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Hip-hop artist Common shares how imagination fueled his journey to success

Hip-hop artist Common tells ASU audience that a vision board helped his success.
November 16, 2021

Oscar-winning rapper urges students to embrace discovery in lecture held by ASU's Barrett, The Honors College

The hip-hop artist and actor Common knew at age 12 that he wanted to be a rapper, so he cultivated a strong sense of imagination and belief in himself that eventually led to stardom, including an Academy Award for best original song.

Common, whose real name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn, gave the 2021 Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture on Monday, sponsored by Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

He described how harnessing one’s imagination takes work, but can be a powerful driver.

“When I wrote that first rap, I discovered something I really loved to do. It gave me a freedom that I found nowhere else, and it’s really where I found my purpose,” he said.

“Imagination is not only for the arts. It can apply to everyday life to create the reality you want to see.”

Common was a first-year student at Florida A&M University, a historically Black school, when he was offered a music contract. He signed it and left during his second year.

His mother, who was not fully on board with his plan, nevertheless did help him hone his motivational skills.

“My mother used to worry me about making a vision board. She had seen Oprah create a vision board,” he said. He kept putting her off, until finally, he did it.

“I wrote my visions and goals for the year, and things started to change. Every time I needed to be reminded of what I wanted to see for myself, I would go to that board and it would remind me,” he said.

“I was imagining myself as an artist before I knew how to get there. I was able to see myself as a hip-hop artist.”

One way to bolster imagination and self-belief is to surround yourself with like-minded people, he said. He was working with fellow rap artist Kanye West, who now goes by Ye.

“Kanye was producing my album and also putting out his own album. And you all know he has no problem believing in himself,” he said.

“We would do listening sessions and Kanye would hop up on the table, rapping so hard. I remember being inspired, and I wasn’t afraid to embrace greatness.”

Common said that some of the hardest work he has done has been on himself. He told the audience that the three things he’s focused on are gratitude, his belief in God and meditation.

“So often I would go into situations worrying about what would happen. There’s a difference between worrying and preparing for a moment,” he said.

“Through these tools, I’ve started to become more present in the moment. Being present in the moment is truly a gift.”

In 2015, Common performed the song “Glory” at the Academy Awards show along with his co-writer, John Legend.

“I remember doing everything I could do to be present. To this day it’s one of the most joyous moments in my life because I cleared the energy of everything else except being there,” Common said.

He and Legend won the Oscar for best original song that night for “Glory,” from the 2014 film “Selma.” Common played civil rights leader James Bevel in the movie.

The rapper said that as he found success and worked on himself, he also needed to work on helping the world. In 2012, he founded the Common Ground Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to empower young people through mentoring, service projects and arts programs. He has also become an activist for social justice causes, spending time with people who are incarcerated.

“I’ve been in some of the darkest places I’ve ever been in my life in these prisons. I’ve met some of the most enlightened people I’ve ever met — people who have been dehumanized by a country and a system, but they see themselves differently and are using their imaginations to change their trajectories,” he said.

“They see themselves as human beings. If they can do the work from behind bars using their imaginations, then we can definitely use our imaginations to change things.”

Rapper and actor Common told an ASU audience that upcoming projects include scoring a film and performing on Broadway, during the Nov. 15 Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture, sponsored by Barrett, The Honors College. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU News

After his talk, Common spent more than an hour answering questions from the audience.

What he would tell his 18-year-old self: “Be open to discovering. I would tell myself to be easy on myself. One thing I wish I had done at 18 was pursue a musical instrument earlier. I’m around so much music now, and the artists I love and work with communicate in a language I don’t understand all the time.”

Will he go into politics? “I know how important the policymakers are, and the people in politics. But I feel like if I participated in it, it would eat away at my heart and soul. I’m too authentic to play the political game. I’ll support the ones who are the most authentic and say, ‘I’ll let you deal with all that stuff.’"

On playing a police officer in the 2018 film “The Hate U Give”: “We were living at a time when so many people were being killed by policemen, so for me to play a policeman and try to give that perspective was a challenge for me. In every aspect of my life I was speaking against police brutality. It was difficult for me to go fully into that space because so much of my real life was raising awareness and I was dealing with mothers who had lost daughters and sons to police killings. But it was not judging the character and showing his humanity.”

Top image: Hip-hop artist and actor Common was the speaker for the 2021 Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture on Nov. 15 at the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Putting a human face on the pandemic

November 16, 2021

Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative leads months-long national project investigating COVID-19's lingering toll

COVID-19 has killed more Americans than the 1918 influenza pandemic, pushed the bounds of our country’s health care system and messed up the world’s supply chain. It has crushed businesses, plans and lives in its destructive wake.

The pandemic has also exacerbated inequities in America, according to a student-led national journalism project headquartered in Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.  

The Carnegie-Knight News21 investigation “Unmasking America” was the subject of a Nov. 15 “Must See Mondays” lecture series at the Cronkite School’s First Amendment Forum on the Downtown Phoenix campus.

