Poetry criticism is front-page news today, following The Daily Caller’s transcription of a rap-poem authored by the Chicago rapper Common, who has been invited by first lady Michelle Obama to help present poetry at a Wednesday event for students at the White House
The rapper’s 2007 rap, “A Letter to the Law,” talks of Uzi submachine guns, “the black strap to make the cops run,” and includes a call to “burn a Bush.”
The language and themes are very different from the lyrical poetry promoted in 2003 by then-first lady Laura Bush. Her planned White House reading of 19th century poets was derailed by protests from left-wing poets angered by President George W. Bush’s forced removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The White House’s selection of Common spurred criticism and derision from numerous conservatives, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. In a Tuesday morning tweet, she cited the TheDC’s transcript and commented “Oh lovely, White House.” The Powerlineblog site, for example, said TheDC’s transcription of the lyric was “an act of cruelty” towards Common. Those criticisms were echoed through the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, Fox News and in numerous blogs, where conservatives have long complained that liberals eagerly use charges of “hate speech” and “bigotry” to sideline conservatives in Hollywood, smear traditional culture, tarnish free-market ideas in academia, and sneer at one of the nation’s most popular and evolved music-genres, country music.
As the controversy flared online, conservative outlets reported that Common has voiced support for cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. In his rap, “God Is Freedom,” he declared that “flyers say ‘free Mumia’ on my freezer.” Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. In an unfortunate coincidence, Common’s appearance at the White House event coincides with National Police Week.
In another rap, Common said “when I go/ I want to be known like El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz,” or Malcolm-X, a black-supremacist. The second rap, reported the New Hampshire Journal, also included a passage criticizing white women who date black men: “I don’t know what it is/ but white girls gettin’ ass/ I know what it is/ It’s cash.”
In 2005, Common told an interviewer on the futureproducers.com site that he opposed mixed-race relationships. “I disagree with them… It’s a problem,” he said.
In turn, left-of-center activists rallied in support of Common’s White House invite. The Atlantic, Media Matters, and numerous bloggers and tweeters scorned Common’s critics, often without addressing Common’s words. Sam Stein, a writer at the Huffington Post, for example, tweeted to fellow progressives that “yeah, Obama is making a comprehensive case for immigration reform. but Common is gonna read poetry at the White House! Eye on prize, people.”
White House officials haven’t backed down, even though the president is scheduled to make opening remarks at the event. White House officials may have a political incentive to stand by its invite.
In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton won support from swing-voters by denouncing anti-white rapper Sister Souljah. But these days, the nation’s voters are increasingly polarized and the pool of swing-voters is shrinking. Victory in the 2012 election may be decided by the candidate that motivates his base voters to turn out.
If Obama’s campaign officials see 2012 as a base election, they may welcome the criticism of Common because it can bolster his declining support among African-Americans. Their declining support for Obama may slip further, partly because they’re watching Obama woo Hispanic voters with promises of more low-skill immigration into an economy where at least one-in-six Africans-Americans are unemployed.
The event will also massage Obama’s ties to the influential arts-industry, which relies heavily on government funding. “First Lady Michelle Obama and administration officials will deliver brief remarks to highlight a new study detailing the importance of arts education,” said the statement.