Rapper appears at White House evening poetry event, sidelined during afternoon session

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

The president and the first lady tonight shouldered aside criticism and welcomed to the White House a controversial Chicago rapper who has glibly validated threats and violence against police.

In an afternoon session, first lady Michelle Obama had welcomed various poets to the White House poetry event, but notably ignored the rapper, whose stage-name is Common. “Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Kenny Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, and Aimee Mann, let’s give them a round of applause,” Ms. Obama said. “We’ll get to hear from these folks,” she added.

Common was introduced at the evening session without any reference to the conservatives’ derision of his poetry or to some police advocates’ dismay at his poetic validation of cop-killers. “Thanks very much, I appreciate being here,” Common said, according to a CBS news report.

He repaid the first couple for sticking with him by declaiming three times the line “One King’s Dream, He was able to Barack us,” according to the CBS report.

The issue’s political sensitivity was demonstrated at Wednesday’s lunchtime White House press conference. Reporters for established organizations ignored the issue until April Ryan, a reporter for American Urban Radio, aggressively questioned spokesman Jay Carney about Obama’s support for Chicago-based Common.

“The president opposes those kinds of lyrics,” said Carney. Common “is known as a socially conscious hip-hop artist or rapper, who in fact, has done, a lot of good things,” offered Carney. “You can oppose some of what he’s done and appreciate some of the other things he’s done.”

The president could not easily walk away from the rapper for fear of offending vital supporters in the African-American community, and he could not afford to fully endorse the rapper at this evening’s event because that endorsement risks the president’s effort to portray himself as a post-racial healer of social divisions.

The White House’s supporters fanned out to Fox News and MSNBC to offer a matching message — that Common supports progressive causes, supported Obama in 2008, and has opposed violence, drugs and sexism. Karl Rove also threw himself into the debate, showing that GOP advocates want to highlight the cultural gap between swing-voters and Obama’s Chicago friends.

By 3.00 p.m. Wednesday, neither Politico nor the New York Times offered items on the White House’s PR’s fiasco three days after it had first begun. The Washington Post’s web-site offered a short 190-word article quoting Carney and fairly summarizing the controversy. Cable-rivals MSNBC and Fox ran multiple segments on the dispute. ABC’s Jake Tapper covered the unfolding dispute with multiple tweets and an article on Carney’s comments.

The initial derision for Common’s “A Letter to the Law” rap, which was transcribed by TheDC, has evolved into a broader dispute that contrasts the rap culture championed by some – but certainly not all – urban African-Americans against that of mainstream America.

Once the controversy began, Common’s videos and bios were searched by critics, revealing his production of a video that lauded cop-killer Joanne Chesimard. The video, “A Song For Assata,” celebrated the 1970s black-supremacist who killed trooper Werner Foerster in 1973.

The video, according to an ABC transcript, shows Common declaring Chesimard’s innocence. “Assata had been convicted of a murder she couldna done…Medical evidence shown she couldna shot the gun…All of this sh*t so we could be free, so dig it, people.”

Other searches showed a video in which he criticized white women for dating African-American men, and an online conversation in which he called interracial-dating “a problem.”

Without denying those videos and statements, Common’s supporters argue that he is actually a moderating force in the often-brutal rap genre, which includes many products that glorify violence, cop-killing and sexism. Carney cited his role as a “conscious” rapper, in contrast to other genres, such as “gangsta” rap.

Those messages haven’t stopped conservatives from quoting Common’s anti-cop lyrics, citing his opposition to interracial dating, and highlighting protests by influential police organizations, including the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association. By sheer bad luck, the White House’s event landed on the same week that police organizations annually commemorate dead police officers.

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