When Chicago rapper Common Sense emerged onto the music scene in the early ‘90s he did so with a message of Black prosperity and the betterment of community. Over twenty five years later, he’s tweaked his name a bit, but his mission remains the same. Last month with the help of his mother, former Chicago Public School principle Dr. Mahalia Ann Hines, the conscious rapper from the South Side entered a school in East Harlem to announce he was partnering with AdoptAClassroom.org and Burlington Stores (formerly Burlington Coat Factory) to raise funds for school teachers around the nation.
“For me, the partnership with Burlington and AdoptAClassroom was important because I value teachers,” Common told ESSENCE. “To see that Burlington and AdoptAClassroom were really acknowledging and being able to give back to teachers in a way that’s concrete, it’s like, hey, this $10,000 check to this school is going to help support the teachers who go in their pockets and work for students.”
According to a joint press release from the sponsor organizations, 91 percent of K-12 teachers purchase classroom supplies from their own pockets and spend an average of $600 each year doing so. 20 percent of teachers spend more than $1,000 annually to make up for the funding not received from their school districts.
It’s an unfortunate truth that struck a chord with the Oscar winner who told us, “Being that I come from a home where my mother was a teacher, I definitely have a lot of reverence and respect for teachers and value them also.”
The partnership was a natural fit given that educating and empowering students is something the hip-hop artist already supports through his Common Ground Foundation. There, he, and his team encourage high school students in Chicago through mentorship, a college transition program, summer camp and a business and leadership conference. For the rapper turned actor, the foundation serves as one of the ways he’s helping to fight injustice.
“Fighting for injustice is not always just being like, ‘I’m going against the system,’” Common explained. “Some of it’s just finding the holes that are in our communities, and filling those holes up. I think one of the holes that we have is, our kids are not getting exposed to a lot of things, or not getting properly educated or don’t have parents around. So, some of the mentoring that we provide, for me, is a fight against injustice. Some of the love that we provide is a fight against injustice.”
The musician, who’s currently up for an Emmy for writing “Letter to the Free” on Ava DuVernay’s 13th documentary on mass incarceration, uses that same passion and love to help keep students out of the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Prisons are being built, and some of them are being built so that our young people can go to them,” noted Common. “It’s important for me to say, ‘Look, these laws are unjust, and whatever policies that I can be a part of changing, I will.’”
As a student growing up in the Windy City, his mother was his own personal advocate, pushing him to be a great student, because, as she asserted to us, “that’s what I required.” Hines describes her son as “a really good kid who did well in school” and added, “he read more than I did.”
It’s no wonder the high school graduate went on to attend college at Florida A&M (FAMU). Although his matriculation halted to pursue music, he still remembers his HBCU experience with great fondness.
“There’s something about the south and Florida, and all these people coming together to this Black college, and just us identifying with each other and really having a common goal of education, but also educating ourselves on our Blackness,” he said.
The acclaimed artist whose latest album, Black America Again was rated one of the best rap albums of 2016 by Rolling Stones, expounded by giving his take on why historically black colleges and universities are still important.
“It’s still part of the path to us. I think Black culture should be acknowledged and celebrated, and told in a way that it’s part of the American story… because when we talk about Blackness, it’s not in opposition to other cultures and nationalities. It’s just about really knowing who you are.”
He credits some of his own sense of “knowing” with writing. “Writing to me has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. It’s just been the way for me to express who I am and discover who I am as I write.” And though he understands each student has their own individual path to self-discovery, he hopes that in cities like Chicago, that witnessed a 47 percent jump in shooting victims in 2016 according to Time Magazine, students will use education and positive opportunities as a way to navigate their sometimes-violent surroundings.
“I think creating opportunities can help decrease the violence, meaning giving young people things to do that’s productive. Jobs, programs, letting them see something that deals with education that they can relate to and identify with, and say, “I feel like I’m a part of something.”
Although Common has won a number of Grammys, an Oscar, is nominated for an Emmy and could potentially reach EGOT status at some point in his career, it’s this sense of reaching back that makes his mother most proud. “I’m proud of the person he is, that he wants to give back, that he’s respectful, that he’s honest, that he’s caring, that he’s spiritual. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Customers are encouraged to shop Burlington for all their back-to-school needs this summer and donate $1 or more at checkout now until August 19th to help support teachers and their students locally and nationwide.