Woman in black shirt smiling

Jacqueline Petchel

“The News21 project highlighted the disparities in the policies and practices that intensified under COVID-19 and may persist today,” said Jacqueline Petchel, News21 executive editor for the project and a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. “Student reporters traveled to dozens of cities and communities in rural and urban America to report on people who are used to struggling, as well as those who are new to loss, exposing unequal access to critical life-support systems such as health care, education, housing and food.”

The News21 initiative brings together top journalism students from across the country and has reported on a range of topics, producing in-depth, multimedia projects for major media, including The Washington Post, NBC News and USA Today.

This year’s project was published by The Guardian, KTAR radio,, Editor & Publisher, the Phoenix Business Journal, the Fairfield Sun Times in Montana, the Santa Fe New Mexican, Prescott News, Resolve Magazine, the Health Press Daily, Arizona PBS, NonDoc, AZ Big Media and Cronkite News.

Each year, students selected for the News21 program study a topic in-depth during a video-conferenced seminar in the spring, followed by a 10-week reporting fellowship during the summer. Students work out of a newsroom at the Cronkite School and travel the country — and sometimes to other countries — to report and produce their projects.

This year, the group produced more than a dozen digital stories, seven videos, one podcast and numerous photos and graphics that explored unequal access to health care, education, housing and food during the pandemic. It also showed a more human side of the pandemic.

Produced by 35 students from 17 universities, members of the investigative reporting fellowship traveled to more than 22 states and 31 cities.

Members of the initiative crisscrossed the country, traveling to places like Los Angeles; Buffalo, New York; St. Louis; Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Houston; and other smaller communities in between. They covered how COVID-19 impacted rural health care, schools, the workforce, food insecurity, homelessness, federal relief, child welfare, immigrants and vaccine hesitancy for Black Americans.

The latter took News21 Fellow Amudalat Ajasa to Tuskegee, Alabama. There she and other team members investigated the “United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee,” which was a decades-long study that deceived the Black community and ended up paying out $10 million to participants in a 1974 out-of-court settlement.

“They (the government) lied to Black people for four decades when there was a cure available,” said Ajasa, who attends Hofstra University in Nassau County, New York. “These stories had been passed on through generations, and a lot of people would cite Tuskegee as a reason for their (vaccine) hesitation. … We contextualized this mistrust without blaming Black people for not getting the vaccine.”

Trust earned was also a thread for other journalists working on the project.

Emma VandenEinde, a master’s degree student at the Cronkite School, traveled to Nogales, Arizona, where she told the survival story of Thomas Gonzales, a retired Tucson, Arizona, police officer turned bike shop owner. The pandemic claimed the lives of his father and his mother-in-law and cost him his business. The story required trust from Gonzales, who detailed on camera the worst year of his life and the death of his retirement dream.

“His story is filled with dominoes,” said VandenEinde, who co-produced the video with News21 Fellow Chase Hunter. “He (Gonzales) has been through a lot, and just getting to sit there and listen to his story was just a powerful moment that Chase and I got to share with him.”

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Venita Hawthorne James

Cronkite School Professor Venita Hawthorne James, the managing editor of the project, said these portraits of survivors like Gonzales were a simple way of showing regular people without inflating or deflating their stories.

“One of the beauties of News21 is the ability to tell stories in different ways,” James said. “They’re telling the story of America because they represent a lot of other people.”

The plight of people in rural communities had a way of cutting through the politics and getting to the heart of the story, said Prince James Story, who traveled to Electra, Texas, a town with a population around 2,700 people.

His story, co-authored with Zhixuan Fan and Jimmy Cloutier, focused on health care in rural America. It specifically focused on how a hospital and a cluster of clinics became a lifeline for a once-booming oil town in northern Texas.

“If you ever saw an old Western, that’s how this town looked,” said Story, who is an ASU master’s degree student and reporter with the Cronkite News Phoenix Sports Bureau. “There were no Walmarts, no nothing. Their grocery store was the Dollar Tree.”

Story and his co-authors spoke with health care workers, COVID-19 patients, and hospital and county administrators, who he discovered were all placed under enormous stress because of the lack of PPEpersonal protective equipment and other resources.

“One of the nurses told me she didn’t have a day off for months because she would go in and work 16- to 18-hour shifts, then go home, sleep a couple of hours and come back. And sometimes she didn’t sleep,” Story said. “About 40% of all the health care workers actually contracted or tested positive for COVID.”

Reporters were also put to the test, James said, but they became better journalists for it.

“It was exciting but tough. There were times when it was very tough,” James said. “You’ll never become a better journalist if you don’t try and do things differently and push yourself into uncomfortable positions.”

It’s a notion seconded by Ajasa, who was thankful for the experience.

“I’ve learned more through my investigation with News21 than at a semester at Hofstra,” Ajasa said. “When you’re in the field, it’s hands-on and you’re learning on the fly. It’s like, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to tell the story.’” 

Top photo: Survivor portraits of COVID-19 from this year's Carnegie-Knight News 21 project, "Unmasking America." Photo courtesy of News21

Reporter , ASU News