Last week, Fox News' Sean Hannity tried to create a controversy over the rapper Common's invitation to a White House poetry event. Citing a lyric in which Common criticized President Bush for lying to the American people and leading the nation into an unjust war, Hannity tried to paint the rapper as dangerous and “controversial”, the kind of person the Secret Service needed to vet. The lyric in question: “Burn a Bush 'cause for peace he no push no button/ Killing over oil and grease/no weapons of destruction.”
Drawing upon the concepts of metaphor and allusion many of us learned in seventh-grade English class, we can surmise that Common did not literally mean to “burn” Bush, and that he was making a reference to the biblical concept of the burning bush. In hip-hop, as in literature, this is called wordplay. And clearly the more important point of the refrain is “no weapons of destruction,” referring to the lie that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD.
But Hannity, being the Fox News ratings-whore that he is, accused Common of being a violent rapper. He also accused him of being pro-“cop-killer,” selectively citing lyrics from Common's song with Cee-Lo, “A Song for Assata,” an ode to Assata Shakur, the COINTELPRO-targeted Black Panther who was accused (many believe falsely) of shooting a state trooper in 1973. Karl Rove called Common a “thug” before using the opportunity to call Obama a flip-flopper. Sarah Palin, for her part, furthered her strange, vicious attacks on Michelle Obama, saying, “the judgment is just so lacking of class and decency and all that's good about America with an invite like this.”
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Before Jon Stewart sat down to debate the notoriously anti-hip-hop Bill O'Reilly this week (more on that later), he cited the hypocrisy of the Fox Pundits – George W. Bush honored the notoriously violent lyric'd Johnny Cash, and Sarah Palin is a fan of gun-toting racist Ted Nugent. Then Stewart poked fun at Fox, ultimately closing his hilarious monologue with the salvo, “Honestly, I just feel sorry for you guys now.”
Well, I don't. It certainly may seem like the Fox News talking heads are ignorant, or inflammatory, or desperate for news. But it's clear to me that these guys know exactly what they're doing: trying to re-ignite the racist hip-hop culture wars of the '90s to enrage and engage their largely white, super-conservative base — a base that, judging from the Tea Party, is terrified that the days of white reign might be numbered.
But it's even more complicated than that. Common, for one, is about the least controversial rapper the First Lady could have invited to the White House. He's considered one of hip-hop's penultimate positive rappers. As I noted here, he is seen within hip-hop as a largely gentle, even hippie rapper, promoting peace and self-love as much as he expresses anger with the system. You could name hundreds of more offensive people in rap and any genre of music. (For the sake of not further exposing Sean Hannity to pop culture, I shall refrain, although he should definitely take a look at this Billboard article titled “Common’s Least Controversial Lyrics.”)
But this is not about Common, per se. This is about Fox News preying on conservative white fears of the scary black thug trope, trying to paint anyone and everyone of color as racist against whites. Because ultimately, many ultra-conservative white people simply don't like the fact that we have a black president. By attempting to associate the Obamas with people they deem “contrary to American values,” they can reaffirm their own prejudices and take comfort in their own false narratives of white victimization. And by using hip-hop as a scapegoat––a genre that, 40 years after its invention, most people in the media still don't seem to understand–-they're trying to paint Obama with the same racist ideas that have plagued hip-hop for years: that it is “ghetto,” “unseemly,” “thugged out,” what have you. Fox (and Karl Rove, in particular) is very savvy about this. That's why, practically seconds after Common's “controversial” lyrics came out, Hannity and Rove were making note of the fact that he attended Reverend Wright's church.
An even starker example of this is the Right's targeting of soul singer Jill Scott, who's even less controversial than Common. (Conservative pundits must have given themselves carpal tunnel Googling the White House Poetry Event guest list.) Shortly after Fox's rap freakout, Mediaite reported that Drudge had found a column Scott wrote for “Essence” in 2010. In it, she wrote, “When my friend told me his wife was indeed Caucasian, I felt my spirit…wince,” which Drudge then Tweeted.
This quote was supposed to be an example of Scott's racism toward whites, but even out of context, you could guess what she meant––the saddening idea that a black man might buy into an historically ingrained racist perception in America that white women are more attractive and more desirable than black women. And, reading the article in context, that is precisely what she meant:
We reflect on this awful past and recall that if a black man even looked at a white woman, he would have been lynched, beaten, jailed or shot to death. In the midst of this, black women and black men struggled together, mourned together, starved together, braved the hoses and vicious police dogs and died untimely deaths on southern back roads together. These harsh truths lead to what we really feel when we see a seemingly together brother with a Caucasian woman and their children. That feeling is betrayed. While we exert efforts to raise our sons and daughters to appreciate themselves and respect others, most of us end up doing this important work alone, with no fathers or like representatives, limited financial support (often court-enforced) and, on top of everything else, an empty bed. It's frustrating and it hurts!
Our minds do understand that people of all races find genuine love in many places. We dig that the world is full of amazing options. But underneath, there is a bite, no matter the ointment, that has yet to stop burning. Some may find these thoughts to be hurtful. That is not my intent. I'm just sayin'.
Again, this is not about Jill Scott – it's about Fox trying to scare its audience into believing that President Obama is racist against whites. But just to clear her name: Jill Scott is one of the most respected and talented R&B artists working right now. She writes songs about self-esteem and love and empowering yourself, and she's never once exploited her sexuality for gain.
But Fox and the Right want to create a false Sister Souljah moment. Let me refresh your memory: in 1992, Sistah Souljah, a rapper and activist, was interviewed for the Washington Post about the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict. She was quoted as saying, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” President Clinton criticized her for what sounded like, yes, an outrageous comment. But her point was not that people should kill white people, but that poor black people living in impoverished, gang-riddled areas of Los Angeles who were used to killing other black people wouldn’t think twice about sparing anyone’s life. The full contextx:
“I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I'm saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?”
Hannity and Rove and Palin and Drudge were tearing a script from that playbook, sticking it to Common and Scott, and hoping it would rub off on Obama, even though all of their assertions about the White House poetry invitees were mostly fantasy.
Which brings us to Monday night, when Jon Stewart debated Bill O'Reilly on the O'Reilly Factor about the topic. While Stewart tried to speak reasonably about the context of each of the accusations against Common, O'Reilly talked over him (as is his way), though Stewart got in a few shots. (“Guess who wrote a song about Leonard Peltier? Bono. Guess where he was? The White House. BOO-YAH.”) But his most important comment:
There is a selective outrage machine here at Fox… This guy is in the crosshairs in a way that he shouldn't be, whether you agree with him or not. You may think he's ignorant in believing that Assata Shakur is innocent. You may think he's ignorant in believing that Mumia is. But then guess what. Bono can't go to the White House, Springsteen can't go to the White House, Bob Dylan can't go to the White House. You've got a lot of people who can't sit in the White House because they've written songs about people convicted of murder.
Aaaand… hip-hop gets scapegoated again.
As for the actual White House poetry event last week, it went off without a hitch. Jill Scott read a poem about high rates of HIV. Common rapped and referenced Martin Luther King Jr No one was harmed.