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A Common Light

March 30, 2017

For the past few months I haven’t been able to listen to Common’s “The Light” without thinking of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barack Obama, and a 2016 White House farewell party for the president. At that party, hosted by BET, Common was present and performed. Here’s how Coates set the scene:

The Obamas are fervent and eclectic music fans. In the past eight years, they have hosted performances at the White House by everyone from Mavis Staples to Bob Dylan to Tony Bennett to the Blind Boys of Alabama. After the rapper Common was invited to perform in 2011, a small fracas ensued in the right-wing media. He performed anyway—and was invited back again this glorious fall evening and almost stole the show. The crowd sang along to the hook for his hit ballad “The Light.”

Among my friends I was an early fan of Common. At the time, as a twenty-eight-year-old graduate student, I had made an effort to break out of my narrow musical listening habits. At the time U2 and Ben Harper dominated my studio apartment. So I subscribed to CMJ for about two years, listening religiously to the CDs of cutting-edge music in each issue. In one of those I received a preview of Common’s Like Water for Chocolate (album info here). The sample was great. I bought the CD almost immediately after it dropped in 2000.

For whatever reason, that album hypnotized me. I couldn’t get enough of it, and annoyedtalked about it with all my friends. I was literally THAT GUY—easily parodied by The Onion—who couldn’t STFU about my find.

However annoying I was with friends, my enthusiasm was sincere. That album caused me to look for Roy Hargrove performances. I was introduced to Jill Scott through Common (though she took longer to catch on with me—sorry). I love most all the songs: “Time Travelin’, “Heat,” “Cold Blooded,” “The Light,” “Funky for You,” “The Questions,” “A Song for Assata,” and “Pops Rap III…All My Children.”

Confessions: As a white Midwesterner, I couldn’t rap large chunks of the lyrics. I just went silent, Office Space/Michael Bolton-style, when the n-word came along. It’s perilous for self-conscious crackers to singalong to hiphop. As a historian, I’m ashamed that I missed the historical significance of “Assata.” I’m an idiot, or at least was one.

Among these “The Light” always hit the deepest parts of my person. The refrain:

There are times.. when you’ll need someone..
I will be by your side.
There is a light, that shines,
special for you, and me.

I wasn’t dating anyone when I bought the album. I’d met my spouse, but we weren’t yet a thing. The refrain touched my aspiration for a partner.

Like many Chicagoans, Common spoke to my sense of place:

For in these cold Chi night’s moon, you my light
If heaven had a height, you would be that tall

The song also resonated with the romantic in me:

Granted we known each other for some time
It don’t take a whole day to recognize sunshine

I’ve always loved that line, and its precise place in the song.

Returning to the White House party, I won’t ever pretend to understand the totality of what some would call “the black experience.” That’s too much to absorb, and too diverse to encapsulate. But, music is a key part of it. With that, I always admired the music tastes of the former president and First Lady. So when I heard the crowd “sang along to the hook,” I felt right there with them. For just a moment I felt a common light—a bit of cultural-political solidarity. I appreciated anew that piece of Common’s refrain: “There is a light, that shines, special for you, and me.”

If you’ve never listened to Like Water for Chocolate, give it a chance. Hopefully some of the music will move you as much as it has me. – TL

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