Category Archives: White House Poetry Event

Common, Rap, and Racism in America

Sorry everyone. I had no intention of doing such a serious post so new into this blog. But the drama about yesterday’s White House poetry event has me ticked off.

The Obamas hosted a poetry event at the White House on 5/11/11 (yesterday). They invited many people to come and perform, such as singer Aimee Mann, writer Billy Collins, and some various other people that I can’t remember and am a bit too lazy to look up at the moment. One of the people invited was the rapper Common. And here starts the political firestorm.

Common is a hip-hop / rap artist. You probably won’t hear him on the radio, because his music is NOT like the rap club-type music normally played. His music is thoughtful, intelligent, socially and politcally conscious. He’s actually one of my favorite rappers. He is by no means the “gangster” type of rapper that the media likes to talk about – no huge baggy clothes, no big glaring chains, no gold teeth, etc. Is there drugs, sex, and violence in his songs? Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking. More often he’s discussing those things in a socially aware way.

The problem that Fox News and politicians in general (such as Sarah Palin and Karl Rove) jumped on is this – he read a line on Def Poetry Jam once years ago that appears to call for Bush’s assassination (“Burn a Bush ’cause for peace he no push no button”), and they claim that he supports the killing of police. Conservatives all over the media immediately tried to shame the Obamas for inviting such a “thug” to the White House.

First off, that Bush line isn’t a call for assassination, at least not the way I see it. I read it more as a call to bring Bush trouble, perhaps impeachment (which I admit I was praying for his entire presidency). I can see how it can loosely be interpreted as violence, if you’re taking the word “burn” as a physical harmful act, and not a call to be held responsible for your actions. I don’t see how this is such an awful thing though. Haven’t we as Americans been calling for Osama bin Laden’s death for a decade now, and some of us celebrated in the streets when it occured? This is a call for a man to be held responsible for starting a war – just the other side of the spectrum. Still, it amazes me that they tried so hard to dig this up – like I said, this was on one episode of Def Poetry Jam. I don’t even think it’s on any of Common’s cds.

The part about Common supporting the murder of cops is incredibly unbased in facts. The lyrics that they’re referring to are in a song in which Common claims that Assata Shakur, a black woman who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper during a shootout in the 1970’s, was actually innocent. In fact, if you look up more about her trial online, there wasn’t much evidence against her in particular except that she was there. They didn’t find her fingerprints on the gun, there was no gunpowder residue on her hands, and medical testimonies actually prove that SHE was shot in the shoulder while her hands her in the air, surrendering. Nonetheless, Assata was sent to prison. She eventually escaped and now lives in Cuba as a political exile. Common saying in a song that she was falsely accused is NOT the same as supporting the murder of a police officer. Not even close.

Anyways, I first heard about all of this drama on Yahoo this morning. The article is here, of you care to read it. There are now almost 2000 comments on this article, and the amount of bigotry and ignorance in most of those comments is ASTOUNDING. There are a ton of comments that just say that “rap is crap”, or that it’s not even real music or poetry. There are a ton of comments claiming that Obama is catering to black people by inviting Common. Comments that suggest that a black rapper couldn’t possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute, that of course a “gangsta rapper” would say those horrible things. Read through some of the comments. It is REVOLTING.

Part of the problem here is Yahoo’s reporting – they posted an article about the criticism that the Obamas were receiving for inviting Common, and mentioned those two reasons why, without posting ANY background information. I actually had to dig to figure out what referrence to killing cops they were talking about.

I can’t believe the amount of ignorance here. So many people commenting just thought that it was disgusting to invite any rapper. Why? Is it really so hard for people to wrap their heads around the thought that just because they don’t like a kind of music, it still has value and relevance with others? That not all rappers are the kind you see on MTV? I could understand maybe if the Obamas had invited a rapper like Lil Wayne, or Mystikal. Those rappers perpetuate the stereotype that rap is all about skanky women and materialism. But Common is SO not the same. In fact, not too long ago Fox News actually called him a legend. He IS.

The number of people also claiming that the Obamas are racists who are trying to cater to minorities is also alarming. Every other President has been a white man, but white presidents have never been called racist because they invited a couple other white people to their events. But for the Obamas it’s completely different? Come on now. THAT is the bigotry right there.

I guess I just feel disgusted with people this morning. You’d like to think that as a country, America is becoming more tolerant, and trying to bury it’s history of racism and prejudice. But you go on the internet and you realize how alive bigotry still is. I know that racism still existed – it’s the scope of it that’s making me a little sick to my stomach right now. There are commenting trolls out there calling Common an “illiterate racist thug”, a “gangsta rapper”, a guy who doesn’t know how to use proper English – one commenter even said something about Common’s performance being “jungle poetry”. And what’s most infuritating is that these people have probably never listened to an entire song by Common. They’re making bad assumptions based on Yahoo’s crappy article, the fact that Common is a rapper, and the fact that he’s black.

Anyways, that’s my rant for now. I might do a follow-up post later in which I explain the distinction between rap and hip-hop. While similar and both are rap, they’re different and Common falls more in the hip-hop category. I probably would have done a “why Common is great” post later down the line anyways, but maybe I’ll do it sometime this month instead.

Also, please please please listen to some of Common’s music before you try believing anything that these people are foaming at the mouth about. I highly recommend these songs (I’ll post links when I can, but I’m not at my home computer right now):

Come Close (feat. Mary J. Blige), Misunderstood, They Say, Black Maybe

Thoughts, comments, opinions? Share them!