I confess to being intrigued when I first spotted the headline about the White House having invited a “controversial” rapper to its Wednesday night social event. The artist in question rhapsodized about cop killing and burning a United States president — neither of which can ever be considered anything other than unspeakable. I half-expected to find a renegade member of the now-disbanded N.W.A. Much to my chagrin, however, I instead found Common — a rapper that practically put the “conscious” in conscious hip-hop — at the center of a raging storm that has yet to abate.
As someone who has virtually no tolerance for hardcore rap and even less for people who openly fantasize about killing police officers or public officials, I feel compelled to defend Common. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that I own his entire catalogue, the entire affair seems overcooked, and incubated in the same fever swamps that brought us the preposterous and utterly fictitious birth certificate controversy. Although the talented Chicago-bred rapper is hardly immune to criticism, the controversy has become the latest episode in a long-running political silly season that seems to accomplish nothing other than distract from real and substantive issues.
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The rapper himself is seemingly bemused by the whole affair. Like any self-respecting (and self-promotional) celebrity does during a public relations crisis, Common took to Twitter to poke fun at his critics — with a little help from his followers, naturally. And not without good reason: despite the admittedly misguided and inappropriate lyrics on the incriminating video, Common is hardly Ice Cube in his heyday. He’s not even Ice-T in his “Cop Killer” incarnation (here I date myself, as very few of us are old enough to recall his music career before his current stint as a sex crimes investigator in prime-time).
If Common’s critics knew anything about his artistic oeuvre and his career arc, they’d know the rapper originally rose to prominence as a member of hip-hop’s socially-conscious wing — which spawned such “dirty backpacker” favorites as Talib Kweli, The Roots, Immortal Technique and KRS-One. While the independent hip-hop movement is often lauded for its positivity, it also articulates social issues and urban rage with the same crass, foul-mouthed aplomb used in mainstream rap. Common’s music certainly falls within that nexus. Although his material ranges from the jazz-infused to the salacious, it is seldom without a message.
For example, many of Common’s (conservative-leaning) critics might be pleasantly surprised by his duet with Lauryn Hill called “Retrospect for Life”, a haunting ballad that waxes emotional about a man and his girlfriend who ultimately opt against aborting the young woman’s unexpected pregnancy. Common’s somber refrain in that song, ”$315 ain’t worth your soul…” was enough to prompt one music blogger to rank the gem as one of the top 10 pro-life songs of all time.
Common’s antagonists might also be interested to learn that one of the most popular song from his brilliant first album, “I Used to Love H.E.R.”, was an unambiguous critique of how sleazy and commercial mainstream hip-hop was becoming. Taking aim specifically at the “gangsta rap” craze popularized by the West Coast, Common’s song was enough to ignite a feud with a California-based group.
And the outrage choir might also be shamed into submission by a little-noticed detail from his third album, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, which features a quote from none other that The Good Book (1 Cor. 13:11) to describe his path to manhood. His song “Between Me, You and Liberation”, was a semi-classic homily to redemption and forgiveness.
None of which is to say Common and some of his chief apologists are completely above reproach. Free speech should also come with a frisson of responsibility: just because you can say something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. It’s in lousy taste to muse openly about killing public officials.
The fact that Common was only recently traduced in the press — three years after recording the offending video — speaks volumes about how desensitized we’ve become to poisonous political discourse. Former president George W. Bush was the subject of all manner of perfidy, underscoring just how low the bar was set during the Bush era for presidential insults that suffused popular culture. The self-appointed arbiters of political discourse seem to be conspicuously tolerant of threats directed at politicians they happen not to like.
For those with selective recall, indulge me a brief stroll down memory lane: Whoopi Goldberg’s foul-mouthed riff at a Democratic fundraiser; the independent film that “romanticized the former president’s assassination”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0853096/; the George Michael music video that depicted a bumbling Bush “literally in-bed with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair”:http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1455955/controversy-erupts-over-george-michael-vid.jhtml; and the Barbra Streisand concert in which she mocked Bush, then proceeded to launch into an expletive-laden tirade at a concertgoer who didn’t like the joke.
One possible teachable moment from this should be a re-thinking of the increasingly cozy relationship between politics and entertainment. The Common affair surfaced a few days after actress Eva Longoria — far from Wisteria Lane — caucused with President Obama on immigration reform. Actors and musicians should start learning when discretion is the better part of valor, and steer clear of political controversies that lead to reams of bad press.
The other lesson is for the White House, which badly needs a pop-culture time out. These are dark and sober times, and the president has more than enough on his plate.