This year’s Homecoming Concert, held on the evening of Oct. 27, was a night to remember with performances by rocker Ben Jelen and the legendary conscious rapper himself, Common.During their performances, both musicians were honored for their musical activism, in which they strove to make their music transcend boundaries and positively affect lives. Haraya awarded $5,000 to both Ben Jelen’s “Aid to Darfur” efforts and Common’s “Common Ground Foundation.”The socially conscious atmosphere of the night was perfectly accented by the exhilarating performances of Ben Jelen and Common. Despite the obvious differences in musical genre, and although Carnesecca Arena was nowhere near filled to capacity, both Jelen and Common gave their all to the crowd. And the crowd loved them for it.
Ben Jelen opened the night, beginning with songs from his new album Ex-Sensitive.
Though it seemed that the majority of the crowd was only patiently awaiting Common to grace the stage, the crowd remained attentive and exuded a positive attitude towards Jelen and his band.
“I think everyone was a little nervous tonight,” said Jelen in an interview after the show. “We were opening for Common. We really didn’t know who the listeners would be. And we were wondering if our music would match up or not. Having the good response – this was really a good show. We had a really good time here.”
Though many members of the crowd were Common fans, Jelen and his band did have a devout following. Two students in the crowd weren’t from St. John’s at all. They trekked all the way from Buffalo to see Jelen perform.
Jessica Demond, a 22 year-old who attends Erie Community College in Buffalo, was impressed by the diverse crowd.
“I think it’s great because it’s a different perspective of music to look into,” said Demond.
Demond’s friend, Brandi Stevens, was excited to see Jelen’s humanitarian efforts honored. “His music has opened my eyes to so many different causes,” said the 21 year-old.
Jelen performed most of his songs, backed by his band, on keyboard and guitar. But the audience was treated to Jelen’s talent on the violin in the song “Pulse.” The song, which happens to be Jelen’s favorite to perform, reflects the causes he supports. In particular, Jelen focuses on the environment and Darfur. He has worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council, toured with Live for Darfur, and founded the Ben Jelen Foundation for the Environment.
“The countries most affected by climate change aren’t going to be the western developed countries,” said Jelen. “It’s going to be another blow for Africa and India. It makes me so sad.”
Jelen performed the title track off his new album Ex-Sensitive, introducing it to the audience as a song about how we are “overexposed to the media and the world around us.”
Jelen elaborated on the theme after his performance. “Brands and badges, and lonely gadgets: all these things that we have, but we really don’t need, that don’t fulfill us,” he said.
Jelen is definitely an activist with his music, and has many hopes for what is to come from his efforts.
“I’d like to see people start listening,” he said. “I’d like to be somewhere new and have a conversation about these things. And have someone understand the issue without me having to explain it. I’d like to see the education be viral, and have people start understanding. That’s all I hope for.”
After Jelen’s set ended, the crowd buzzed: Common was in the building. Carnesecca Arena began to fill with fans and anticipation peaked. Most of the crowd had come for Common, and what they got was an experience they would remember forever.To the introduction to “Finding Forever,” he took the stage.
Needless to say, the crowd went wild. Despite the smaller size of the venue, Common brought it as if there were fifty thousand people before him, even going so far as to freestyle about St. John’s.
“I just try to go into a show and give it my all,” said Common in an interview after the show. “I liked the crowd. The crowd was definitely givin’ it up and getting into it. Even when they don’t, I still try to win them over,” he said with a smile. “It’s good to get love from the crowd. I had fun here, and I wanted these students to say five years from now, ‘I remember that Common show.'”
There is no greater disappointment to a long-time fan when an artist only performs tracks from their new album. Fortunately, Common did not make this mistake. Though he performed new album favorites like “Drivin’ Me Wild,” “Misunderstood,” and “U, Black Maybe,” he also performed several songs from Be (“Go,” “Testify,” and “The Food,” to name a few), and even had the crowd crooning to his classic love song from the album Electric Circus, “Come Close.”
One lucky St. John’s student was personally picked from the crowd by Common to share the stage with him during the love song. Noelle McCloud, a sophomore communications major, was the object of Common’s affection, and the crowd’s jealous stares.”When he was pointing to me, I was like ‘Who, her?'” said McCloud, after she left the stage. “I’m on cloud nine, I can’t believe it. This event has made my day, my week, my month, my year!”
