So last week, the black blogosphere was ablaze about Fox News’ objection to rapper, Common’s appearance at the White House for an evening of poetry. (I blame spoken word’s roach-like ability to last so long on something incredibly jacked up I must have done in a former life.) Calling the “controversial” rapper “vile,” the right wing’s media arm made the hip-hop heads, et. al. go ballistic. They tweeted and blogged about the lunacy of such charges, in the process proving that Fox News is more out of touch than an AT&T cell subscriber not standing next to a tower. Although Common performed anyway, and most of the Negro section of the internet has seemed to move on, I’m taking up the issue now, not because I can’t believe the folks at the White House thought it was a good idea to invite Common to recite anything, but because I can’t really be all that mad at Fox News. After all, aren’t people often inaccurately describing Common? I’d like to take this blip on the pop culture radar to reiterate the fact that if one can glean any significance from Common’s appearance at the White House, it’s that he’s exactly who some of his longest and most strident fans seem to forget he is: that is, a “conscious” rapper who finds the revolution–and its purveyors– suitable for nothing but sampling and/or cameos. Though ostensibly harmless and hardly who Fox thinks he is, Common has been confusing folks for the bulk of his career. How mad can we be with Fox News for this latest flub?
Newsflash: Unless your name is Converse (or Gap, or…), the revolution will not be televised nor its soundtrack brought to you by Common (or Kweli or Mos or…). And we would be fools, just like Fox News, to think otherwise. Fox News took some things Common said (out of context) and believed them to be true–like many of us do. Just as Common is neither vile nor controversial, he is also not your radical, deep-thinking and sensitive rapper who connects with the Obamas simply on Chi City love. Part of this impression of Common as the kinder, gentler, harmless rapper is the implicit benefit of being automatically juxtaposed to his less respectable counterparts. Perhaps most accurately described as a poor person’s version of the Black Eyed Peas, Common has his own share of misogynistic songs and a track record that suggests that if Common has done anything, it’s successfully cash in on the cultural capital of black revolution and appear like some sort of Wayne Brady of rap. (Really sorry about that, Wayne.)
Admittedly, pre-Be Common was my favorite emcee. But I had to begrudgingly jump off of that bandwagon once it became blatantly apparent that Common had become so much of what he lamented in “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” the song I’d rush home from school to catch on Rap City. (Did I just age myself?) It seemed to me that the official link with Kanye West along with the movies and the aforementioned ad campaigns showed that Common had made a decision, a choice to stop struggling within the margins of highly respected, if hardly profitable emcee, to mainstream media’s “conscious” rap representative. Less combative and polarizing than, say, a KRS-One or Chuck D., Vh1, Oprah, et. al. seem to have opted Common when they needed a rapper with no nihilistic thoughts. So often such entities opted for the handsome, light-skinned bald dude with his ostensibly thoughtful and slow cadence (but, seriously, does he ever say anything illuminating?) when Mos Def wasn’t available or Kweli’s helium-sucking high voice was intolerable, that one might actually be duped into thinking that Common’s version of hip-hop was all right for the smooth jazz crowd.
Is it, though? “Heidi Hoe” is not the only smudge on this kinder, gentler rapper’s resume. Although more subtle, the last verse of Be‘s of “Go,” featuring John Mayer of all people, is nothing but a male-driven fantasy of a ménage à trois wherein the women sexually explore each other for the speaker’s/Common’s erotic delight. Common’s appearance on Kid Cudi’s “Make Her Say” nee “I Poke Her Face” reiterated the under-appreciated fact that Common is sometimes more like his hip-hop brethren than not; such Common/common verses might be the topic of longer conversation, perhaps, if Lil Wayne wasn’t so blatant about his misogyny.
And frankly, there’s just something so malleable about the guy. Knit pants to veganism, The Last Poets to the White House lawn, Common will be that. And I wouldn’t necessarily hate on him so hard for it if there wasn’t this belief held (by him, and/or maybe his fans) that there was some sort of genuine authenticity to it all. And frankly, Common’s dopeness is already suspect simply due to the fact that he’s a rapper who dated Erykah Badu for like three years, but they don’t have a baby. If Common had just said, “Yo, I can’t date Serena Williams being a backpacker’s idol and shit,” then maybe, just maybe, his decision to posit himself in a more mainstream region wouldn’t be so intolerable. Yet Common seems to want to hold on to the reputation he earned during those early years. How long, though, does such a hall pass last? How many movies? How many political functions until we come to terms with the fact that Common has evolved into more of a company man than a maturing revolutionary? There’s nothing wrong with such decisions. It’s just important to be honest about them. Otherwise it’s incredibly difficult to determine who you are. And we, along with Fox News, will just keep mistaking you for someone else.