Common has fucked up. The man who last demonstrated his relevance to contemporary hip hop by performing at the White House has disappointed former United States poet laureate Maya Angelou, by commissioning a poem from her and then using it in a track in which he says the n-word. Maya Angelou does not like the n-word, which is too bad because it’s really fun to picture her saying it to everybody.* Angelou told the Post that she did not believe Common would “sing the line of least resistance”—although perhaps she is not totally familiar with his work, since on the same track he also expresses his dream to live in Miami with “exquisite thick bitches.” Compare to Angelou’s contribution: “From Africa they lay in the bilge of slave ships / And stood half naked on auction blocks /. . . and still they dreamed.”
Did you experience a pang of disdain followed immediately by guilt? Angelou’s last line noticeably echoes the refrain of her famous “And Still I Rise,” which taught us how a rich individual sensibility can reforge the collective history of exploitation as something boring and lame. If you’re into poems, you know that “And Still I Rise” is not very good. You also probably know that this presents a huge problem, since Angelou’s poem is about a dozen generations of smug white people telling her that none of her expressions of self are very good. That’s kind of the theme.
So the poetry of Maya Angelou is fraught. On one hand she’s like your grandma, if your grandma were black and you therefore experienced a statistically reduced likelihood of going to college and deciding you were too good for her poems. On the other hand, those poems really are terrible, and one of them is about how sad it was that Michael Jackson died. Sometimes I start singing “Smooth Criminal” even though I know I shouldn’t, in situations where trying to sing like Michael Jackson is likely to bear terrible consequences, and even I know that his death was something in addition to sad.
The problem with Maya Angelou is that she tends to reduce extremely complex conceptual events—the socio-historic marginalization of black people in America, for example, or the death of a beloved child molester—to very simple sentiments. Being black in America is about persevering. Michael Jackson overdosing is about we loved his songs. This isn’t just poetry for people who don’t like poetry; it’s feelings for people who don’t like to feel. The other thing Maya Angelou has in common with your grandma is her subscription to the worldview expressed by Hummel figurines. There is some level on which her poetry does violence to the human spirit, like those people who try to start a standing ovation after every play.
The only thing worse than being one of those people is being the guy sitting with his arms crossed in a high school auditorium. That’s why Common is screwed right now: all he can do is be very nice to Maya Angelou and hope that she says something nice to him before she dies. The man who once called Ice Cube a bitch is powerless to point out that, say, the questionably poetic poet laureate agreed to be on his album evidently without hearing any of his work and then phoned in some lines ripped off not just from one of her earlier poems but from her most famous earlier poem. He just has to shut up. Maya Angelou gets to say whatever she wants and it is fine—possibly even inspiring. It’s our fault. We made her that way.