He first paid homage to the "great" Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., then challenged his audience to likewise be great.
Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist, actor and author Common, a Chicago native known as the King of Conscious Hip-Hop, on Tuesday delivered the keynote address at North Central College's Martin Luther King Jr. Week.
"What is greatness?" Common asked a rapt audience at Pfeiffer Hall, citing the examples of King and others, including Michael Jordan. "Greatness is using your gifts to perform at the highest level and, by doing so, you inspire others to reach their highest potential. That's a beautiful thing, when you use your gift to provide a spark to someone else's life."
North Central annually honors King with a keynote speaker, musical tributes, a prayer breakfast and other activities. The college has a connection to King -- he spoke in Pfeiffer Hall in 1960.
After first revving up his audience using freestyle rap with a local flavor, Common launched into an inspirational message of how one reaches greatness.
"I came up with a subscription that I believe in," Common said. "It is to find your path, believe in your path, and live it. A lot of us, we don't discover our true purpose in life until later. But that's OK."
Emmett Till, whose murder helped mobilize the Civil Rights movement, was an inspiration to Common's search for greatness.
Common recalled learning as a 12-year-old the story of Till, a black boy from Chicago murdered at age 14 after reportedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
Shortly after hearing the story, Common said he heard the "spirit of Emmett Till" while alone inside Chicago Stadium putting away balls while he was a Bulls ball boy.
"I felt him talking to me," Common said. "He said 'Greatness is within you. You have something great to give to this world.'"
But greatness isn't given, Common said.
Playing basketball while growing up on Chicago's South side, Common said he was not particularly talented. For weeks he came back to the bench crying, complaining to his uncle that his stomach hurt.
His uncle wasn't having it.
"The gist of what he told me was, 'If you want to be great at something, you have to work at it,'" Common said. "Now, the beautiful thing about work is that if you love something, it isn't work. (Poet and writer) Khalil Gibran said 'Work is love made visible.' If you really love something, you wake up in the morning thinking of it."
The tone later turned spiritual when Common expressed to his audience "We have a light inside all of us -- it is up to us to let it shine," then cited a quote used by Nelson Mandela.
"Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate," Common said, "but our deepest fear instead is that we are powerful beyond measure. Our light, not our darkness, is what most frightens us. You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.
"I'm here to tell you, greatness is within you. Find your path, believe in your path, and live it."