Lennox Yearwood, Jr. minister, community activist, and President of the Hip Hop Caucus in Washington, D.C, a national non-profit organization that engages young people in urban communities. Following all the controversy over Chicago rapper Common’s invite to the White House by Michelle Obama for a poetry reading, and how media disected his every line after, Yearwood felt compelled to address the situation in a commentary piece, which we’ve published below:
Speaking out on a matter of seemingly little significance, such as the presence of a rapper at a White House poetry event, brings me no joy. Especially in the present, when there is so much at stake in America, and abroad.
From Tunisia to Egypt, Libya to Syria, and Bahrain to Yemen, an Arab Spring of popular uprisings has captivated the world. They provided hope that a bright and more progressive future is on the horizon for the Middle East and North Africa.
Domestically, there has been a struggle in Madison, Wisconsin, and throughout the heartland of our country to protect the rights of hardworking Americans. Teachers and firefighters, union members and non-union members, and even young students have bonded together. They are fighting to end this nightmare of cutbacks, layoffs and tuition hikes; they are restoring the American Dream.
This proud nation is at a crossroads. One direction hurling towards increased economic inequality, the slashing of social safety nets, deregulation, xenophobia, discrimination of the gay community, voter suppression, and the unconscionable pollution of our environment. The other is a direction of ending poverty, protecting and helping the oppressed and unfortunate, holding Wall Street accountable, embracing immigration, and preserving our ecosystem.
The Hip Hop Caucus is fighting on the front-lines to end poverty and pollution at the same time. We’ve improved the conditions of our communities by empowering young leaders and linking them to policymakers. From getting out the vote to creating green awareness campaigns, that has been our central focus over these past few years.
However, I felt compelled to speak out on what has become an unnecessary controversy. Televised partisan commentators and the political press crave scandals. Their attempts to disparage the rapper Common by taking his lyrics out of context, are normal events for negative-seeking media.
Two decades ago, Ice-T and Sister Souljah were demonized by media to scare apprehensive rural white voters, and fan the flames of the culture war.
This time it was Common’s turn; but for the constant critics of the Obama Administration to go after a harmless artist like Common was utterly ridiculous, and downright ignorant.
For out of touch reactionaries to read a few lyrics of a rap song and attempt to understand its full meaning and intent is absurd. Not to mention that Common is a hip-hop artist whose lyrics are truly works of art. His work shows a progression, beauty, and potential of language.
Moreover, those criticisms of Common’s appearance at the White House came from networks and channels that are void of black nightly news anchors or program hosts.
As Chuck D once so succinctly put it, “Rap is CNN for Black people.”
Black America suffered economically during the Bush Administration’s reign. I realized the damage that was done after traveling to countless neglected inner-cities (including post-Katrina New Orleans). The hip-hop artists from those communities noticed as well. They shared the struggles of their hometowns, speaking out against the current political landscape through their music.
Yet only images and sounds of buffoonery, braggadocio and stereotypical portrayals of Black culture were allowed. These negative depictions were prevalent on television, in the movies, and even through “hip-hop” music promoted by the institutions of the music industry.
The powers that be wanted to market rappers flashing cash, sporting bling, and showing off fancy cars; rappers with little real sense of what was going on in the world around them. Those powers didn’t want you to hear from conscious artists like Public Enemy, KRS-One, Nas, Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, Saul Williams, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, or even a Common. Often the Dave Chappelle Show was the only place you could find some of them.
Common used actual poetry to inspire and help inner city kids get involved through civic participation and mental stimulation. For those efforts, he deserves nothing but respect and admiration, not only from inside urban communities or the hip-hop culture, but from other communities as well.
During Hip Hop Caucus-led voter registration drives in 2008 and 2010, we registered thousands of urban young people in cities across the country. These young adults of color weren’t registering for the first time simply because of Barack Obama’s skin color; there wasn’t a large turnout for Al Sharpton, or Alan Keyes, or Carol Moseley Braun.
They filled out their registration forms with excitement, and voted with tears in their eyes. They didn’t simply vote to elect America’s first African-American President. Those young people voted because they witnessed so much struggle and regression over the past eight years; they took an active role in their lives and ushered in something better. Rappers like Common opened their eyes through conscious lyrics, and motivated them to take political initiative.
Attempting to keep Common out of the White House was not about trying to censor lyrics that seemed offensive. It was about trying to silence a voice who rhymes about real issues, and speaks for the oppressed.
After the White House cut loose Van Jones, and wronged Shirley Sherrod, it was a promising sign for them to stand up with Common. There is still much work to be done, but we as one country, and as one people are moving in the right direction.
“Rather than trying to put an end to Eminem or some other rapper, politicians should think about why they’re rapping. It’s easier to try to censor some kid who’s swearing about poverty than it is to stop the poverty.” – Willie Nelson
For Future Generations,
Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.