OTR Interviews

Hip-Hop Artist Common's Invitation to a White House Poetry Event: Much Ado About Nothing?

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," May 10, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MARTHA MACCALLUM, "ON THE RECORD" GUEST HOST: This is a story that's getting a lot of attention today. Did you hear what is going on in terms of an event tomorrow night at the White House? First lady Michelle Obama is hosting a poetry reading, and one of her guests is raising a lot of eyebrows tonight. He's a Chicago poet and he's a rapper who goes by the stage name "Common," and this is sparking a lot of controversy because of some of his lyrics. So we want you to listen to this and see what you think.


COMMON, ACTOR/HIP-HOP ARTIST: Why they messing with Saddam? Burn a Bush because for peace he no push no button, killing over oil and grease, no weapons of destruction. How can we follow leader when this a corrupt one? The government's a G-unit and they might buck young black people, black people in the urban area one. I hold up a peace sign, but I carry a gun.


MACCALLUM: "I hold up a peace sign, but I carry a gun." Remember the uproar over President Obama and his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright? Well, Reverend Wright was Common's pastor, too. He talked about growing up in his church. His mother brought him there as a child. The pair is seen here. That's Reverend Wright over his shoulder there. This is an '08 video, rapping together at Trinity Baptist Church.

And Common jumped to the Reverend's defense during President Obama's 2008 campaign. Listen to what he had to say about that.


COMMON: Reverend Wright is an intelligent, strong individual, a great man and a conduit of love, man. And I know that from being in his pews since I was 8 years old. Every Sunday, my mom had me at that church, so I know, you know, from what it helped shape me to be that he was always preaching about love.

And when he speaks about the government, it's speaking about situations that are oppressing people and situations that are bringing negative things onto people. And I think, you know, he's just really trying to expose that and let that be known to the community so they could be advocates of change, so they could be there to make change.

You know, and what else would a preacher be if he's not going to speak to his community and tell them what they need to do from the word of God and also make change in their communities? So Reverend Wright is all good with me. I'm -- you know, I'm in full support of him, and definitely in support of Barack Obama.


MACCALLUM: Well, as you remember, Reverend Wright also said "Goddamn America" and that the U.S. brought 9/11 on itself. So we invited Common on tonight to talk us to. He declined our invitation. It's getting a lot of attention.

Joining us now is Keli Goff. She's contributing editor at TheLoop21.com. You know, it's disturbing on a lot of levels! As I said to before we came into this, you know, when I first looked at it, I thought, I understand, obviously, they're trying to appeal to young people in this poetry presentation tomorrow night with students. They want to bring in people that they think can relate to kids.

And then I thought, You know what? How you use the White House is extremely important as president! You know, Laura Bush held a similar event. She brought in poets to reprise the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman. This is an opportunity to bring attention to American poetry, and instead, you know, we're talking about burning President Bush. We're talking about glorifying the killing of policemen in this country! There's misogynistic stuff in there. What's the -- why would we want to do this?

KELI GOFF, THELOOP21.COM: Well, I'm going to have to disagree with you slightly, Martha, although I will issue this disclaimer from the get-go and say that like a lot of women in this country, I find Common absolutely adorable. So I'm slightly biased going into it from that standpoint.

But from the other standpoint, I have to say that Common is one of the good guys in hip-hop. I mean, he's one of the people who's known for not putting the misogynistic lyrics out there...


MACCALLUM: How do you support these lyrics, then?

GOFF: Well, I have to say that, first of all, I -- the lyrics that you're talking about, I took a look at, and "burn a Bush" is actually a play on words. I think we all know the biblical text, "burning bush."

MACCALLUM: Yes, I -- I...

GOFF: That's first of all, so...


MACCALLUM: ... "killing over oil, burn a bush because for peace, he no push no button!"

