05/11/2011 05:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 11, 2011

Common Crisis, Day Two: The White House Press Corps Has An Awkward Discussion About Hip-Hop

Yesterday, we brought you word that a minor bit of nontroversy was brewing because the Chicago rapper Common -- whose music you've probably heard on the soundsystem whilst pricing stemware at Crate and Barrel -- would be participating in a White House celebration of poetry.

Some dude at the Daily Caller pieced through the Common canon, found a slam-poem that had vague references to strife between inner-city youths and police, ignored its underlying positive message, and put Common in the category of "cop-killer" gangsta-rappers, which basically degrades the efforts of actual gangsta rappers (who sometimes get invited to parties supporting President George H.W. Bush, because it's okay to embrace rappers when a Republican does it).

Many folks celebrated the absurdity of all of this, like Adam Serwer and Conor Friedersdorf and Ben Greenman. It's worth checking out everything they've had to say about this pseudo-event.

Of course, since this pseudo-event involved the White House, it was only a matter of time before the men and women who guard the mysteries of the White House Press Room chimed in. And so today, America experienced a conversation about rap music between the people least suited to the topic: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and the members of the White House Press Corps.

It all began when American Urban Radio reporter April Ryan told Carney that she had spoken to people "disappointed in the critics of Common," like Sarah Palin, and wanted to know if there was an official White House reaction to the nonsense. That got this particular ball rolling. (To stave off some coming confusion, please note that Carney will continually refer to Common as "Mr. Lynn," in reference to his actual name, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.)

[Click here to watch. This conversation starts up at the 44:30 mark.]

Q: Okay. And also, I just got off the phone with singer, poet, philanthropist Jill Scott who’s performing tonight for the poetry and prose. And she said she’s very disappointed to hear about the critics of Common -- Sarah Palin and some of the GOP to include people in the New Jersey State Police -- about his stand and his comments. What does this White House have to say as Common is an invited guest to be able to deliver his poetry and prose to the group that’s coming tonight?

MR. CARNEY: Well, I’ll make a couple of points about that, April. First of all, the President does not support and opposes the kinds of lyrics that have been written about, as he has in the past. He has spoken very forcefully out against violent and misogynist lyrics. Secondly, in regard to the concerns by some law enforcement, this President’s record of support for law enforcement is extremely strong. He remains committed to the men and women who protect the American citizens and put themselves in harm’s way all the time. He was able to express that appreciation and support just last week in New York when he met with police and firefighters.

Great. Got to work in a reminder of the bin Laden victory lap!

And I would say that while the President doesn’t support the kind of lyrics that have been raised here, he does -- I mean, we do think that some of these reports distort what Mr. Lynn stands for, more broadly, in order to stoke a controversy. I mean, he is -- within the genre of hip-hop and rap, he is what’s known as a conscience rapper -- or a conscious rapper, rather. And I would quote a report just six months ago from Fox News where he was described as a rap legend and quote, “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?”

And I think that one of the things that the President appreciates is the work that Mr. Lynn has done with children, especially in Chicago, trying to get them to focus on poetry, as opposed to some of the negative influences of life on the street.

Naturally, the Press Corps had to get clarification on the vagaries of rap subgenres, because Pitchfork's White House Correspondent wasn't available to help out.

Q: Jay, “conscious” was the word you used?

MR. CARNEY: Conscious.

Q: Conscious?

MR. CARNEY: Conscious, yes. Conscious rapper -- as in socially conscious.


Q: And then -- but wait a minute. But also, at the same time, did this White House vet any of the poetry that the poets are delivering tonight before they deliver them?

MR. CARNEY: I don’t know specifically about the vetting process. The fact is, Mr. Lynn has participated in other events in the past, including the lighting of the Christmas Tree, I believe. I mean, he’s a Grammy award-winning -- multi Grammy-award winning artist. And he’s been invited to this event about poetry, and partly because of his efforts to bring poetry to audiences that don’t get to experience it. And we think that’s a positive thing.

That had to have stung the Press Corps that this scary black dude was at the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree in 2009 and they totally missed the story. I'm going to do them a solid by "leaking" footage of Common performing with the PS 22 Chorus that I found on this shadowy, underground website called "YouTube."

Naturally, we had to have questions about the erroneous contention that Common had "made statements threatening to kill police officers."

Q: Can I follow on that? I mean what --

MR. CARNEY: If you must. (Laughter.)

Q: Well, somewhat must. I mean, why would it that someone who has made statements threatening to kill police officers get invited to --

MR. CARNEY: Keith, let me just make clear that we oppose --

Q: -- is it an appropriate thing for him to be here?

MR. CARNEY: He has spoken out about -- very strongly against -- as an elected official, as an American and as a father, against those kinds of lyrics. And he opposes them. But he does not think that that is the sum total of this particular artist’s work, which has been recognized by a lot of mainstream organizations and fair and balanced organizations like Fox News, which described his music as very positive.

Q: Are you sarcastic when you say that?

I am told that around this time, one of the reporters in the room, hoping to ask a question about the debt ceiling, was overheard whispering, "Is this really happening?" It was! (That reporter ended up not getting called on to ask an actual question of substance.)

Q: -- but I mean, is it then possible that whatever your overriding message -- that killing cops is a very serious matter -- you can basically say anything as long as your overriding message is positive and get invited to the White House?

MR. CARNEY: I’ve addressed this. We -- the President opposes those kinds of lyrics. He thinks they’re harmful. Again, I think that taking that -- 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 or rapper who has done a lot of good things. He’s not -- you can oppose some of what he’s done and appreciate some of the other things he’s done.

Q: Is there concern he’ll get associated with that?

MR. CARNEY: I think that’s all I can say on that.

I'm going to pull some stuff from Adam Serwer and Ben Greenman that Carney might want to use the next time confusion over hip-hop music, or even art in general, comes up. First of all, from Adam, here's some true facts about rap that Carney should just put on a flashcard:

Rappers are often conflated with the content of their material in a way other artists aren't because the narratives almost always take place in first person as part of an emcees' effort to create a literary persona. That's part of why William Shakespeare has never been accused of endorsing rape or domestic violence.

Anyone who wants to talk about this one poem from Common that caused this kerfuffle should actually learn what the poem's about and how it fits into Common's oeuvre. For that, here's Ben:

This isn’t the time or the place to debate the relative merits of poets, or, for that matter, to talk about the long history in hip-hop of giving voice to the powerless by ventriloquizing urban frustration and deploying violence in language rather than in life. Nor is it the time or the place to note that Common’s narrator actually rejects violence in favor of constructive thought: “No time for that, because there’s things to be done / Stay true to what I do so the youth dream come.” It might be the time and the place, though, to point out that Common has a long history as a socially conscious m.c., and that his 1994 song “I Used to Love H.E.R.” was explicitly concerned with the violence and misogyny in West Coast hip-hop. That song led to a feud between Common and Ice Cube, one of the godfathers of gangsta rap.

That's pretty critical, because not only does Obama oppose violent lyrics and think they're harmful, so does Common.

At any rate, let's hope that this is the last time rap music is ever discussed by White House reporters in our lifetimes. The end.

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