Jamal Simmons, a former adviser to several Democratic presidential candidates, is a nationally known political analyst. He is a principal at the Raben Group in Washington, D.C.
Conservatives on Fox News have attacked the White House for inviting the rapper-poet Common to the White House for a poetry reading. They are upset with Common for poetry he recited on the TV show Def Poetry Jam, targeting President Bush for taking us to war in Iraq and not finding weapons of mass destruction. Karl Rove called him a thug for standing onstage reciting poetry in a wig. Really? The congressional staffers the GOP sent to disrupt the vote counting outside of a government office in Miami during the 2000 presidential-election recount were more thuggish.
Artists tend to reflect most immediately on their surroundings and interpret them for the world to see and hear. Common is by far one of the most community-focused rappers, with lyrics that try to educate and stimulate thinking and positive behavior. In fact, he once wrote a song called "Retrospect for Life" about the struggle over whether or not to abort his unborn child. Many would consider the song "pro-life" because he and the mother decide to keep the baby, proclaiming, "$315 ain't worth your soul." The conservatives chose to ignore that in their critiques.
When he does write about violence and misogyny, it is a reflection of those things in the environment. Common is from the South Side of Chicago, where drugs, gangs and crime exist alongside stable families, kids trying to get educated and people working every day to provide for them. Surrounded by the worst of the reality behind statistics in urban America are Americans doing their best to pursue all of the small and big dreams that this nation promises.
I grew up in a similar part of Detroit and know the mishmash of pain and progress that exists in our communities firsthand. At 14, the child of one of my father's best friends was shot in a drug-related crime. The day it happened, Dad drove me through the neighborhood with tears in his eyes to the corners on Dexter Avenue where the drug boys worked, and promised that if he ever heard that I was in that life, I should hope the police found me before he did and they didn't let me go.
At 16 I was carjacked in the driveway of our home, along with two of my younger brothers and my stepmother, who had a gun put to her temple. The crack-crack of gunfire was so familiar that as a comedian once joked, we knew who was shooting by the direction it came from and type of gun: "That sounds like a 9 mm from over on Pasadena and Wildemere. Must be Paris and them."
In these neighborhoods, criminality can become comedy. My brother still tells the story of a friend who got into an altercation with a group of guys over a car parked in his driveway. The fight resulted in the friend opening his trunk and pulling out a half stick of dynamite (!) that he lit and threw onto the front lawn, causing dirt and grass to fly in every direction. The guys inside the neighboring house then went scattering from side windows and back doors to keep from being targeted next. We're still trying to figure out where he got a box of dynamite.
Growing up in a family of greater means than most in the neighborhood, I was lucky. I got into Cass Technical High School, one of the best public schools in the nation, and had a family that prized nothing more than educational success and character. My father took responsibility for his community and took under his wing many of the young guys we grew up with whose dads were not around.
A couple of them changed the course of their lives with his help. But when gunfire and drugs are the norm, when friends get killed and poor schools for most are standard, when police are seen as both friend and foe — and when all of this happens while television portrays lifestyles of ease and comfort just miles from your home but light years from your reality — hostility and anger are expected responses. As the court jester of rap, Flava Flav, once shouted into the mic, "I got a right to be hostile. My people have been persecuted."
It is a testament to God and human resilience that people emerge from these environments and are not hostile. Blaming an artist whose work constructively tells the story of that pain and a too often indifferent government is certainly not the most constructive way to address it. The truth is that this conflict is not about Common as much as it is an attempt to drag the president back into the "past associations" controversies of the 2008 presidential campaign. Sarah Palin said it herself on Fox: "Who are you palling around with now?"
The ploy won't work this time. Barack Obama is a far better-known quantity, the American people are much more concerned about getting paid to work than with a poet's verse, and the conservatives picked on the wrong poet. This one makes too much common sense.