"You have to find your purpose, believe in your purpose and live your experiences in life, knowing that's part of what greatness is, experiencing difficulties along with the celebrations," the artist told a crowd of about 600 Tuesday at Pfeiffer Hall.
The recording star and Chicago native whose birth name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. has won two Grammy Awards, authored several books and appeared in dozens of films, television and video games.
His speech focused on the theme of achieving greatness, while also hitting on King's lasting messages of nonviolence and acceptance.
"When I look out across the room, I see greatness," said the 41-year-old who has been recording music for more than two decades.
"I love his whole outlook on life," said Ciara Taylor, 18, of Bolingbrook, a NCC biochemistry student. "His message is very humble. It's about unity and everyone being together."
Common, whose father played professional basketball, was a ball boy for the Chicago Bulls and said he learned valuable lessons while playing in a youth league on the city's South Side.
"I found that you've got to work at greatness," he said. "After school, I would go down to the basement and dribble a basketball."
Jessica Disu, a rap artist with the moniker FM Supreme, believes artists have potential for great influence.
"We're living in a time when young people really look up to rappers, and they have the potential to be modern-day civil rights leaders," said Disu, co-founder of the Peace Exchange, a nonprofit led by young adults who work to foster peace in Chicago's most violent neighborhoods. "They can use that platform to cultivate a peaceful culture and to make peace cool. If we can get more artists to follow (Common's) lead, all the violence may not stop but I think it will change what young people are aspiring to be."
The hip-hop artist began his speech with a creative freestyle rap, asking the crowd to shout out ideas. After hearing the words "love" and "money," Common launched into a two-minute free association that rhythmically described the gathering, location and purpose of the evening.
He described failure and obstacles as "growth lessons."
"Greatness is using your gifts to perform at your highest potential," Common told the audience. "It's also when you inspire others to reach their potential."
In addition to his work as a performer, the hip-hop artist established the Common Ground Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that helps inner-city youth through programs, partnerships and volunteerism.
"Just as Dr. King worked within the community to effect change, we're looking to team up with some people within the Chicago community, people who are doing things already, along with our Common Ground Foundation," he said at a press conference. "I'm looking to do something along with the programs that maybe help create jobs and just give kids some hope. I'm not a big political person, I'm just a community-driven person who wants to do my best to see how I can influence to make positive change."
With 11 Grammy nominations under his belt, Common is about to release his 10th album, said to be inspired by his dismay with gun violence in Chicago and across the country.
"My project, 'Nobody's Smiling,' is a call to action," he said. "Sometimes you have a conversation with someone and you may not have the answers but it makes you reflect on what's going on. That's what some of this album is, a discussion hoping to open a conversation."