Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Common Controversy

If you're a Daily Show fan, then you probably watched Stewart's take-down (part two here) of Fox News' coverage of the latest overblown non-issue to dominate your TV screen.  The latest stir involves the rapper Common, who has a reputation for being a "conscious" rapper...in other words, he's not a gangsta rapper, or a raunchy party-rapper, but instead is respected for being creative, original, and not pandering to the money-girls-drugs theme that is so often prevalent in hip hop.  Jay-Z, a man who has made millions on the money-girls-drugs theme, noted the respect that Common (formerly known as Common Sense), has for being an intelligent, thoughtful artist when Jay rapped: "Truthfully, I want to rhyme like Common Sense...but I did five mil, and I ain't been rhymin like Common since."  


This week, Common, along with other poets, was invited to the White House for a poetry reading.  Common is from Obama's home city of Chicago, and he is known for his generous charity work there.  Yet, somehow his appearance became a talking point for the Obama critics.  Their reasons?  One, they claim that Common supports cop-killers.  Second, they say that in his lyrics, he has advocated violence against President Bush.  And third, they say that he is a racist, because he is opposed to interracial dating.  Serious accusations, all.  The problem, with each of the three accusations, is a common problem for media outlets, both left (MSNBC) and right (Fox): context.  So let's set the record straight in regards to the three accusations.

First, Common has a song called "A Song for Assata," which is about former Black Panther and convicted cop-killer Assata Shakur.  The song, however, does not glorify cop-killing in any way.  Instead, Common claims in the song that Shakur was wrongly accused, that "medical evidence showed she couldn't have shot the gun."  He writes in the song about the mistreatment he claims she received in prison.  The song makes it clear that in no way is Common glorifying cop-killing.  Rather, Common is making a song about a woman he views as a hero, who he believes was the victim of racism, and who he believes was wrongfully accused of a crime.  Whether Common is correct in his judgment or not, he is entitled to his opinion in the case.  He is certainly not the first artist to make a song which claims that a convicted killer was wrongfully convicted of a crime due to racism...you may have heard of a guy named Bob Dylan.  Go listen to his song, "Hurricane."

Second, some say that he advocated violence against President Bush, saying "burn a Bush, cos for peace he push no button."  Stewart did a fine job dismantling this claim...you can also read the lyrics here and get the full context.  You'll note that Common uses a metaphor (have you read a story about a burning bush in a famous book somewhere?) to note his displeasure with Bush ignoring problems going on with urban youth at home, and instead getting involved in oil-wars overseas.

Finally, it was claimed by the crazier-than-Fox-media (also known as anything run by Breitbart), that Common is against interracial dating.  Apparently, in a 2005 interview with TOUCH magazine, Common expressed frustration that he always saw rastafarians, who he believed represented black cultural pride, dating white women.  He made it clear that he believed interracial love was fine, but he lamented the message often sent to black women in American culture that they were not as beautiful as white women.  He said that black men, especially those who claim to represent a sense of pride in black culture, are sending the wrong message by always dating white women.  Instead, he believed they should affirm the beauty of black women.

Now, in all three of these cases, Common may be wrong, misguided or both.  But that's not the point.  Poets are not often accused of being right, after all.  And they usually have something to say that is not in line with the mainstream...that's part of what makes them poets.  The point is that in context, Common's views are clearly not dangerous, and they do not warrant the type of negative attention that he is receiving.  But, the 24 hour news media has to have something to talk about, and so I'm sure the controversy will go on until the next non-issue can be turned into a big deal.

Already, on Monday, Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart are going to debate the so-called controversy.  I kind of wish Stewart would have let this one go...no need to give this one any more legs to run on.