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Persona Non Grata

A great deal has already been said and written about the recent controversy involving emcee/poet/actor Common being invited to perform at a poetry slam held at the White House. Perhaps the most noteworthy response to the controversy was offered by The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart (and continued here), in what was quite simply an effective takedown of FOX News for exacerbating the ginned up controversy.

In the segment, Stewart equates the Obama’s invitation to Common to former President George W. Bush’s honoring Johnny Cash with a National Arts & Humanities Award in 2002 after pointing out the lyrics of one of Cash’s song “Cocaine Blues.”  However, the connection actually goes much deeper than just lyrics.

In “‘A Dove With Claws?’ Johnny Cash as Radical,” Jonathan Silverman questions whether Johnny Cash was as radical as many believe. Of course, Americans primarily know Cash as “The Man in Black” because of the persona he evolved in the early 1970s. Indeed, in the song of the same title, Cash explains his rationale for wearing black: “We’re doing mighty fine I do suppose / In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes / But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought to be a man in black.” Of Cash in this period, Silverman writes, “Cash redefined the ‘Man in Black’ [from evil cowboy] into a crusader who wears the black to protest injustice of almost every sort” (92).

Though he concedes that Cash advocated for the poor and called for American troops to be brought home from Vietnam, Silverman also notes, “As we have seen, his radicalism is audience dependent, indeterminate, and generally changeable” (92). As an example, Silverman points to Cash’s support for and agreement not to play Vietnam protest songs in front of Richard Nixon. Moreover, Silverman highlights Cash’s lack of involvement in the other prominent movements of the era, namely the civil rights and women’s rights movements (93). In short, “The Man in Black” was an evolving persona of a performer who had complicated views of sociopolitical issues of the day. In fact, Silverman concludes, “[T]he politics of Johnny Cash remain murky, complicated by family ties and changing definitions of liberal and radical, and embraced by everyone, both conservative and liberal. Johnny Cash as the Man in Black remains a symbol of protest, but also of indeterminacy” (104).

So how does an artist whose most noted persona could be seen as leftist become embraced “by everyone, both conservative and liberal”? Silverman suggests that some of Cash’s universality was his eventual fade from politics and embrace of religion (104). However, one cannot discount the degree to which country, folk and rock music–all of with which Cash is identified–are seen as all-American genres of music. Furthermore, the cowboy is an all-American archetype. Granted, Cash was never really much of a cowboy; by the time “Man in Black” was released in 1971, Cash was living in Los Angeles and already had spent much of his life outside of Nashville (Silverman 98). Nonetheless, his invocation of the cowboy persona has made him legendary to millions.

And then there’s the obvious reason why Cash–despite perceptions of radicalism and a checkered past–has been embraced while Common became FOX’s Public Enemy Number One for a few fleeting moments: Johnny Cash was white.

That said, the matter is far more complex than Cash being white (though that is certainly a great part of it). After all, particularly post-Civil Rights, Americans have been quite willing to embrace (or appropriate) former radicals. (Indeed, one need look no further than the reverence currently held for Martin Luther King, Jr., who as Michael Eric Dyson reminds us in I May Not Get There With You, was one of the most hated men in America–by some blacks and whites alike–at the time of his death.) It has a lot to do with the public’s inability or refusal to distinguish a hip-hop artist from his or her persona. To be fair, much of this is because many hip-hop artists themselves do their damndest to connect their personas to their actual lives (see my previous post on Lupe Fiasco, for example). However, hip-hop certainly does not have a patent on exaggerated claims of authenticity.

As many have rightly indicated, much of the problem is with the ways in which Hannity et al. misread Common as just another “gangsta” rapper when, in actuality, he is far from the sort. In fact, it was Common’s magnum opus (and arguably one of the greatest hip-hop tracks of all-time) “I Used To Love H.E.R.” that resulted in Common drawing fire from West Coast emcees such as Ice Cube for what appeared to be a diss of gangsta rap. In many ways, Common is an artist whose persona–like Cash’s–has shifted overtime, from somewhat comedic to conscious to street (not to be confused with “gangsta”) to mainstream and all points in-between. However, to many, including those FOX News pundits like Sean Hannity, all hip-hop is “gangsta,” and their beliefs about hip-hop were confirmed by a misreading of Common’s now infamous poem “A Letter to the Law” from an episode of HBO’s Def Poetry.

Even amongst those who were willing to consider nuance, there is still the matter of Common’s ode to and visit with exiled former Black Panther Assata Shakur. In his article “Common Gets A Bad Rap On Assata Shakur,” The Guardian’s Jonathan Farley makes a valid argument for revering Shakur, whom the Hannity crowd simply views as a “cop killer.” However, one could certainly assume that Common’s reverance for Shakur in “A Song for Assata” is not unlike Cash’s prison performancess, in which Cash calls attention to the troubles of inmates, or even Bitter Tears, his Native American-themed concept album. Instead, Hannity and the like simply read “A Song for Assata” in conjunction with “A Letter to the Law” as merely a thug’s glorification of cop killers. This type of reading becomes easy when one divorces lyrics from context and when one believes the hype surrounding the “realness” of “gangsta” rappers.

Again, Common is no gangsta. He–like Johnny Cash–may not even be a radical, which is no slight against him but more of a recognition that so very few artists of any genre really are. Of course, the Common controversy has little to do with Common himself and much to do with a concerted effort to portray President Obama is an anti-American Marxist. Nonetheless, hopefully, this momentary furor can serve as a moment in which we can see the problematic nature of judging hip-hop artists by their personas, be they gangsta or, in this case, conscious.

(Photo taken from common-music.com.)


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