I was trying so, so hard to avoid wading into the continuing nonsense of Common’s invitation to the White House, because to acknowledge this nonsense at all is to dignify it in a way it profoundly does not deserve. But now, Bill O’Reilly is flacking an interview with David Jones, the president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, in which Jones stretches to declare that the Obamas’ invitation represents a profound insult to the widows of law enforcement officers killed on the job and calls Common a “this mutt, this nitwit, complete fraud.” It’s the perfect distillation of what really constitutes the perpetual fight against hip-hop: putting your hands over your ears and substituting insults for the “nya, nya, nya.” Blocking people from the conversation is the most efficient way of avoiding listening to them—particularly when it comes to critiques of law enforcement.
This is why I’m frustrated by the defenses of Common’s invitation on the grounds that he’s a big ol’ teddybear, that he’s Elmo’ friend, that he’s a Christian (albeit one pastored by Jeremiah Wright), that he’s in Gap ads, that he’s as bland a representation of hip-hop as we can possibly get. That doesn’t really win us this battle, it doesn’t deter people like Jones. And it sets us up to lose the next fight, when we want to see someone invited to the White House who doesn’t meet our own narrow and self-defeating definition of acceptability.
Poets aren’t politicians, and that means they often play their most valuable role in expanding the debate by being off-message. Murdering cops isn’t actually an appropriate response to police brutality or an effective way to stop it, but that doesn’t actually make the grief and rage at the end of “Cop Killer” any less legitimate. Do I wish “Fuck Tha Police” didn’t have the lines “I’m a sniper with a hell of a scope / Takin out a cop or two, they can’t cope with me” or “Without a gun and a badge, what do ya got? / A sucka in a uniform waitin’ to get shot”? Yeah, but that doesn’t make the song any less ferocious or funny, or take away the economy and power of the bald statement that “police think / They have the authority to kill a minority.” It’s easy for people who don’t want to reckon with that to move to exclude the whole song, a whole pantheon of artists from the realms of discussion. It’s a lot harder to simultaneous critique of the worst in hip-hop while forcefully arguing for the inclusion of the whole, but that doesn’t mean it’s strategic to go the easiest route.