Boulder, CO – Common arrived in Boulder, Colorado last Tuesday (February 20) on a night when temperatures plummeted to negative 5 degrees. The MC/actor and outspoken activist was the featured speaker at a Cultural Events Board function hosted by The University of Colorado-Boulder.

After hundreds of freezing college students trickled into the Macky Auditorium and took their seats, Common warmed things up with a little freestyle action before going into his speech.

Throughout the nearly 90-minute event, the Chicago-bred Hip Hop legend spoke on his definition of greatness.

“In the Common dictionary, greatness is when one reaches their highest potential,” he told the audience. “By doing so, you inspire others to reach their highest level.”

As he described the steps it took him to find greatness, Common referenced the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy from Mississippi who was lynched in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. When Common was 12 years old, he worked as a ball boy for the Chicago Bulls and would have through the tunnels that ran under the court. One day, he had an experience that would change his life.

“My job was to bring equipment after the game from the visiting team’s locker room to the home team’s locker room,” he explained. “You have to push these water containers and take different equipment under this dark tunnel. Well, me being a little scared kid, I used to run through the tunnel tryin’ get to the other locker room ’cause I always felt like something was down there.

“One day,  after eight times of me doing this each game, I decided that to get tough and be that black guy in the scary movie — like in Get Out — and see what’s going on. I just said, ‘I’mma fight. I’mma fight this one through.’ I remember a moment where, as I stopped, I felt like a spirit talking to me. I felt there was a spirit of Emmett Till telling me that I had something great to do on this planet. And that his life would not be in vein if I lived it up to what I was suppose to do on this planet.”

Fast forward to 2004 and Common had already discovered his musical path in life. As he was recording his sixth studio album, Be, fellow Chicagoan Kanye West was wrapping up his debut album, The College Dropout. He saw how West’s enthusiasm for his own work was infectious to those around him.

“Being around Kanye, being around people who believe in themselves — you know Kanye has no problem believing in himself [laughs] … we would have these things called listening sessions,” he said. “While we would do listening sessions, Kanye would play The College Dropout. He would hop up on the table and be rapping and spitting and just feelin’ it. And I would be like, ‘Man, his songs that I didn’t even like I started liking ’cause he believed it so much.”

This experienced changed Common’s approach to his own music. Pretty soon, he was using the same technique and witnessing results.

“When I started to do my listening sessions, I didn’t hop up on the table, but I started to declare what I really believed about my music,” he explained. “Instead of being shy and saying, ‘Aw man, I don’t wanna sound too cocky or too confident,’ I’d say, ‘Hey, y’all check this out. This song is classic right here. Check it out. This is a beautiful piece, y’all gotta check it out.’ Low and behold, I released the album Be and it was the first album I released that immediately got classy reviews. And I was like, ‘Wow this belief thing is really working.’

“I started to believe and declare that I’mma believe in myself. Even before you know it wholeheartedly — say it. Continue to say it. At certain points, your self-consciousness will believe it. Your superior will believe it. And it will just moving forward for you. I started saying the things I wanted. I was studying acting. I had been on my auditions and not really getting the roles, but I started just continuing to say, ‘I believe.’ And I got this audition, and I got my first call back and eventually got the first movie. The same first call back became the first movie I did, a movie called Smokin’ Aces. This believin’ thing was working. It was working.”

Check back for Part 2 of the Common exclusive and learn how his breakup with Erykah Badu affected him.