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:
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.