Last year, Chicago rapper Common headlined his curated Aahh! Fest in Union Park; this weekend he played Ravinia. “I wondered if they like hip-hop at Ravinia,” he joked midway during his rousing debut Saturday night at the north suburban concert destination.
In its 112-year history the outdoor Highland Park venue has not always been the most diverse in terms of lineup or crowds. Common’s show was a solid and necessary switch up from the norm that carried with it an important message about change and unity.
“To all the little ghetto boys and girls, I want you to know I acknowledge you, I see you facing challenges in this city and this country, without the proper tools for education or opportunities for jobs, and police that are not treating young black men like human beings,” he said before offering up the powerful 2007 track “U, Black Maybe” and pining for a “Black America Again,” also the name of his latest album, released in 2016.
“I believe in us and I believe we can change that,” he continued, crediting Cook County States Attorney Kim Foxx for her community efforts and former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who last year announced a Chicago youth jobs initiative. Both were in attendance Saturday night, as were many of the cast and crew of his new Showtime production, “The Chi,” a drama that profiles the lives of black men on Chicago’s South Side, conceived by Columbia College grad Lena Waithe.
Though Common has amplified his Hollywood reach in recent years — in 2015 winning an Oscar alongside John Legend for their anthemic song “Glory,” which was the final and most profound song Saturday night — he has clearly not abandoned his Chicago roots. In this career-spanning set, he went all the way back to the beginning 25 years ago, dialing up his debut single “Take It EZ” from 1992 album “Can I Borrow a Dollar” and bringing on stage his long-time friend and manager Derek Dudley, as well as Dudley’s parents who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. “I used to write rhymes in their basement when I was 12,” he said. “This is family.”
He also referenced Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, having invited the latter’s aspiring rapper brother, Taylor Bennett, to open the show in a last-minute lineup addition. Bennett performed a few tracks from his 2015 album “Broad Shoulders,” by the end thanking the crowd and exclaiming how much he always wanted to be on stage.
The Windy City has been enjoying a renaissance of Chicago hip-hop in recent years, with acts like Chance and Taylor, Vic Mensa and Noname, and Common proved why he is one of the originals that many of them look up to. While he doesn’t have the theatrics of Vic, what he offers is pulpit-worthy poetry, speaking of the plight of inner-city humanity in a way not unlike the late U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks. The jazzy hum of the fantastic eight-piece backing band added to the urban soundtrack as did Common’s rallying for all sides of Chicago — North, South and West. “We are all the same at this point,” he said as the crowd erupted in cheers.
From the first note, the Ravinia crowd jumped to their feet and stayed there the entire night. Common’s message hit home, and recognizing it, he left the crowd with parting words: “Remember it’s our world to change, and we have more to do.”
U, Black Maybe
Get ‘Em High (Kanye West song feat. Common)
Testify/Darling Nikki (Prince song)
I Used to Love H.E.R.
Take It EZ