Even though it's 2011, we're still litigating whether rap music in and of itself is a societal corrosive or an artistic expression that channels raw experience and expurgates emotions in the form of a catharsis. It's really the old Plato versus Aristotle rap battles over the artistic merits of tragedy -- at least we can dance to it, so there's that.
But the news today is that Michelle Obama is having some poets over to the White House to read some poetry, and that one of those poets is Chicago rapper Common, and OH MY GOD did you know he's rapped about violence? It's true, and the Daily Caller is beefing about it.
As always, it's important to remember how stories like this come together. Some political figure likes some artist. If the artist is worth his or her salt, then chances he or she has probably done something outre or controversial. And, wow, a rapper? That means there's probably a chance here, to anger up the anger-prone, and manufacture some ire, and suggest that art or music was much more refined and non-controversial back in the 1950s or something.
There's also an element of partisan payback here. Apparently the George W. Bush White House had to scuttle a poetry event of their own in which "the work of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman" was to be performed. It was cancelled because "left-of-center poets protested," the DC reports.
I'd just say: "Shut up, left-of-center poets, I love me some Walt Whitman." But I guess, in order for "justice" to be done here, we need to stop someone else's poetry event from happening. Then everyone will be "even."
Of course, Common is a pretty hard sell when it comes to striking the right divisive note, and while the Daily Caller could have mined his most recent album Universal Mind Control, for some dirty-ass songs that encourage some athletic sexual activity, it doesn't really contain the short, sharp shock of those gangsta rap classics about running drugs and capping police officers. But they dug and dug, and found an example of what they're looking for, in the form of a poem called "A Letter To The Law":
It shouldn't take a genius to explain what's going on in this poem: It is what the title suggests, a "letter" to the source of moral authority written from the perspective of inner city black youths who feel that the police don't protect them, that the media loves to blow up and then tear down their community's celebrities and that the government has been acting more gangsta -- in terms of their invasion/occupation of Iraq -- than they could ever hope. There's an obvious sad note at the end, that the writers of this "letter" might perpetuate the cycle of decline themselves, but the hope is that, by seeking knowledge over violence, they might prevail. (The reference to "My Uzi Weighs A Ton" is key, here: Common is referencing an old Public Enemy song that posits that the mind is the greatest weapon.)
By now, you might be remembering the NWA discography and wondering to yourself: "Wow, is that the worst they can find?" And the answer is literally, "Yes." I'm not trying to diss Common here, but I'm pretty sure his last two albums were sold in Starbucks. He's not what I consider to be a "gangsta rapper" or particularly prone to any of hip-hop's legendary excesses. In fact, it was these excesses -- "poppin glocks servin rocks and hittin switches" -- that Common famously criticized in perhaps his most famous song, "I Used To Love H.E.R."
So that's the Common that even conservative culture critics could love. Just the same way the old masters, like William Shakespeare, are the poets they love. Except, wait -- I know this is an old argument, but since we're talking about rap music, let me sample something old really quick. First, I'll kick this to Adam Serwer:
Last year the president was favored with a performance of content produced by an artist who has written some of the most atrocious things -- a monologue from a character who murdered his own wife. This artist has written about cannibalism, rape, incest, domestic violence, torture, murder, and warfare. His work is peppered with sympathetic portrayals of characters who carry out these crimes -- not to mention explicit sexual references and bawdy jokes. Bawdy. Jokes.
Of course, he's referring to the Bard of Avon, one of the most blood-drenched and sex-crazed poets of the English language. Consider, if you will, "Sonnet 135":
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy 'Will,'
And 'Will' to boot, and 'Will' in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea all water, yet receives rain still
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in 'Will,' add to thy 'Will'
One will of mine, to make thy large 'Will' more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one 'Will.'
Let me point out something that's going on in this sonnet. When Shakespeare uses the word "Will," he is mostly talking about genitals: Both his penis and, to borrow another famous Shakespeare joke, "country matters." Yeah, he gave his piece his own name. And he would basically hit anything on two legs. Deal with it.
Of course, that's what great poets do: They leave behind a body of work that people contend with for years afterwards. Does Common rate in that regard? I wouldn't go that far, but future generations may decide differently.
Funnily enough, the guy making a big deal about all of this, Neil Munro, cites Emily Dickinson as the type of poet who'd be read at the Bush White House -- the idea being that she's an accepted part of the canon, and thus safe for consumption. I'd personally pay good money to see a reanimated Dickinson read the poem Munro cites, "I'm nobody! Who are you?" to a president of the United States. It's actually more subversive than Munro imagines.
Know what would be awesome? If Common read an Emily Dickinson poem at the White House! He could very easily hit the same themes of "Letter To The Law" by giving voice to Dickinson's "My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun."
UPDATE, 6:50 pm: Part of the fallout from this Daily Caller article has been that the story had bled onto Fox News today, with the Fox Nation website referring to Common as a "vile rapper." However, Eric Hananoki at MediaMatters notes, this is an abrupt change of heart:
But roughly half-a-year ago, Fox News had a different tone about Common. In an October 2010 report for FoxNews.com, reporter Jason Robinson interviewed the "rap legend" and told him, "your music is very positive. And you're known as the conscious rapper. How important is that to you, and how important do you think that is to our kids?"
Common replied that it's a "significant role. I just try to show who we are as well-rounded people and I'm happy to be known as the conscious artist."
What happened between October of 2010 and today to cause this flip-flop? Well, Common was invited to speak at the White House, basically.
Our own Corbin Hiar directs me to this tweet from Spencer Ackerman, who digs up another interesting intersection of rap music and politics, this one involving Eazy-E, from legendary gangsta-rap outfit N.W.A.:
In March 1991, Eazy-E accepted an invitation to a lunch benefiting the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle, hosted by then-President George H. W. Bush. A spokesman for the rapper claimed that Eazy-E supported Bush for overseeing Operation Desert Storm.
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