May 11, 2011 -- The White House has responded to criticism of Common -- a rapper who slammed former President George W. Bush -- being invited to "An Evening of Poetry" at the White House tonight.
"While the president doesn't support the kind of lyrics that have been raised here, some of these reports distort what Mr. Lynn [Common] stands for more broadly." said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
"One of the things the president appreciates is the work Mr. Lynn has done with children, especially trying to get them to focus on poetry as opposed to some of the negative influences of life on the streets," he said.
Common's rhyme -- "Burn a Bush 'cause for peace he no push no button" -- is from his poem "Letter to the Law," which he recited on a 2007 episode of HBO's "Def Poetry." It led some to ask how appropriate it was for the White House to host the "vile" and "quite controversial" rapper.
Initially, Common didn't seem to care. On Tuesday, he tweeted, "So apparently Sarah Palin and Fox News doesn't like me," and linked to a post on the conservative site SarahNet questioning Obama's endorsement of him (the post is no longer accessible). He later wrote "LOL!" in response to a follower who tweeted "[I'd] be more concerned if she DID like you."
But today, in response to criticism of his lyrics that deal with violence against and frustration with police officers, he posted a message on his Facebook page: "Politics is politics and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I respect that. The one thing that shouldn't be questioned is my support for the police officers and troops that protect us every day. Peace yall!"
Common, whose given name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., doesn't shy away from politics in art or life -- he raps about racial relations rather than rims, and he was a prominent supporter of President Barack Obama's campaign in 2008. But to call him "vile," as his friend and fellow hip-hop impresario Questlove of The Roots wrote on Twitter, might be "grasping."
Below, six facts worth keeping in mind ahead of Common's White House appearance tonight:
1. He's an acclaimed artist. Common has won two Grammys -- best R&B song in 2003 for "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)" with Erykah Badu, and best rap performance by a duo or group in 2007 for "Southside" with Kanye West. (That song includes the line "Know when to use a Bible, and when to use a rifle.") He's been nominated for nine additional Grammys. He's also an actor, with movies including "American Gangster," "Terminator Salvation" and "Date Night" on his resume.
2. He prays. A Christian who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, Common and the Obamas shared the same pastor -- Rev. Jeremiah Wright. A 2006 Newsweek profile of Common noted that he "prays before each meal." A 2010 New York Magazine profile of Common described his pre-show ritual: "'Lord, we know the media shows us a lot of bad things,' says Smurf, Common's keyboardist. … 'But we know there's a lot of good things, and they are all because of you. We can't do it without you.' Common gives an amen."
3. Big brands covet him. Common and his music have been featured in many ad campaigns, including The Gap (2006), Lincoln Navigator (2008), and Blackberry (2011).
4. He has a literary background. Common attended Florida A&M University for two years on scholarship and majored in business administration. But he relished reading -- according to a 2000 Los Angeles Times profile, he delved into the work of authors James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright in college. More recently, his mother, former school teacher Mahalia Hines, encouraged him to write three children's books. "My mom said, 'You've got to multitask,'" he told Newsweek.
5. He's never killed anyone. He told Esquire in 2007: "I grew up in Chicago, so I've seen some street s**t point-blank -- cats shooting at you, whoop barn boo. I've never killed anybody physically -- maybe on the mic I have."
6. It's not the first time a poetry reading at the White House has roused critics. In February 2003, former First Lady Laura Bush planned a "Poetry and the American Voice" symposium at the White House, inviting prominent poets to celebrate the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Several of the invitees -- including former U.S. poet laureates Rita Dove and Stanley Kunitz -- declined her offer, and some joined poets all over the world in reading verse protesting American action in Iraq. The event was canceled and never rescheduled.