Rapper Common performs at White House amid media controversy

May 11, 2011

Despite the protestations of some media figures, a rapper performed in front of schoolchildren Wednesday evening at the White House. Somehow, the Earth kept turning.

The Grammy-winning hip-hop stalwart Common was one of several artists who celebrated poetry and the spoken word before an audience of dozens of high-schoolers, President Obama and the first lady.

“I woke up with the sunshine, a sunshine I had never seen,” Common rapped gently over a twinkling piano accompaniment. “There was light at the end of it, reminding me to forever dream. I was dreaming I walked into the White House with love on my sleeve and love for each and every one of you, reminding you to believe.”

The whole event — part of Michelle Obama’s White House Music Series — was a PG-rated PSA for poetry and arts education, but the media conjured a controversy before it even happened.

This week, Common was deemed a “vile,” “cop killer rapper” in headlines on Fox Nation, a Web site run by Fox News. Criticism sprang from other conservative fountainheads, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (who tweeted her disapproval), the Daily Caller (which excerpted lyrics through which Common bemoaned police conduct and President George W. Bush’s initiation of the war in Iraq) and Fox News anchor Sean Hannity (who Tuesday devoted 10 minutes of his show to what the network branded “The Invitation”).


Audience members applaud as President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive to host a celebration of American poetry and prose at the White House, (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The noise of outside outrage didn’t penetrate the relaxed, melodic atmosphere of the East Room, where Common was just another member of a varied cast of poets: singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Jill Scott; former U.S. poets laureate Rita Dove and Billy Collins; avant-garde poets Alison Knowles and Kenneth Goldsmith; and comedian-banjoist Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. The music series has previously hosted acts from the genres of country music, classical music, Latin music and Motown.

With a stage washed in teal lighting and cabaret-style seating adorned with candles, the East Room looked more like a Rat Pack-era nightclub than the reception area of a head of state.

Mann strummed her signature tune “Save Me”: “You look like a perfect fit. For a girl in need of a tourniquet.”

Scott, through spoken word, implored students to put pen to paper: “Ah children, please write. Paste your thoughts on our thoughts for a while.”

Collins recited an ode to forgetfulness: “It is as if one by one the memories you used to harbor decide to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

Common, sitting on a stool and wearing a light-gray suit, mourned — in quiet rhythmic verse — young people who suffer and die in a society hobbled by poverty and retribution.

“Destiny’s children — survivors, soldiers — in front of buildings their eyes look older,” he rapped. “It’s hard to see blessings in a violent culture.”

Before the event, debate simmered over Common’s lyrics.

“I’m talking about judgment, and who you bring into [the White House] as the president and first lady, and the image you send out to children,” argued radio host David Webb on Hannity’s TV show.

“And the image Common is sending out to children is there’s an arc of adulthood,” countered Bucknell University professor James Peterson. “He has matured and developed his lyrics. . . . Look at his social outreach.”

Hannity, wrapping up the segment, said: “This is not a guy we want our kids to listen to.”

Critics were swift to pinpoint lyrics that support such controversial figures as Assata Shakur, a Black Liberation Army leader who was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper. On the other side, Common’s defenders asserted that such songs are civic-minded protests of corrupt law enforcement and unjust legal proceedings.

The media tug of war ensued despite Common’s reputation as a morally engaged lyricist who condemns violence and has written children’s books and started a foundation to promote leadership among urban youths.

But the punditry’s snit raises the question: Is an invitation to the White House an endorsement of an artist’s entire oeuvre, of a person’s whole being?

Addressing Common’s invitation, White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a media briefing earlier in the day: The president has spoken out “against those kinds of lyrics and he opposes them, but he does not think that is the sum total of this particular artist’s work. . . .

“It’s ironic to pick out those particular lyrics about this particular artist when in fact he’s known as a socially conscious hip-hop artist and rapper and has done a lot of good things. You can oppose some of what he’s done and appreciate some of the other things.”

Or, as the president put it during his opening remarks: “A great poem is one that resonates with us, that challenges us, and that teaches us something about ourselves and the world that we live in.”

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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