White House poetry night is one of those ceremonial events that you never hear about unless there's a controversy. Or a fake controversy. But today's conservative kerfuffle over a White House invitation for Common—a socially conscious, mainstream hip hop artist and sometime actor (most recently in Tina Fey's "Date Night")—is interesting, since the faux outrage targets an artist who actually embodies many values of his critics.
In a different universe, where conservative culture warriors listened to music before demonizing it, Common would perform at pro-life rallies. Take his famous duet with The Fugees' Lauryn Hill, Retrospect for Life, which strongly questions abortion. "Musta really thought I was God to take the life of my son," he raps, "from now on, I'm using self-control, instead of birth control, because $315 ain't worth your soul." The last line, comparing the cost of an abortion to the value of life, is a repeating hook. Common also uses the song to dialogue with his unborn child, saying "Knowing you the best part of life, do I have the right to take yours?" and lamenting the thought of turning his "woman's womb into a tomb."
Common's musical messages are not predominantly conservative. Among rappers who have achieved commercial success, however, he is known as one of the most conscious and positive artists. Not to be harsh, but if anything, he is considered soft and goofy—certainly not a violent or "gangsta" rapper who would be a political liability in a reality-based universe. I mean, the guy raps about his daughter's favorite movies—"My daughter found Nemo, I found the new primo"—and jokes about stuff white people like—"While white folks focus on dogs and yoga, my people on the low end trying to ball and get over." Those lines are from "The People," which was named one of top 30 "best songs of 2007" by Rolling Stone. The track's music video shows Common rapping with a baby in his arms. Come on.
So how do you turn "Free to Be You and Me" into "Straight Outta Compton"?
Huffington Post''s Jason Linkins shows how desperately some conservatives went digging in the crates, and came up with an old poem challenging police authority and a song questioning the murder conviction of a member of the Black Liberation Army. (Like "Hurricane," but more controversial.) This thin case bubbled up from the conservative website Daily Caller to a Palin tweet—yes, the media still covers those—and then, on Wednesday, to ABC News' Senior White House Correspondent, Jake Tapper. He could not get administration officials to comment on the "issue." In fact, on Tuesday, before covering the Common outrage, Tapper joked on Twitter about the premise of holding the White House accountable for views of invited entertainers. Pointing to Steve Martin, who was invited along with Common to poetry night, Tapper cracked that in the movie "The Jerk," Martin "juggled kittens. IS THIS WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE STANDS FOR?!?!" Indeed. In his coverage on Wednesday, Tapper did add some musical context:
Common ... is not known as a gangsta rapper, or particularly hard core, having appeared on the UPN series “Girlfriends,” the Tina Fey-Steve Carrell vehicle “Date Night,” and starred in the Queen Latifah romantic comedy “Just Wright.” He’s appeared in ads for The Gap and PETA... One JET profile called Common a “conscious rapper,” since his work of late has avoided the 50 Cent mold and focused instead on subjects like fatherhood, personal growth, and the African-American community. (emphasis added).
Sometimes even fatherhood and anti-abortion songs aren't enough. The last GOP Chairman said the party needed a "hip hop makeover"—but clearly that was far too ambitious. They need to start with some headphones.
Update: At the White House press briefing on Wednesday, reporters dutifully kept this story alive, which prompted the most memorable line to date from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "He is within the genre of hip hop and rap... what's known as a conscious rapper," Carney explained. His pushback also alluded to how hard critics strained to make Common seem menacing. "While the president doesn't support the kind of lyrics raised here," Carney said, "we do think some of the reports distort what Mr. Lynn stands for more broadly in order to stoke controversy."