Common and the White House: What The Anthology of Rap suggests about the flap

Last week, conservatives cried foul over Michelle Obama inviting the rapper Common to a poetry reading at the White House, since he'd rapped about violence against cops and President George W. Bush. While the reading went off without a hitch, the debate goes on: Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly will tackle the issue tonight. Why the hullabaloo? The Anthology of Rap, co-edited by Westword profile subject Adam Bradley might hold a clue.

Common has strong ties to Denver through his dad, former Denver pro basketball player Lonnie Lynn; read more in this 1995 Westword father-and-son interview, when the man born Rashid Lynn was still known as Common Sense. Since then, Common has earned a reputation as one of the most well-regarded and squeaky-clean rappers around -- he's popped up on Sesame Street, for chrissakes. Yet he's recently taken flak for "A Song For Assata, " about controversial Black Panther member Assata Shakur. Check out the video here.

Given that Common has even been celebrated by Fox News, many commentators have chided the likes of Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and Matt Drudge for making such a fuss about the invite -- and the fact that these reproaches are now stretching into a second week in the news suggests just how big a blunder the conservatives made. Apparently, attacking rappers as pro-cop killing is so1990s, and it's time for even the fuddy-duddies on the far right to get with the times.

Here's another interesting development: Most of the attacks on Common have focused on whether or not his subject matter is appropriate for the White House, not on if rap in general is appropriate for a presidential poetry reading. Even a Daily Caller article criticizing Common's inclusion in the event seemed to take as a given that rap would be considered poetry, with the author noting, "[Common] is quite controversial, in part because his poetry includes threats to shoot police and at least one passage calling for the "burn[ing]" of then-President George W. Bush."

In other words, the Common kerfuffle seems to hammer home the fact that rap is now an established art form. Of course, Bradley, a CU-Boulder English professor, could have told you that without all the silly headlines. He's spent years working to establish rap as a viable part of the American literary canon -- an effort that produced Anthology, the first scholarly compendium of rap lyrics ever compiled.

While the anthology generated a bit of controversy of its own when some critics suggested the book features too many flubbed lyrics, Bradley -- who just happens to be putting the finishing touches on a memoir of Common he and the artist have been collaborating on -- sees such debate as further proof of rap's artistic pedigree. As he puts it, "What ultimately will matter about this book isn't the skirmishes over particular words and lines, but the life it can live as part of the grand story of hip-hop as a whole."

The same may be said about the Great Common Controversy of 2011. One small step for out-of-touch politicos, one giant leap for hip-hop heads everywhere.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "The Anthology of Rap: The hip-hop soundtrack to go along with this week's cover story."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner