By Reiland Rabaka
Along with Jill Scott, Bill Collins, and Rita Dove, the “conscious” rapper Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.) was featured at a poetry evening at the White House on May 11. His invitation drew criticism from big name Republicans and their media outlets. It is curious that folk who have little or no relationship with rap music and hip hop culture always wanna fix their faces to say something every time hip hop is given its props. It is even more dubious that for many of these same folk African Americans – their history, culture, politics, religion, and music – only seem to register in the negative. This is what we in African American Studies call a “pathological approach to black people,” which is to say, one that views people as problems instead of people with problems. All human beings have problems, right? Even Republicans, right? It is rare to hear anyone outside of the Hip Hop Generation acknowledge the power of poetry via rap music. Few folk are willing to concede that after the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, hip hop seems to be one of the most salient vehicles for self transformation and social change available to twenty-first century youth. Obviously hip hop, as with most great art forms, has its controversies and contradictions. But, to make it seem as though hip hop is the only art form with issues revolving around violence, misogyny, and homophobia is outright disingenuousness. Has anyone ever heard the song-cum-slogan “Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll!?” Is rock & roll somehow free from violence, misogyny, and homophobia? I don’t think so (and here I’ll make no mention of Ozzy Osbourne, Dire Straits, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, or Korn, etc.). Think for a moment. When is the last time you have heard heavy-hitting Republicans come out against the violence, murder, misogyny, incest, adultery, and profanity in the work of William Shakespeare (just for fun, see The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, A Midsummer Nights Dream, King Lear, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet)? The Republicans, if I may state it outright, have the wrong rapper this time. Common, like Talib Kweli and Mos Def, is actually one of the more progressive rappers on the scene today. However, I’d be the first to admit that it took him a moment to find his voice and vision. His first two albums, Can I Borrow a Dollar? (1992) and Resurrection (1994) were interesting but rather generic. It wasn’t until he dropped One Day It Will All Makes Sense (1997) that his audience was provided with his unique brand of hip hop shamanism. It would be helpful if Common’s Republican critics really and truly engaged his work before mindlessly diving head first into foolishness and misinterpretation. African American music, as with African American life in general, is full of deep double entendres, and sometimes rappers raise issues to bring awareness to those issues and offer their own unique solutions to our problems. I am critical of hip hop’s cheerleaders just as much as I am hip hop’s hyper-critics. I am attempting to develop a relationship with rap music and hip hop culture that allows me to highlight its positives and its negatives, to both appreciate it and critique it. In closing I should say, President Obama is not the first president to invite an artist to the White House whose work includes references to controversial or, even more, criminal topics, and he certainly should not be the last. Here’s to American democracy. Here’s to freedom of speech. And, finally, here’s to artistic license, even for working-class and poverty-stricken U.S. citizens. God Bless America.
Reiland Rabaka is an associate professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of Hip Hop’s Inheritance: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Hip Hop Feminist Movement; Against Epistemic Apartheid; and Forms of Fanonism.