How delighted the Chicago-based rapper Common must be to find that someone still views him as controversial.
It's getting harder to shock people in these jaded times, especially for a guy who is becoming less well-known for his edgy rap lyrics than for writing children's books, appearing in The Gap ads and costarring in romantic comedies like "Just Wright" with Queen Latifah.
But, ah, these also are politically polarized times. All that Grammy-winning Common, previously known as Common Sense and originally as Lonnie Rashid Lynn, had to do to regain some street cred was to accept First Lady Michelle Obama's invitation to recite some of his poetry in the White House. President Barack Obama's vast community of conservative critics saw a glimmer of an opportunity to paint the poet and, by connection, the president as Chicago gangsters, and they took it.
They objected, for example, to a couple of lines in a poem called "A Letter to the Law" that Common recited on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam." Conservative critics interpret his line "Burn a bush cos' for peace he no push no button," for example, as a call to physically attack the president. But it also sounds like a metaphorical play on the biblical burning bush. People often see what they want to see in poetry. That's what makes it poetic. Mix it with politics and many will see controversy.
Republicans also objected to the lyrics to "A Song for Assata," in Common's 2000 album, "Like Water for Chocolate." The song gives a shout-out to Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Panther also known as Assata Shakur, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey police officer and now lives under political asylum in Cuba. Does that make Common a "cop killer" or a "thug," as Fox News contributor Karl Rove put it? "The one thing that shouldn't be questioned," said Common in a Facebook message before the poetry event, "is my support for the police officers and troops that protect us every day."
Ironically Common is a famous leader in "socially conscious" rap, a more responsible and uplifting counter-movement to gangster rap, as a FoxNews.com website reporter noted last year.
Yet, conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity insisted, "If this was somebody who used the same type of rhetoric about violence against President Obama I would be against it." That's nice to hear, except Hannity refused to denounce rock star Ted Nugent after an August 2007 concert in which the frequent Fox News guest called then-Senator Barack Obama a "piece of (bleep)," a word that rhymes with "fit."
Nugent also urged Obama to "suck on" his machine gun. He also yelled profane sentiments from the stage about then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton that made the Dixie Chicks' chiding of President George W. Bush on a British stage sound quite mild by comparison.
But when Democratic strategist Bob Beckel called on Hannity to "disavow this lowlife" Nugent, Hannity said, "No, I like Ted Nugent. He's a friend of mine."
I usually like Ted Nugent, too. I had a very cordial interview with him many years ago, along with his delightful mother, Marion "Ma" Nugent, a columnist for Illinois Entertainer magazine who passed away in 1989. But when I think he's wrong, I will say so. So should Hannity -- unless he doesn't think Nugent is wrong.
Hannity's apparent double standard reminds me of another Fox star, Bill O'Reilly, who famously hounded Pepsi into dropping the rap superstar Ludacris as a spokesperson in 2002. O'Reilly objected to Ludacris' lyrics glamorizing a "life of guns, violence, drugs and disrespect of women." That's how a lot of people describe Ozzy Osbourne and his band Black Sabbath, too. Yet, when Pepsi signed Osbourne about three months after dropping Ludacris, O'Reilly said not a peep.
Although O'Reilly and Ludacris ended their feud last year in a chance meeting, my question is this: How many times can you pounce on hip-hop, including conscientiously "conscious" hip-hop, while giving raunchy rockers a pass? Eventually your "culture war" looks like a war against black culture.
Fortunately, the White House stuck by its invitation to Common and the event went off without a hitch. If anything, this sorry episode shows that political correctness is not just for liberals anymore -- if it ever was.