In the United States many of us patronize a kind of cult of personality when it comes to stars. Actors, athletes and musicians are applauded because of their artistic merit, yet they’re increasingly applauded for their viewpoints as well. This is especially so for individuals who we’ve grown up with, or share the similar values with.
For me, one of the few creative entities from my teenage years who is still creating is Chicago native Common. Over time he has transitioned from a gritty underground rapper to an international superstar thanks to his cinematic work on such blockbusters as Terminator Salvation, Selma and now the Liam Neeson starrer Run All Night.
From the very beginning his lyrics of Black pride, street love and social responsibility touched me to the core and helped craft me into the individual that I am today, like water and wind carves stone. The summer of '92 pops into my head whenever I hear a song by Common from the '90s. Basketball, blunts and baggy Fab Five shorts. Back when B-Boys would dance in the middle of the cipher and biting someone else's style was still prohibited.
23 years later, I’ve grown up considerably and so has Common. However, one can’t help recollect how "Soul by the Pound" bumped in the jeeps of many of my peers and how many of us believed artists like Common, Nas and Guru were the beginning of a new age of conscious rappers.
Since then, Common’s sound has matured considerably. I can easily recall when each of his albums had multiple references to bitches and hoes, then songs that celebrate and uplift women. From "Soul by the Pound" through "Can I Borrow a Dollar", "Like Water for Chocolate", "Electric Circus" all the way up to "Nobody’s Smiling" I appreciated his work.
Though I cannot and will not say he was completely responsible for my worldview, multiple references to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and Black revolutionaries, as well as a beautiful homage to Assata Shakur, crystallized the worldview of many like minded young men and women in urban locales across the United States.
Even when Common’s signature sound wasn’t getting any mainstream
Not saying I was his biggest fan, but I certainly related to his contributions to the genre. Once upon a time he was clowning Ice Cube for making films, now his cinematic stardom has exceeded that of his former nemesis. Verily, I have celebrated his growth as I have grown myself. From box fades, to dreadlocks to low Caesar cuts, I still checked for his latest joints and celebrated his transition into stardom.
On January 26, I published my story titled Famous Negroes Say the Damndest Things in which I went in on celebrities, such as Anthony Mackie, Charles Barkley and Ben Cason, who came from depressed backgrounds, clawed their way to the top and then pissed down on those who would follow their lead by belittling their circumstances and blaming them for not overcoming poverty and racism in the same manner that they had. When I initially heard the following video I thought it was more of the same.
Paraphrasing a bit, Common believes that the Ava DuVernay-directed film Selma is helping educate contemporary audiences as to the sacrifices of those who marched from Selma to Montgomery, as well as what they were marching for, and is helping spark the modern conversation of race today amid Ferguson, police brutality and other racially incendiary issues that have plagued the nation in recent years.
He also acknowledged the racism of the past while stating that he, and like minded individuals from throughout the human family, wish to get past it. He professes to a belief that extending a hand of love, forgetting about the past, and asking for help from the majority populous is the key to getting past racism. However, it's hard to get past something that still happening.
Additionally, paraphrasing again, he says that reminding White supremacists and its beneficiaries of their role in Black oppression isn’t the way to go either. I know it’s not fair for me to say this but to hear Common say these words to a White host, in front of a largely White audience, and on a network owned by White people, was just as disheartening to me as the very words themselves.
So let’s analyze those words.
The most jarring of them was the “hand of love” he so eloquently spoke of. In essence, the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's was that extended hand of love, and that hand was essentially hacked off at the wrist with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though there is still great debate regarding exactly what nefarious cabal supported convicted assassin James Earl Ray in his endeavors, it is pretty safe to surmise that whoever funded it said, in no uncertain terms, Black attempts at reciprocity will be met with disdain and rejection.
The spirit of that disdain lives on in the GOP-led Congress, on Fox News, and in police departments across the nation. While the majority of White Americans may not necessarily see themselves as racist, a large majority supports the institutionalized status quo of White supremacy as it is. Liberal and conservative alike benefit from a social structure that places them and their offspring at the very top of the pyramid. We see this whenever Affirmative Action boils to the top of the national conversation.
Secondly, Common believes that pointing out White supremacy’s debilitating effect on generations of people of African descent is now passé? Hmm. I would say fervently and consistently forcing America to look at its pock marked veneer in the mirror is the most effective weapon of change that Black people have ever had. There would have been no Department of Justice investigation without the tireless efforts of activists and protestors. We can’t get past racism when the nation largely refuses to admit it is sick to the core with this malady.
We have to keep reminding them.
He says we can get past it by simply putting everything behind us in the spirit of forgiveness, but that can only be done with some sort of acknowledgement of wrongdoing. This why his analogy on race relations in America being akin to a marriage rings hollow. It was not until 1998 that a sitting president apologized for slavery. That was 135 years after slavery ended.
So it just seems a little Pollyanna-ish for any Black man in America to utter such words. The fact that it was a Black man who has gained celebrity status was something of a déjà vu for me considering my prior piece on the phenomenon. Is Common a sellout? Those words littered my Facebook timeline while I was writing this article. I can’t in all fairness say that’s true. However, one can only go off of similar instances of Black celebrities who became brand new after attaining a certain level of success in society.
Perhaps I am being too hard on Common. Perhaps he was just thinking out loud in a comfortable environment. He’s a famous person of African descent telling a national audience that Blacks should reach out and forgive the benefactors of White supremacy while this system is still in play. That is ridiculous beyond reproach. I’m still a fan though. Love his role in "Run All Night", but maybe he should reconsider his role as a spokesperson for the people or take a moment to reflect upon why he chose his name to begin with, even after he shortened it.
I wonder what Assata would have to say about all this.