Common a “Gangsta” Rapper?

Some Americans are “outraged” at First Lady Michelle Obama’s choice to invite a “controversial” rapper to a White House poetry event held yesterday. When I read the headlines, I thought it must have been one of the Ices, T or Cube, perhaps, or maybe Eminem. Upon reading further, I found that the “thug” they were referring to was Chicago-native and Grammy Award winning rapper Common, AKA Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. Huh?

Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and even the New Jersey State Police have all joined forces in depicting the emcee as “dangerous,” “controversial” and a ghetto “radical.” “He shouldn’t be let into the White House,” Former New Jersey state trooper Sal Maggio said, “I don’t think any time is right for a man like this who proposes violence toward police.” To refer to Common, whose lyrics are socially and politically conscious, as any of those things is laughable. He is actually on the opposite end of the hip-hop spectrum, rapping about improving communities, love, respect, and equality. So, why all the fuss?

In 2000, in A Song for Assata, from the album Like Water for Chocolate, Common raps about a perceived injustice in the 1973 arrest and subsequent conviction of Black Panther activist Assata Shakur. Shakur was was pulled over by the New Jersey State Police, shot twice and then charged with the murder of a police officer. Assata spent six and a half years in prison before escaping out of the maximum-security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey in 1979 and fleeing to Cuba. In the song, Common is not condoning or calling for violence against law enforcement, but simply maintains that Shakur did not commit the crime and that her treatment was unjust. ·

In 2007, on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, Common delivered A Letter to the Law in which he expressed his opposition to the war in Iraq and implied that it was the government that had gone “gangsta”. Many would agree. In the poem, there is a line that says “Burn a Bush”, but I really did not take that as a threat against former President G.W. Bush’s life. In context, it actually sounded more like a tongue in cheek double entendre, referring to Bush’s politics and the biblical burning bush. That’s my interpretation, but you can check it out for yourself here.

Despite the heated controversy and criticism, Common attended the White House event. He opened his performance with words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke about walking into the White House with “love on my sleeve” as well as the challenges of crime and violence facing American youth and praised the accomplishments of President Barack Obama. Former poets laureate Billy Collins and Rita Dove, singer Aimee Mann and comedian-musician Steve Martin and his bluegrass group the Steep Canyon Rangers also performed.