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.
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.”