It’s not every day you find two Chicago icons hanging out with a couple hundred youths, rapping about the crafts that made them famous, drawing pictures with them and talking life possibilities.
That was the scene as rapper/actor Common and artist Hebru Brantley teamed up for “Art of the City,” a day of master classes and artistic experiences for 200 inner-city youths held at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art.
“I’ve been writing since I was in sixth grade. Music is my life,” said Eugene Shelby, 15, of Calumet Heights, a freshman at Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts.
Said another, Anyiah Chase-Mayfield, 16, of Bronzeville, a sophomore at Walter Payton College Prep: “I’m interested in performing arts and any type of science, physics or biology. I want to become an actress or a performer, but I also want to become an astronaut.”
The two were among participants there Thursday from Common Ground Foundation mentoring programs, along with students from other Chicago Public Schools — including Art In Motion, the newly opened South Shore charter backed by Common.
Brantley, whose iconic animated characters “Flyboy” and “Lil Mama” became a worldwide brand collected by the likes of Beyonce, Jay-Z and LeBron James, took a red-eye in from Los Angeles to share a journey from teenage graffiti artist to international renown.
And of course, the kids got to help draw a few pictures of “Flyboy” and “Lil Mama” — which have moved from painting to sculpture in the acclaimed “Nevermore Park” that opened in Pilsen in October, running through Dec. 29.
“It’s just about creative expression, different forms of it, and how to be a young creative and monetize your creations, using the tools at their disposal, social media to YouTube, etc.,” Brantley, 38, said after talking with the mob of students surrounding him and Common.
“Coming up, for me it had been more of just trying to figure this stuff out, not really having a lot of those tools that they take for granted right now. Hopefully, I’m saying something that sticks,” said Brantley, who was raised in Bronzeville.
He’d left graffiti behind to study film at Clark Atlanta University because his father wasn’t quite feeling him on the art. Destined to carve his own path, Brantley launched a wearable art business in college, then decided to pursue his art his own way, outside of galleries.
“My feeling was that system was antiquated. I wanted to take the power back as a visual artist, control my market. So I started putting on my own exhibitions around the world. I later developed these characters, and they amassed a following,” said Brantley.
“With Nevermore, I wanted to go beyond the art world restrictions of, ‘Look, but don’t touch,’ to create something fully immersive. Next, I want to grow that narrative and those characters a little bit more and have them hopefully live in other forms of media.”
Brantley headed for the airport immediately afterward, to fly back home.
“He’s one of the most gifted artists of the day, but his character is just as beautiful. He came back home just to be among these young people, to talk with them, inspire them. He’s not only a visual artist, he’s a filmmaker, so they’re getting to pick the mind of someone whose really talented,” Common said when chatting after his own classes.
The Calumet Heights native and renaissance man — who burst on the scene with his first rap album in 1992, made his film debut in 2007, published his first book in 2011, and has three Grammys, an Oscar and a Golden Globe — later in the day filmed the video for the final single off his 11th studio album released in August, “God is Love,” at the museum.
And all the students got to be in it. “Art of the City” was an effort to give them what his mother, Dr. Mahalia Ann Hines, a longtime CPS principal then Board of Education member, gave to him, Common said.
“Growing up, one of the things that gave me hope and a way to dream was experiencing new things I hadn’t ever been introduced to — like creative arts.” said Common, who most recently starred in this year’s “The Kitchen,” with Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish.
“What really opened my mind and allowed me to find who I am and what I love was learning what was entailed in those things that I loved, like films. I love films, and learning about moviemaking was really empowering,” he said.
“What I wanted to do was expose our youth to as many art forms as possible — what it takes to film the video, create the music, what a gaffer or lighting director does — to experience the arts in a way they haven’t before, and hopefully help them get closer to identifying what they themselves are passionate about.”