GOFF: If you said to me that Common threatened the life of President Bush, then I would be the first person to say he doesn't belong in the White House. That's not how I interpreted the lyrics. I made this clear to you. You have a forum where we were chatting about this. This is what I will say. I think that my mom, Opel Goff, is going to be the definitive final word on this, and her response to this is much ado about nothing. And she's someone who's not a fan of hip-hop in any capacity. So she saw it as much ado about nothing. I'm inclined to agree with her here because, as I said, I find it kind of ironic that we have Lil' Jon being embraced in homes on "The Apprentice" from, you know, Mr. Donald Trump, who's become...


MACCALLUM: ... is this. When you're President of the United States, and you know, all presidents, including -- I've heard Michelle Obama say this and I think rightfully so -- this is the people's house, right?

GOFF: Right.

MACCALLUM: You want to bring respect. You want to bring -- you want to elevate people when you do this, OK? So here's an opportunity. You know, this is no Robert Frost! This is no Maya Angelou, this moment that is happening tomorrow night! And you know, kids know...

GOFF: A lot of those authors were...

MACCALLUM: Kids understand about Common!

GOFF: ... considered -- but a lot of them were considered controversial in their day, Martha, and...


GOFF: ... argument from what you're saying...

MACCALLUM: But you can't possibly compare these lyrics to the works of these people and say that we're elevating -- also, when you have an opportunity to teach children about -- about, you know, poetry, right? This is something they already know, you know what I'm saying? This is their world in many cases. They're familiar with this. Take it a step higher for them. Teach them about something that they don't know. Missed opportunity, in my opinion!

GOFF: But can I just say from this line of reasoning, right, the pope wouldn't be welcome in the White House because he presided over one of the biggest pedophilia scandals in American history, right? From that logic...

MACCALLUM: Absolutely ridiculous!

GOFF: From that logic...

MACCALLUM: Absolutely ridiculous!

GOFF: ... (INAUDIBLE) people shouldn't be welcome...

MACCALLUM: Absolutely ridiculous!


GOFF: Willie Nelson is a Kennedy Center honoree. He's been convicted of drug abuse multiple...


MACCALLUM: If you were inviting, you know, students to talk about religion, OK, and you wanted to have religious leaders from around the world, you would include the pope in that group, would you not?

GOFF: I'm posing it to you. Do think he belongs there or not? Because I think he's controversial.

MACCALLUM: I -- I find that...

GOFF: You don't think the pope's controversial?

MACCALLUM: No, I find it ridiculous! The pope...


GOFF: ... victims of abuse who would disagree with that.

MACCALLUM: But I -- look, what -- the connection between those two things we could argue about, you know, for hours on another day. However, when you put this man's lyrics against the great American poets and the opportunity that I think is being squandered here -- I would add -- you know, I would look to the president and Mrs. Obama to say, Can we do better by our kids in terms of exposing them to something that is rich, wonderful culture in this country? Missed, blown opportunity, in my opinion!

GOFF: Do you feel the same way about Kid Rock who just performed at President Bush's tribute concert, who's been arrested for assault...

MACCALLUM: Totally different moment!

GOFF: ... multiple times?

MACCALLUM: This is a poetry evening for students!

GOFF: I just don't know where you draw the line. I think...


MACCALLUM: This is educational!

GOFF: I mean, Justin Timberlake was accused...

MACCALLUM: It's educational!

GOFF: ... of doing something inappropriate at the Super Bowl. Should he be banned at the White House?

MACCALLUM: Super Bowl ...

GOFF: But where do you draw the line...


MACCALLUM: ... and for me, it's a very special venue! And the White House, when you are the president, it's your opportunity to, you know, elevate, to bring to the...


MACCALLUM: Super Bowl, whole different venue, you know what I'm saying?


GOFF: I agree with you. I just don't know that I agree that this thing's a downer.

MACCALLUM: All right. Well, we'll see what happens.


MACCALLUM: ... see what happens. Keli, thank you. Good to see you, as always.

GOFF: I like talking to you, Martha!

MACCALLUM: Thanks, Keli. Good to see you.


MACCALLUM: Say hi to your mom for us.

GOFF: I will.

MACCALLUM: And I'm sure he is cute!


MACCALLUM: After that, we fall apart! Thank you, Keli. Good to see you.