Washington Post reporter Dan Zak was assigned the story of the rapper Common’s performance at the White House on Wednesday night, and he not only buried the lead – he completely ignored it. I don’t mean that he failed to quote any of the controversial rap/poetry lyrics about “Burn a Bush” or hailing convicted cop-killers Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal. He did fail to do that.
No, the more interesting story is how Common’s performance apparently ended by kissing Obama’s ring, that “God is watching” and that through “One [Martin Luther] King’s dream, he was able to Barack us.” Here’s how the poem unfolded:
I took Gramps’ advice that Christ is returnin’
Like a thief in the night, I write for beacons of light
For those of us in dark alleys and parched valleys
Street hit spark rallies of the conscious
Conquerors of a contest that seems beyond us
Even through the unseen I know that God watches
From one King’s dream He was able to Barack us
One King’s dream He was able to Barack us
One King’s dream He was able to Barack us
[audio of Martin Luther King: “I have a dream.”]
The only piece of Common’s poem Zak quoted came earlier: "Destiny's children - survivors, soldiers - in front of buildings their eyes look older," he rapped. "It's hard to see blessings in a violent culture."
Zak explained “Common, sitting on a stool and wearing a light-gray suit, mourned - in quiet rhythmic verse - young people who suffer and die in a society hobbled by poverty and retribution.”
Zak lamented how the media “conjuured” a controversy out of thin air:
The whole event - part of Michelle Obama's White House Music Series - was a PG-rated PSA for poetry and arts education, but the media conjured a controversy before it even happened.
This week, Common was deemed a "vile," "cop killer rapper" in headlines on Fox Nation, a Web site run by Fox News. Criticism sprang from other conservative fountainheads, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (who tweeted her disapproval), the Daily Caller (which excerpted lyrics through which Common bemoaned police conduct and President George W. Bush's initiation of the war in Iraq) and Fox News anchor Sean Hannity (who Tuesday devoted 10 minutes of his show to what the network branded "The Invitation").
To Zak, this was all a “snit,” and raising questions about songs honoring convicted cop killers was not a legitimate line of inquiry:
Critics were swift to pinpoint lyrics that support such controversial figures as Assata Shakur, a Black Liberation Army leader who was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper. On the other side, Common's defenders asserted that such songs are civic-minded protests of corrupt law enforcement and unjust legal proceedings.
The media tug of war ensued despite Common's reputation as a morally engaged lyricist who condemns violence and has written children's books and started a foundation to promote leadership among urban youths.
But the punditry's snit raises the question: Is an invitation to the White House an endorsement of an artist's entire oeuvre, of a person's whole being?
Addressing Common's invitation, White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a media briefing earlier in the day: The president has spoken out "against those kinds of lyrics and he opposes them, but he does not think that is the sum total of this particular artist's work....
"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 and rapper and has done a lot of good things. You can oppose some of what he's done and appreciate some of the other things."
Or, as the president put it during his opening remarks: "A great poem is one that resonates with us, that challenges us, and that teaches us something about ourselves and the world that we live in."
That's how the Zak story very helpfully ended, with Carney and Obama tying it up in a nice bow. (It's quite possible that a poem suggesting "God Baracked us" resonated most effectively with the Obamas.)
But do Zak and The Washington Post really think you can just avoid the praising-the-cop-killer songs? Would they suggest that standard for people who have uttered a racist remark or two? Hmm, no. Michael Richards yelling racist things at a heckler in 2006 had the Post suggesting he'd inflicted "career-threatening wounds" -- like Mel Gibson or Sen. George Allen.
But then, maybe Zak doesn't think flagrant praise for Obama is out of the ordinary. After all, he wrote "Everyone says this decade was the decade from hell, the lost decade , but also the decade of tantalizing evolution ."