Why you should care
The father of the rapper and actor was a star basketball player who struggled to get involved in his son’s life.
The year that Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., the American actor, rapper and poet better known by his stage name Common, was born was the same year that his father, Lonnie Sr., was hitting rock bottom. The elder Lynn’s dreams of becoming a pro basketball player had never materialized, and the 29-year-old had spiraled into a fog of drug addiction and alcohol abuse. If you’ve heard any of the thoughtful spoken-word soliloquies that Lynn, aka “Pops,” who died in 2014, delivered on his son’s albums, you’ve heard him reflect on that time period. “I was hanging out, mad at the world. My professional basketball career was over,” Lynn says, in “Pop’s Rap Part 2/Fatherhood” on the 1997 album One Day It’ll All Make Sense, “and I was dissipating.”
On one occasion, Lynn was in the front room of their Chicago home in 1972 with his infant son, who could not walk or talk yet but who had just learned to pull himself up on the living room table. As Lynn puts it on the album, addressing his son:
“One morning you looked across the table at me, it was like: ‘What? What you gonna be? What you gonna do? You got the responsibility to teach me the right things. You got the responsibility to teach me truth, and respect and love.’”
That moment changed the young man’s life, and ultimately the life of his world-famous son. But not right away. At first, Lynn retreated from those responsibilities. He left his son and moved out. But the story, and their relationship, was far from over.
Early in Common’s life, there was only one thing that his father really knew or cared about.
In an interview with the Associated Press after his father’s death, Common, who will perform at OZY Fest 2018 in New York City’s Central Park on July 21, called his dad “truly a natural poet and master of words.” That’s high praise coming from someone who has won three Grammys, a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar for best original song. By the end of Lynn’s life, his spoken poetry had become a regular feature at the end of his son’s albums. Early in his life, however, there was only one thing that Common’s father really knew or cared about: basketball.
Lynn’s own father had left him when he was 18 months old, and he had grown up with his mother in a tenement on Chicago’s South Side during the 1950s. In a harsh world of gangs, turf wars and drugs, the lanky teenager had one ticket out. Built like a tree — one that would grow to be 6-foot-9 — Lynn was rarely without a basketball in hand. He became something of a playground legend, and a citywide star at DuSable High School. Lynn was recruited by the legendary coach Adolph Rupp to become the first Black player at the basketball powerhouse University of Kentucky, but Lynn did not feel up to the Jackie Robinson challenge the move involved. “That first brother was going to have to be perfect and that wasn’t me,” he told Westword magazine in a 2006 interview.
Instead, Lynn played college ball at Wilberforce University in Ohio before being drafted by the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks in 1966. After he failed to make the team, Lynn enjoyed brief stints with the Denver Rockets and Pittsburgh Pipers of the rival ABA. He was best known for his hustle, hard play and offensive rebounds. But by 1970, Lynn’s brief career was over. And a couple of years later, so was his first attempt at fatherhood. In the thrall of drug addiction, Lynn pawned his car and most of his possessions and ended up living with his mother, mopping hospital floors and dreaming of another chance at basketball glory that would never come.
Eventually Lynn got clean, and he packed his few possessions in a car and drove to Denver to start over. He worked a series of menial jobs and eventually as a counselor to help youth offenders, former gang members and addicts. He also made a concerted effort to reconnect with his son despite the distance. The two talked on the phone every Saturday, and Lynn watched as his boy, an honors student with a gift for language, found his own ticket out.
Not long after launching his career as a rapper in the early 1990s, Common asked his dad to come into the studio and speak his mind into the microphone. Lynn’s spontaneous, soulful performance in which he discusses nurturing peace like it was a 6-year-old, ended up as “Pop’s Rap,” the last song on Common’s second album. Pops would make several more spoken-poetry contributions to future albums. “His personality and soul shined through his work,” Common told the AP. “The way he said things made me look at life and the world in a new way, in a different way.”
Lynn also learned to see the world in a different way thanks to his son. He came to realize that parenting was not a one-way street, that knowledge and wisdom and understanding had to flow in both directions. Indeed, in reflecting on that day in 1972 with his infant son, Lynn says in “Pop’s Rap Part 2/Fatherhood”: “I think I’m the one that got taught. I do believe that, Son … and I know when you started teaching me too.”