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Common: Grown and sexy

FABULOUS AT 40: Common at a photoshoot for his new series Hell On Wheels

THINK OF hip-hop hero Common and one of the last images that should come to mind is that of a slave.

A talent whose name will frequently pop up on any modern day list of ‘conscious rappers’, the Chicago-born lyricist is celebrated for delivering social commentary through his music; concerning himself with an array of issues from love to politics to the plight of black people.

So to learn that the rapper and actor plays a slave – albeit an emancipated slave – in the new US drama Hell On Wheels, was, initially, quite a shock. But the sexy star, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn said that playing Elam Ferguson – an emancipated slave working to achieve true freedom in post-Civil War America (1865 to be precise) – gave him the opportunity to showcase a type of black character that is rarely seen on screens.

“It took a lot of work and it was an experience that I really value,” says the rapper who released his debut album Can I Borrow A Dollar? in 1992. “As a black person in America, a lot of the images we’ve seen of black people from that time are of people who were submissive and downtrodden. “So for me, it’s a blessing and an honour to play a black person from that time who’s intelligent and who’s a leader.”

Have people been surprised by the role he’s playing?

“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘man, you really are an actor!’ I think it’s changed a lot of people’s perspective on me. In some cases, you can just play yourself and it comes off well. But you can’t just be yourself in a period piece; you really have to push yourself.

“I’ve had a really great response so far; I think it’s upped people’s respect for me as an actor and I’m really grateful for that because I’ve been passionate about acting for a long time. I always wanted to be perceived as an actor and not just a hip-hop artist who’s trying to act. I know I’ve got a long way to go, but the response I’ve received from this show has been really encouraging.”

In retrospect, perhaps it’s not that surprising that Common would undertake such a role. Far from playing a downtrodden servant, he plays an emancipated slave turned freedom fighter.

TALENT: Common stars as Elam Ferguson in Hell On Wheels

And if you look at his work as a rapper – specifically tracks like The People, Black Maybe and A Song For Assata – the sentiments of his music have often examined situations facing black people and sought to shine a light on the struggles of some black Americans.

Is it safe to say he believes that the plight of black people is often greater than that of our non-black counterparts?

“Oh man, definitely,” he asserts. “We have to work through a deeper level of healing and we have to work through more at times because we have been abused; our identity of who we are was taken away. It’s like we’re working through a deficit.

“But we’ve overcome many obstacles to achieve our greatness, so we’ve definitely shown our strength and our prowess. But yeah, we do have a lot of obstacles to overcome, sometimes more than the average person.”

Still, despite being heralded as a conscious rapper, the star couldn’t escape the wrath of US poet Maya Angelou last year. After contributing a poem to Common’s track The Believer, Angelou later expressed her disappointment that the rapper used the N-word in his verse of the same track.

FRIENDS: Common with renowned US poet Maya Angelou

However, in an exclusive interview with The Voice earlier this year, Angelou said she believed Common was “working towards” no longer using the racial slur in his music. Is this true?

“We all grow as human beings, and when you’re afforded the opportunity to talk to the elders, you have to listen and take heed. So yeah, I’m definitely considering not saying certain things any more, but I’ll do it at a time when it feels organic to me, not just because someone told me to. But I do listen and pay attention.”

Did he feel like he’d received a telling-off from the poet?

“No, she was giving advice. She’s like a mother figure; she wants you to do well. Even if she told me off it would be all for positivity. She loves me and she’s somebody I truly care about.”

Perhaps his open-mindedness towards ditching certain words is a sign of his coming of age – after all, he did turn 40 earlier this year.

“I haven’t felt a big difference [since turning 40] but I’m just grateful,” says the father-of-one. “I feel like life is just getting better. When you think about 40, it’s like, ‘man, I’m 40!’ You’d feel nicer to be able to say ‘I’m 30... something!’ But I feel good. Turning 40 isn’t as scary as you’d think.”

Oh, and of that other matter, namely his status as a sex symbol – (I confess, Common is my fantasy boyfriend; even my husband knows this) – is this something the rapper takes in his stride?
“It’s not anything that I work at,” he laughs. “But I’m grateful that women feel that way about me. I wanna look good and I wanna look fresh, and of course, I like ladies to appreciate me. But it’s not like I’m putting that on my list of things that I’m working on!”

Hell On Wheels launches on TCM (Sky channel 317) on May 20

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