WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama's poetry and prose event Wednesday evening at the White House was intended to "showcase the impact of poetry on American culture."
The organizers got more than they bargained for, however, when one invited guest, hip-hop artist Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., aka Common, came under fire this week from conservatives, including Sarah Palin and Karl Rove, for lyrics alluding to violent acts against police and former President George W. Bush.
The controversy was fanned by the conservative website The Daily Caller, which published some of his lyrics, and by Fox News, which used the phrase "vile rapper" in characterizing the performer.
In one rhyme, Common says to "tell the law my Uzi weighs a ton." He also characterizes the Iraq War as being about oil rather than weapons of mass destruction: "Burn a Bush 'cos for peace he push no button."
The artist's defenders say his lyrics are metaphorical and in the tradition of socially conscious rap. The 39-year-old Grammy winner has worked on the children's program "Sesame Street," hosted the national Christmas tree lighting and is known for his work in promoting poetry with children.
The first lady's program included an afternoon workshop for students before an evening showcase advertised as featuring poets and performers Elizabeth Alexander, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Kenneth Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, Aimee Mann, Jill Scott, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, as well as Common.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney simultaneously distanced the president from Common's more controversial lyrics and defended the Obamas' decision to include the rapper in the event.
"The president opposes those kinds of lyrics. He thinks they're harmful," Carney said, without specifying the offending lines. At the same time, Carney said, Common is "known as a socially conscious hip-hop artist or rapper who has done a lot of good things. . . . You can oppose some of what he's done and appreciate some of the other things." Carney said some of the reports "distort" the sum value of Common's work.
In a Facebook posting Wednesday also linked to via his Twitter account, Common wrote: "Politics is politics and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I respect that. The one thing that shouldn't be questioned is my support for the police officers and troops that protect us every day. Peace yall!"
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, called the controversy "much ado about nothing" and ascribed it to partisan politics, or a misunderstanding of socially conscious rap.
"Obviously, there would be critiques of the Bush administration, because most of these folks are aligned to the left, if not the rabid left," he said of the socially conscious rap movement. "But they don't mindlessly engage in misogyny, sexism and celebration of violence. If they're employing that in their work, it's mostly in a critique as opposed to an affirmation."
Neal said Common was regarded as an "old guy" in the hip-hop world. "He's one of the responsible ones, for lack of a better way to describe it. I don't think they'd pick someone like Common thinking he's problematic for them. It's not Snoop. It's not even Jay-Z. Common is safe."
Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said he was "excited anybody is talking about poetry, period."
In terms of the controversy's impact on centrist voters who are considering whether to re-elect Obama in 2012, Thompson said, "I don't think there are going to be many swing voters who really, truly are undecided that this particular story is what puts them over the edge."
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