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How Fox News Uses 'Big, Scary Hip-Hop' to Race-Bait its Viewers

This week's outrage over Common and Jill Scott was ridiculous, but there was a more pervasive, nefarious issue at hand.
 
 
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Last week, Fox News’ Sean Hannity tried to create a controversy over the rapper Common’s invitation to a White House poetry event. Citing a lyric in which Common criticized President Bush for lying to the American people and leading the nation into an unjust war, Hannity tried to paint the rapper as dangerous and "controversial,” the kind of person the Secret Service needed to vet. The lyric in question: "Burn a Bush ‘cause for peace he no push no button/ Killing over oil and grease/no weapons of destruction."

Drawing upon the concepts of metaphor and allusion many of us learned in seventh-grade English class, we can surmise that Common did not literally mean to "burn" Bush, and that he was making a reference to the biblical concept of the burning bush. In hip-hop, as in literature, this is called wordplay. And clearly the more important point of the refrain is "no weapons of destruction," referring to the lie that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD.

But Hannity, being the Fox News ratings-whore that he is, accused Common of being a violent rapper. He also accused him of being pro-"cop-killer," selectively citing lyrics from Common’s song with Cee-Lo, " A Song for Assata," an ode to Assata Shakur, the COINTELPRO-targeted Black Panther who was accused (many believe falsely) of shooting a state trooper in 1973. Karl Rove called Common a "thug" before using the opportunity to call Obama a flip-flopper. Sarah Palin, for her part, furthered her strange, vicious attacks on Michelle Obama, saying, "the judgment is just so lacking of class and decency and all that’s good about America with an invite like this."

Before Jon Stewart sat down to debate the notoriously anti-hip-hop Bill O’Reilly this week (more on that later), he cited the hypocrisy of the Fox Pundits – George W. Bush honored the notoriously violent lyric’d Johnny Cash, and Sarah Palin is a fan of gun-toting racist Ted Nugent. Then Stewart poked fun at Fox, ultimately closing his hilarious monologue with the salvo, "Honestly, I just feel sorry for you guys now."

Well, I don’t. It certainly may seem like the Fox News talking heads are ignorant, or inflammatory, or desperate for news. But it’s clear to me that these guys know exactly what they’re doing: trying to re-ignite the racist hip-hop culture wars of the ‘90s to enrage and engage their largely white, super-conservative base -- a base that, judging from the Tea Party, is terrified that the days of white reign might be numbered.

But it’s even more complicated than that. Common, for one, is about the least controversial rapper the First Lady could have invited to the White House. He’s considered one of hip-hop’s penultimate positive rappers. As I noted here, he is seen within hip-hop as a largely gentle, even hippie rapper, promoting peace and self-love as much as he expresses anger with the system. You could name hundreds of more offensive people in rap and any genre of music. (For the sake of not further exposing Sean Hannity to pop culture, I shall refrain, although he should definitely take a look at this Billboard article titled " Common’s Least Controversial Lyrics.")

But this is not about Common, per se. This is about Fox News preying on conservative white fears of the scary black thug trope, trying to paint anyone and everyone of color as racist against whites. Because ultimately, many ultra-conservative white people simply don’t like the fact that we have a black president. By attempting to associate the Obamas with people they deem "contrary to American values," they can reaffirm their own prejudices and take comfort in their own false narratives of white victimization. And by using hip-hop as a scapegoat––a genre that, 40 years after its invention, most people in the media still don’t seem to understand–-they’re trying to paint Obama with the same racist ideas that have plagued hip-hop for years: that it is "ghetto," "unseemly," "thugged out," what have you. Fox (and Karl Rove, in particular) is very savvy about this. That’s why, practically seconds after Common’s "controversial" lyrics came out, Hannity and Rove were making note of the fact that he attended Reverend Wright’s church.