So recently, the rapper Common was invited to share his work at a poetry reading at the White House. There are quite a few opinions regarding this, and I would like to add my own.
My decision to do this is based on a call to the Michael Berry show yesterday where a caller claimed that Common was the Lawrence Welk of rap. I will voice my opinion of this in a moment.
First though, an article from the Huffington Post claims that the controversy is pointless. The arguments make sense. Some of the “great poets” wrote about things that were either very controversial for their time, or very explicit even for our time. Yet those poets are read in the White House and other celebrated locations.
While this is true, it is the image that is portrayed that needs to be considered. While unfortunate at times, the White House represents the United States, and what is done there is considered to reflect the attitude of the majority of US citizens. So the question shouldn’t be whether the President or the First Lady enjoy this, but rather whether it is acceptable to the majority of US citizens.
I admit that music is poetry. And I have heard some amazing poetry performed as rap. I have heard some really enjoyable rap. I have heard some really wholesome rap as well (after all, even Dick van Dyke has put out some rap). The problem with inviting an individual to perform at the White House lends support and validity to whatever it is they are performing by default. And not only does it lend validity to whatever they perform while there, but also to everything they have performed previously.
So yes, Shakespeare wrote about sex. Emily Dickinson wrote about defiance. Other classic poets wrote about violence. Some about defying authority. The difference with those is that they are great because of what they have inspired, not always because of what they wrote about.
So the question begs asking. What has Common inspired that puts him on the level of those poets? Has he inspired people to better themselves? Has he inspired a revolution of any kind? It seems to me, that the things that stick in the minds of people regarding him is that he attempts to inspire going against authority. Whether by violence (as is often quoted) or by protest. While going against authority can be good, does the White House need to promote and validate promoting going against itself? Especially when one of the things he is known for is calling for the killing of the President?
It has been claimed that Common and Lawrence Welk are similar. I fail to see the similarities. While Common is known as a “conscious rapper”, the following comes from Wikipedia regarding Lawrence Welk (particularly The Lawrence Welk Show):
The type of music on The Lawrence Welk Show was almost always conservative, concentrating on popular music standards, polkas, and novelty songs, delivered in a smooth, calm, good-humored easy listening style and “family-oriented” manner. Although described by one critic as “the squarest music this side of Euclid” this strategy proved commercially successful, and the show remained on the air for 31 years.
Particularly interesting is that Lawrence Welk was “family oriented”. I have yet to see Common referred to in that way.
Now, I know that Wikipedia is not the most reliable of sources, but that is a very succinct summary of Lawrence Welk and his show. Everything was done for entertainment for the family. It was not done in protest or to necessarily inspire any particular course of action. But rather it was there as a source of entertainment for the entire family to enjoy. It was there to encourage a love of music.
That attitude is what should be encouraged by the White House. Not any other. They are, for better or worse, the social compass of the country. Fortunately, we have as citizens, the opportunity to change that compass every four years. We are not required to follow blindly along whatever path it is that the President decides to set for us. That is why the loud protests. That is why the anger. It has nothing to do with rap. If Dick Van Dyke were to perform his rap at the White House, no one would blink an eye. But once someone promoting violence is validated by the White House, we are going to fight tooth and nail regarding it.