power in having a microphone, and that he could actually impact the course of other peoples’ lives with his music. Honestly, he just wanted his friends to think he was dope, and for KRS-One and De La Soul to know who he was. Not a bad place to start, he admits. But the more time that he spent in the industry, he began to realise that he felt a higher calling as an artist, and that he had a duty and a responsibility to his audience. “Not just a duty to make music, but also to always be evolving as an artist, and speak truth to where I am.” This impulse to be true to himself has led to records that have sometimes challenged fans’ perceptions, like Electric Circus or Universal Mind Control. Common sees it as a responsibility of the artist to continually challenge themself. “I owe it to the people to try and give them things that can be life-changing and inspiring, because I feel like if I’ve had the exposure to these things, then it’s for a reason. It’s not for me just to hold onto. It’s like if you have some information or you’ve experienced something, do you want to just hold onto it for yourself? If so, it’s not serving its greatest purpose in life, and maybe you’re not fulfilling yours.”
It’s a duty and a responsibility that he feels blessed to have. He’s also in the enviable position of being able to make music when he is inspired to do so, and not in order to pay the bills. Not only that, but when he is creating new material he doesn’t have to bow to commercial considerations. “It’s not in the back of my mind all the time like, ‘I need to be on the radio station.’ And that in itself is so amazing because it’s being done with the love in it. I don’t even know where it’s going to go, I don’t know if 10 people are going to hear it. I just want to put music out there and have it resonate with people who are open to it.” His newest albums, A Beautiful Revolution Pts. 1+2, were created amidst the pandemic, and he credits the creative sessions with helping to keep him balanced during that difficult time. “It brought so much light to me, and I think that comes through. Even if it’s a song dealing with something heavy, our passion and the love that we bring creates its own joy.”
Common seems to be a man that people go to in times of trouble, a port in the storm, and he’s more than happy to share his light. During the pandemic, he had a lot of friends calling him to check in and to ask him for any wellness tips that he could share. “I’m just learning, I’m not an expert,” he admits, “but I was letting people know what I was doing, whether it was taking turmeric, or working out, making sure I was saying my prayers, or just watching something that was funny.” He realised that spreading health and wellness was something he could do to give back to his community in a very trying time.
This led him to start the health and wellness series Com + Well on YouTube, where he stated his intent to meet his viewers wherever they are in life and provide them with tools and resources that they can use to take care and love themselves in new ways. He knew that not everyone was as privileged as he was to be able to thrive during the pandemic, so he wanted to do his small part to share the happiness he felt lucky to have. “I know we’ve all experienced that feeling that when things are good, you know, I feel like I got things locked down. Then two days later, I feel like I’ve been knocked off my freakin’ horse, and I gotta get back up.” That’s part of what helps keep him humble. “This is a true experience that everyone goes through on the path of life. Because of that, I’ve never felt like, ‘man, I made it’, and that’s it, you know?”
When asked what else he would like to accomplish as an artist as well as a man, his response was refreshingly straightforward. “As a man I think I’m always looking to grow my relationship with the Creator, I’m looking to have fun, I’m looking to build in life partnership, to build my relationships, and to become a better listener. And also become more fruitful to the planet in all aspects. As an artist I’m like, let me use my talent, these gifts and the passion that I have to continue to multiply and add on, to my life, to other peoples’ lives, and to the world in the best way possible. To the day I leave the planet, I want to be creating art; acting, making music, and doing activism work. That’s how I feel.”
For Common, it’s all about appreciating the here and now. “One thing I have learned in this life is to be present in the moment when something is going really great. Like if I’m at an award ceremony, or if I’m in a session with Stevie Wonder, I always think, ‘Dang, how did I get here?’ I’m working with Stevie Wonder, he’s one of the first records I ever owned, you know? So I am definitely happy and grateful to be in those moments. You don’t lose the admiration and the joy of being there with people that you’ve admired for your whole life. I don’t lose that. I always have that.”
Styling: Jay Hines (The Only Agency)
Grooming: Maria Comparetto (The Only Agency)
Production: Aila Koch at Pluslive Studio
Lighting Director: Darren Karl-Smith
Movement Director: Emmanuelle Loca-Gisquet
Styling Assistant: Ashley Powell
Shot on location at Spring Studios