Hip-hop’s hottest stage is the dining room. Following the lead of Joe’s Pub, B.B. King’s, and the now-shuttered Spotlight Live, dinner theater is back, and the dish best served at your next meal is a hot sixteen bars. Last night, Common took over Madiba Harlem’s MIST performance space for two cabaret-style, career-retrospective shows. The Chicago rapper delved into his discography — from 1992’s Can I Borrow a Dollar through his 2015 Oscar-winning song “Glory,” from the film Selma — as the sold-out crowd noshed on samosas, peri-peri spiced chicken, and other South African cuisine.
“This felt really fresh to me. [It’s] the first time I performed certain songs ever before,” Common told the Voice from his dressing room after the first show. After polishing off a plate of Mozambican prawns (the former vegan is now a pescetarian), the rapper and actor (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn) wipes traces of sweat from his disarmingly handsome face (which is peppered with freckles). “I wanted to make it intimate. I’ve been having a desire to make my show more like theater. I definitely wasn’t expecting to do as much talking in between the songs, but it just felt, in the room, that kind of vibe.”
Madiba is increasingly becoming home to hot-ticket shows uptown. The notoriously reclusive Ms. Lauryn Hill played the space earlier this year; A$AP Rocky is holding a live conversation there as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s programming. “It’s being able to take people to places visually through music, words, and sometimes through acting,” Common says. He likes the intimacy, being able to look into the audience’s eyes, whether they’re eating salmon or possibly swiping through Tinder. “My manager was texting most of the time. I saw him looking down at his phone. I’m like, ‘Pay attention to the show!’ ” he laughs. “I like venues where I get to feel the intimacy, to feel connected to the people.”
With a discography that spans over twenty years, Common connected with everyone because he had something for everyone. Accompanied by a drummer, keyboards, DJ, and vocalist, he led off the show with the very first rhyme he wrote, while in the seventh grade in Cincinnati. Hip-hop heads nodded in approval as he dropped “Take it EZ,” his 1992 debut single (back when we knew him as Common Sense), and he shared how he first met legendary producer J Dilla in Q-Tip’s basement. (The two remained close until Dilla’s untimely death in 2006.) During “Rewind That,” from 2014’s Nobody’s Smiling, Common rapped that he wanted to dedicate his Oscar to his fallen brother. And, as much as Common has come to be respected by purists, his biggest songs have been more female-driven; “Go,” “Come Close,” and “The Light” were obvious crowd-pleasers. “Ladies, I think the world will be better if we let you lead,” he said. Cue screams. The rapper didn’t shy away from his real-life leading ladies, either. He shouted out former girlfriends Serena Williams and Erykah Badu — and he dispelled the notion that the alluring singer was behind his sonic and aesthetic deviation on 2002’s Electric Circus. The experimental album was panned, leading many to believe that Common had permanently fallen off. “What happened to the Common we knew?” he asked, mimicking his critics. “Walking around in crochet pants, crochet hats? That girl did it to him….It was not Erykah who made me go vegan…I wanted to wear crochet pants.”
The two-hour show proved Common’s dexterity and staying power. At 43, he’s just getting started. With “Glory,” Common joins the rare breed of rappers turned household names, and he’s using his pulpit to bolster social change.
“Rappers are leaders by nature,” he tells the Voice. “It’s in my nature to help people….I want us to reach equality for real. I’ve kind of grown into owning it even more.” In light of ongoing police brutality and the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and, most recently, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Common has been outspoken about the need for change, and he’s optimistic that “love” can heal. “If you’re given a platform and an opportunity and it’s in your heart to do something positive, you become a leader,” he says. “How am I gonna use Oscar notoriety to improve the world? If I’m not doing that, I ain’t doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Using the stage as a different kind of platform has had its downsides. Common was rumored to be the commencement speaker at Kean University recently, but the New Jersey college retracted its invitation amid controversy surrounding “A Song for Assata.” The song supporting Assata Shakur, who was infamously convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1977 and then fled to Cuba, has long been lambasted by law enforcement.
“Our power and pride is beautiful/May God bless your soul,” Common raps in his 2000 ode. Of the Kean University controversy, he says: “The students wanted me there. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to come…but I ain’t necessarily trying to go where I ain’t wanted, either! You know what I mean?” Jokes aside, the rapper isn’t holding his tongue. Your loss, Kean.
“The truth of the matter is, if a university or any organization doesn’t want me because I speak up for what I believe in — a political prisoner who I really value — if they don’t want me for that reason, I don’t want to be there.”