Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Common

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
 – Jay Z, Moment of Clarity

It was rightly pointed out to me on Facebook that this series would have to address hip-hop. I don’t think there’s a doubt that it is the musical genre that is most concerned with demonstrations of masculinity, and there has always been plenty of hip-hop that…ain’t feminist. Even positive hip-hop can include problematic lyrics. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I have been a fan for longer than my adult life. It wasn’t hard to think of someone I’d like to take a closer look at in terms of positive masculinity: Common.

In seeking a manly image of Common, I had way too many to choose from, but so many shots were from photo-shoots or from a public, red-carpet event. I wanted something that at least seemed candid, so here you go:

Related image

There he is looking vaguely annoyed that someone was taking a picture of him.

I was excited to find that Spotify had Common’s albums all the way back to Can I Borrow A Dollar, from 1992, so I had a listen. I was 12 when this came out, so I hadn’t heard it before. But the funk-backed, clever lyrics are immediately recognizable. (Interestingly, only 5 of the 13 tracks are marked as Explicit.) He name-drops the villain of Super Mario Bros., so the nerdiness is there too. “Heidi Ho” is pretty awful, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. I think at this stage, Common was still “underground” – he hadn’t made it big, at any rate. His next album, 1994’s Resurrection, includes the first Common song I remember hearing: “I Used To Love H.E.R.” A long way from “Heidi Ho” already. His first big album, as I understand it, was One Day It’ll All Make Sense. And here we clearly have a rapper coming into his full powers. A little less fast-talking for its own sake, smarter lyrics, and deeper funk beats. 20 years old, and it holds up in my opinion.

Anyway, this isn’t a Common music retrospective. I’m under-qualified, though the “research” would be fun. Rather, this is profiles in positive masculinity. Now, Common has been involved in his share of stupid nonsense. He had a beef with Ice Cube in the 90s and more recently with Drake, though shots exchanged never went beyond diss tracks. But for me, Common stands out in general as a positive voice in hip-hop. I don’t think he went down either easy path in the genre: becoming primarily a safe rapper who avoids controversial topics, or a hard rapper who turns machismo up to 11. He seems to be someone who tries to contribute to the world through his music, who is aware of his potential to be a role-model, while still remaining relevant in a music genre that for some people is (wrongly) synonymous with misogyny.

He speaks out about racism, injustice and inequality, avoids most of the pit-falls of his genre, and at the same time has remained a significant figure in music for 20 years. He’s brains-over-brawn, though not without brawn, and I think a person could listen to his music and learn something. If he was harder, or softer, he would probably be more successful, but in listening through a few tracks each of his last 25 years of albums, he’s remained true to himself to an amazing degree. Intelligent, socially conscious, and plenty of funk.

Outside of his music and acting, he has also been an activist for some time. He has worked on behalf of PETA, of HIV/AIDS awareness and testing, and founded the Common Ground Foundation to help youth in poverty, among other things. 10 years ago he pledged not to use anti-gay lyrics anymore, which is progressive for hip-hop (and frankly for 2007, though things were turning).

It’s hard to remain relevant in pop music for 20 years. Who else from 20 years ago is still rapping and hitting the Billboard 100 in 2015? Even harder than remaining relevant for 20 years is remaining positive for that long. Using one’s art to try and make the world a better place. In a genre that is, let’s be honest, known for exhibiting many aspects of toxic masculinity, Common has shown both excellence and character, and he is today’s profile in positive masculinity.

R.I.P. Utah Philips


Utah Philips died on May 23, 2008.

I went on a road trip, sort of a pilgrimage, thinking I would find him where I he was living in Nevada City, CA. I didn’t make it that far – my wife and I found a bookstore to peruse instead in one of the little towns on the way, and had to turn back once we realized what time it was. I really regret that now, but you never know. You just never know. I have no idea what I would have said if I found him. I guess I just wanted more of a connection than just hearing his recorded voice.

I have at least four friends whose lives were changed, to a significant degree, by Utah Philips. Not by his music – as a musician, music wasn’t his great strength – but by his stories. He was a towering, tremendous, wondrous repository of stories. He described himself as a sort of story-collector, gathering up reflections of the lives he encountered as he traveled across the country. He was motivated by a moving love of this country, especially moving from my cynical and pessimistic point of view. He was a natural and relentless lover of people.

The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere is still one of my favorite albums of all time, any genre. The album is a collection of Utah’s stories (and one poem) embellished by an evocative soundtrack produced by Ani Difranco. It is incredible. I cry half the time when I listen to it. I try to do three things at least once a year – listen to that album all the way through, read the collected writings of Martin Luther King Jr., and watch the film Gandhi. It is…well, like I said, its changed the lives of at least four of my friends, and a cursory look at what people are saying about his death tells me that this happened to a lot of people when they heard him speak.

Maybe what is most amazing about him is that what he says has such an effortless weight. It just strikes you to the bone as obviously true, clearly true, undeniably true. His life, the lives he has collected stories about, just resonate with my life, even though there’s almost nothing on the surface in common between us. But when he talks about what it means to be alive – its so moving because I’m there with him, somehow.

When I talk about anarchism, Utah’s stories are quietly in the background, sharing the company of theologians and philosophers and revolutionaries. When I talk about pacifism, I am sometimes hearing his voice among all the other voices, which now reaches out to me even from beyond death, to remind me of what is true and beautiful in this world.

Its been a bad year so far for me in terms of people dying who I didn’t expect to die, and whose deaths are impacting me more than I’d expected.

A friend of mine blogged about Utah, and talked about a song that he heard him sing when he saw him in Chicago not long before he died. Here is a direct quote, because he says it better than I can:

The song was a perfectly simple call and response. He sang a line – “Dorothy said, swords into plowshares” and the audience responded “Ship’s gonna sail, gonna sail someday.” The chorus was equally simple:

We’re working on a ship, may never sail on it,
Ship gonna sail, gonna sail someday
Working on a ship, may never sail on it,
Gonna build it anyway.

Utah Phillips never got to sail on the ship. But he lived a life committed to building it, and to teaching others how and why to build it, and to telling the story of how it got to be built thus far. And now, even though we need that guidance as much as we ever have, he’s gone.

Ship’s still gonna sail someday.

Still gonna build it anyway.

But damn if it didn’t just get harder.

I honestly believe that the time for those in this world who worship violence and death and power at the expense of others – their days are numbered. I have to believe that, or else there is no point in believing anything at all. But the waiting until those numbered days run out…its a long, sad wait.

***

Anarchism is defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics as “the view that society can and should be organized without a coercive state.”

“An anarchist is anybody who doesn’t need a cop to tell him what to do.” -Ammon Hennessey, as quoted by Utah Philips