A New Jersey college has rescinded its invitation to rapper Common to be the keynote speaker at its commencement after police there protested his selection because of his 2000 song “A Song for Assata.” Kean University, a public university, announced that Common would no longer be speaking after the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey raised issues with the choice.
“What is troubling here is that a state university that is subsidized with state taxpayer funds, is once again being questioned on their decision-making at the highest levels,” Chris Burgos, the president of the group, said in a statement to the Associated Press. He called Common’s invitation a “slap in the face” to police.
In the song, Common tells the story of Assata Shakur’s arrest and escape through his sympathetic perspective on her involvement in the 1973 killing of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster, for which she was convicted, and her 1977 escape from prison. It’s the story of Shakur, “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere“-style, set to a hip-hop beat. Shakur, the godmother of late rapper Tupac Shakur, has been living in Cuba under political asylum since 1984. Shakur was a Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army. She’s on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.
Her emptiness was filled with beatings and court dates
They fabricated cases, hoping one would stick
And said she robbed places that didn’t exist
In the midst of threats on her life and being caged with Aryan whites
Through dark halls of hate she carried the light
I wonder what would happen if that woulda been me?
All of this s— so we could be free.
Common is not alone in viewing the case against Shakur with skepticism. Public Enemy celebrated her in the song 1988 song “Rebel Without A Pause.” Shakur has maintained that she did not shoot Foerster, and that her hands were up when she herself was hit with gunfire. In the verse above, Common is referring to charges of bank robbery, kidnap, murder, and armed robbery filed against Shakur between 1971-1973. They were all eventually dismissed, ruled as mistrials, or she was acquitted.
New Jersey police raised their concerns over the song and down went Common, who now finds himself in company with Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, and yes, even Michelle Obama, as speakers who didn’t end up giving their speeches as planned.
There was some schadenfreude online because of the naivete some think Common has exhibited in recent statements he’s made about race. There was the “Daily Show” interview where he declared that black people just need to extend their hands in love to white folks in order to fix racism. And then there was his endorsement of Starbucks’ much-maligned “Race Together” campaign.
Oh, Common. Maybe some other school will extend an invitation to him and John Legend to come sing the Oscar-winning “Glory,” which seems to go over well with just about everybody. The controversy over “A Song for Assata” isn’t foreign to him. In 2011, Common was invited to perform at the White House, and various groups protested then, too, citing similar reasons as the New Jersey state troopers.
Common still performed.