Republican opprobrium boiled over into full-scale fake controversy this week with the announcement that the rapper Common had been invited by Michelle Obama to perform at the White House’s poetry night on Tuesday night.
Sarah Palin went after the Chicago MC on Twitter. Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, called Common a “thug” on Fox News, claiming the performer urged the assassination of President Bush and promoted violence against police in his poem, "A Letter to the Law," during a 2005 Def Poetry Jam performance. And conservative commentator Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller website referred to Common (government name Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.) as a “controversial” rapper.
Meanwhile, fans familiar with Common’s contributions to hip-hop were like, Really? Common a Thug? Controversial! Nah.
Call it the latest evidence of a widening divide between Red State America and the hip-hop nation. With Will Smith having traded hip-hop for movie superstardom and Toronto MC Drake conquering pop radio one Auto-Tune verse at a time, Common has inherited the title of the most milquetoast rapper alive. He’s like hip-hop’s boy next door—a Richie Cunningham-type better known for his ability to model cardigans in GQ than for impeccable street cred (let alone the ability to inspire some fantasy army of rap-loving street soldiers to rise up in rebellion).
Moreover, as White House press secretary Jay Carney explained to the assembled media corps Wednesday, the multiple Grammy winner is best known as a “conscious rapper”—a kind of alterna-hip-hopper whose dedication to artistry and positive messages supersedes his material drive. Outside the Fox News set, Common’s mild-mannered demeanor, his charitable work for AIDS awareness and PETA, even his preppie garb and neatly trimmed beard are seen as a repudiation of gangsta rap’s scary chest thumping and egocentrism.
Common is like hip-hop’s boy next door, a Richie Cunningham-type better known for his ability to model cardigans in GQ than for impeccable street cred.
“Common has one of the more squeaky-clean images in rap,” said Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, executive editor of the hip-hop magazine Respect. “He’s one of the guys that people hold up as the positive impact hip-hop can have on culture. He’s carrying the torch for some of its most idealistic goals.”
As even the most noncommittal followers of rap music are (or at least should be) abundantly aware, just about every MC to breathe on a mike has at some point said something—if not quite a few things—specifically intended to piss off the mainstream. It’s a well-traveled route to provoking discourse, or at the very least goosing a rapper’s recognition factor. But on Wednesday, here was the White House to remind you that an MC is more than the gestalt of his lyrics.
“While the president doesn’t support the kind of lyrics that have been raised here,” Carney said, “some of these reports distort what Mr. Lynn [Common] stands for more broadly.”
For his part, Common seems to be taking the criticism in stride—although he made clear he’s no advocate of cop killing. On Tuesday he tweeted, “So apparently Sarah Palin and Fox News doesn’t like me” with a link to a story critical of his White House invitation, followed by a hearty “LOL!” with the retweet of a follower’s message hailing Common as “the new Sister Souljah.” (Sidebar: She’s the rapper and outspoken political firebrand whose early ‘90s music was banned by MTV for being too inflammatory.)
Then on Wednesday, Common posted a message in response to recent criticism of his lyrics on Facebook: “Politics is politics and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I respect that. The one thing that shouldn’t be questioned is my support for the police officers and the troops that protect us every day. Peace yall!”
The kerfuffle calls to mind the last time a sitting commander in chief happened to invite some tough-talking rhyme-spitter to the White House. In 1991, Eazy-E of the Compton rap collective N.W.A. (whose street anthem, "F--- tha Police", famously won them censure from the FBI) accepted a luncheon invitation to a benefit for the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle. Its host? None other than then-POTUS George H.W. Bush—a fact not lost on the Tweet Deck this week.
Chris Lee is a senior entertainment writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He previously worked as an entertainment and culture reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in Vibe, Premiere and Details magazines and has been plagiarized in The Sunday Tribune of Ireland and The Trinidad Guardian.