A Common Conservative Tactic: Policing the Boundaries of Acceptable Art

Joe Macaré

The manufactured controversy over the rapper Common’s invitation to the White House has been depressing for several reasons. But few aspects are as frustrating as the simple fact of the Grammy-winning rapper and actor’s relative innocuousness.Common (formerly Common Sense, government name Lonnie Rashid Lynn) has appeared on Sesame Street. In his native Chicago a few years back he could be seen tenderly cradling a baby on public awareness ads on the CTA as part of the “Closing the Gap on Infant Mortality” campaign. Meanwhile his music preaches respect for women* and has even featured him candidly discussing his struggles with his own internalized homophobia. It is literally hard to think of a less offensive rapper.And it’s not as if this is some new-found respectability that reflects a toning down of youthful rebellion with age: one of Common’s most notable early releases was the single "I Used to Love H.E.R." – a finger-wagging lament for the fact that hip hop music had become about "Talking about poppin' glocks, servin' rocks, and hittin' switches… always smokin' blunts and gettin' drunk." Yet there was White House press secretary Jay Carney, forced to make it clear that while Common may be a rapper, he’s not one of those violent rappers who talk about sex, drugs and murder and celebrate materialism. Common is "known as a socially conscious hip-hop artist," explained Carney, while noting that even Fox News had described his music as “very positive.” Meanwhile, poet Bob Holman called Common a "moderate" voice among rappers.The term “moderate” used as a reassuring compliment should set off alarm bells in the minds of progressives, but in the discourse of hip hop, “conscious” and “positive” are equally problematic, loaded terms. Ever since the 1990s, they've been used by music critics to reassure white readers and listeners that individual artists are okay to like – while either tacitly or explicitly accepting the idea that the majority of hip hop is not.That's why, in addition to feeding the news cycle, bashing Obama and distracting from economic issues, the self-appointed moral majority’s outrage serves a very specific function when directed at someone like Common. And this function works not in spite of Common’s position within the spectrum of hip hop, but because of it. The political theory of the Overton Window also works for what is culturally acceptable to white America. If you can establish that Common is at least a borderline case, a cause for contentious debate, then it stands to reason that any rap music that is in any way more confrontational, more vulgar, more politically radical or more challenging must be completely outside the bounds of respectable art and entertainment.If the guy who recorded "I Used to Love H.E.R." shouldn't be invited to the White House, then rappers of the type that that song railed against should probably not even… well, why not just ban them from making music? And don't just rule out Pusha T, Rick Ross and anyone else who ever mentioned selling drugs. Nicki Minaj? Women who talk about sex are far too vulgar. Boots Riley? He's the rap Stephen Lerner! (Plus he said he wouldn't go to the White House even if invited.) Rappers – unlike, say, country singers, must be morally spotless. Since none of them are, the genre as a whole must be intolerable and "vile."And that’s just how most conservatives like it. Hip hop is a thirty year-old art form, but so long as it remains a predominantly African-American one, not to mention one predominantly made by and for those on the wrong side of America's ever-growing economic divide, it must be vilified. Even mainstream hip hop’s celebration of the free market and material goods doesn’t win it a pass, since a) nakedly avowing your love for getting money by any means, even crime, might chime with the right’s actual values but is far too honest for them, and b) the supposedly free market is not supposed to actually end up rewarding any young African-Americans with penthouses and Maybachs. Those are for older, paler CEOs. Even when rappers voice opinions that overlap with those of Rush Limbaugh, it doesn’t matter: being homophobic and anti-choice isn’t appealing to the right when it's based on being, say, a Five Percenter rather than a Westboro Baptist.So singling out rap music for moral outrage is a familiar conservative habit. Unfortunately, it’s one in which too many self-identified progressives have participated. Plenty of liberals and lefties seem to believe that sexism and homophobia are less tolerable when they're expressed by black men in song than when they're entrenched by white men as the bedrock of a nation's economic and public health policies. Or that it's a far bigger sin to glorify fictional violence on a record than to order real violence to be committed by the U.S. military. This isn’t just an insidious form of racism. It’s also a great way to end up with bad, bland, boring art. Rather than "Don't worry, he isn't the scary kind of rapper!", progressives' response should be something more along the lines of: "What is it with you racist racists and your racist hatred of everything African-Americans do?"*There's a long caveat to be written about the particular, problematic forms which "respect for women" takes in positive/conscious hip hop, but that's probably a can of worms best left unopened until another day.

Joe Macaré is a writer, editor and development and communications professional, originally hailing from the UK and now residing in Chicago. His writing has appeared at In These Times, TruthOut, AlterNet, Dazed and Confused, The Times, Plan B and Stylus. He has appeared on WBEZ radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss his extensive coverage of the Occupy Chicago movement.
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