Common’s supporters say he is not responsible for the failure of people unfamiliar with African-American, or “urban,” cultural themes, to understand his rap lyrics. “It shouldn’t take a genius to explain what’s going on in this poem: It is what the title suggests, a ‘letter’ to the source of moral authority written from the perspective of inner city black youths who feel that the police don’t protect them, that the media loves to blow up and then tear down their community’s celebrities and that the government has been acting more gangsta — in terms of their invasion/occupation of Iraq — than they could ever hope,” said Jason Linkins, a writer for the Huffington Post.
The most coherent support for Common’s work came from Bradley Markham, who grew up in an African-American neighborhood in Texas, and then studied science and poetry at Stanford University before working for Google. Common is “not my favorite poet, not my favorite actor, but not a cop killer, inciter of violence, or racist,” he said. Rather, he is “often mocked as a softy in the rap circles, an intellectual who thinks too much,” Markham said.
Common’s “Burn a Bush” statement, he said, “is basically another way to say ‘F… President Bush’, without using the curse word…but nobody in the intended audience thought he was saying anything else,” such as a murder attempt.
Common’s rap, Markham said, “goes on to list some grievances that the black community may have, and that’s where he says ‘don’t retaliate with guns, use your mind instead’… he’s saying he has one weapon, his mind, and its bigger and badder and better than what any police have,” he said.
“Hopefully when you look at it through the eyes and hear it through the ears of its intended audience, you’ll have a better appreciation for what he was saying,” Markham said.
But Common’s rap is entangled in Washington politics, where partisan tribalism usually trumps poetic virtues. For example, a conservative blog, Left Coast Rebel, caught Eric Boehlert, a senior advocate at the Democratic-affiliated advocacy group, Media Matters, shifting his analysis to match the Democrats’ needs.
In 2000, Boehlert eagerly cited words by rapper Eminem — “Bitch I’ma kill you!/ You don’t wanna f… with me/ Girls leave — you ain’t nuttin’ but a slut to me” — as deserving of criticism. “Should the nation’s tastemakers, the ones supposedly pondering the connection between art and society, align themselves with an artist as blatantly hateful, vengeful and violent as Eminem?… By defending and celebrating the likes of Eminem while willingly turning a blind eye to his catchy message of hate, music critics continue to cheapen their profession,” he wrote then.
But on Tuesday, Boehlert tweeted his derision of conservatives’ criticism as merely “RW freakout today over a rapper (!!) being invited to WH poetry event.”