Every song was performed with intensity, and he frequently slowed the pace of his songs to create instrumental and vocal interludes. What was striking about Common’s performance was that despite his notoriety and fame, he gave all his attention and energy to the crowd, delighting them with a few dance breaks and frequently opening up and reaching out to his fans. In his attire, he was neither “blinged out” nor dressed to the nines, yet still exhibited a hip and effortless style of street sensibility. The girls screamed and the boyfriends were envious. All eyes were on Common.
His down-to-earth aura was further proven when he walked in for his interview. It was the only wardrobe change of the night: a hoodie and track pants, with that unmistakable Common-smile.
Common’s eternal love for hip-hop was clearly a theme throughout his performance. One interlude consisted of Common performing a medley of classic hip hop jams, like A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It?,” Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By,” and the crowd favorite “Just a Friend” by Biz Markie.
Common’s love affair with hip-hop began at the age of 11. “I first fell in love with hip-hop around the time when I got to hear Africa Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force, with a song called ‘Planet Rock.’ It came from me taking trips to Cincinnati hanging out with my cousin,” Common reminisced to the Torch. “I got to hear those songs a lot. It felt like it was part of me. I felt really connected to it. I felt like I could really relate to it.”
Hip-hop reminded the young Common (AKA Lonnie Rashid Lynn) of his culture. “This is me. You know when you find that thing like, ‘Man, this is what I’m here for. This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.'”
Hip-hop then became a journey for Common. “In the beginning it was, for me, about having fun. It was about being dope, saying something clever, really being a good MC. Then for me it became more of a purpose.”It was through his experiences in life, through failures and accomplishments, good days and bad days, the birth of a child, and the deaths of friends, that Common’s sound evolved. “I felt that music could really have an effect on people, and inspire people and help lives. It became about inspiring people and reflecting on God in the music and talking about spirituality,” said Common. “Just giving humanity through the music so people can improve themselves.”
Perhaps it was only a matter of time, then, that Common would create the Common Ground Foundation. The foundation is targeted toward youth in underserved communities, promoting their creativity as well as their health. The foundation focuses on
AIDS and HIV prevention programs, even serving communities throughout Africa.
“I wanted to give back in certain, organized ways,” said Common on the foundation. “A person can give back just by sitting there and talking with somebody, giving them conversation, giving them information, giving them love. Just by listening, we give back. And I strive to do that in my everyday life. But then there’s ways to organize and get programs together to directly influence the youth. I always felt that if I am allowed the platform, this opportunity, this blessing to have the dream and pursue it, then I need to give back.”
Throughout his performance, Common mentioned the greats that came before him, namely, the late great J-Dilla. J-Dilla was a legendary producer and MC in the hip-hop industry whose life was tragically cut short February 2006 by his struggle with Lupus, an autoimmune disease. In the last years of J-Dilla’s life, Common had the honor of being his roommate.
“For me it was like being next to a genius,” said Common. “We all looked at Jay-Dee as the best; I’m talking about from me to D’Angelo, to Q-Tip, and all of them cats really knew Jay-Dee as being the best. We all loved him, what he brought, he inspired all of us. We would call him a god. It was an honor, beyond music. We had a good brotherhood.”
For many fans of hip-hop, Common represents the truth. Though he is experiencing widespread acclaim for Finding Forever, he remains true to his roots with his conscientious mentality.
The future of hip-hop looks bright to Common. He cites the success of Talib Kweli and Kanye West, and the progressive sound of hip-hop with even commercial artists like T.I. and Lil’ Wayne. “They bring some new stuff to hip-hop that is necessary, and it’s good. It’s fresh for hip-hop. I see hip-hop improving. I see people wanting a more balanced sound in hip-hop. To play Lil’ Wayne and then play Common is fresh. It’s great. We don’t need to go back [to old school]. The ’80s were the ’80s. We carry the pure element that existed in that time, the spirit of it.”
So as hip-hop evolves, so will Common. “As long as I live life, my music will keep going,” he said.