On Wednesday night, Common walked into the dim blue light of a White House stage against the audio backdrop of a D.J. looping, "I have a dream that one day … one day … one day … " from the iconic Martin Luther King Jr. speech. Wearing a gray tailored suit, the hip-hop artist and actor — who Fox News characterized as a "vile rapper" earlier this week in coverage about his invitation — perched on a stool and grabbed the microphone.0
"God bless," he said simply, before jumping into an original poem.
In a rapid-fire yet smooth delivery, he waxed lyrical about navigating inner-city life, how it's "hard to see blessings in a violent culture," writing as a "beacon of light for those of us in dark alleys," and that "from one King's dream he was able to Barack us."
Detractors may have been disappointed by the complete lack of controversy, but for anyone familiar with Common's work, it sounded about the usual.
The rapper was one of about a dozen poets, both veteran artists and young up-and-comers, to perform at the White House's "An Evening of Poetry" event. Reinvented in a Love Jones-like nightclub atmosphere, the dimmed East Room was set up with cocktail tables draped with silver tablecloths and dotted with votive candles. Among the guests were national and state officials, including Rep. Barbara Lee and National Endowment of the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman.
"The power of poetry is that everybody experiences it differently," President Barack Obama said in welcoming remarks. "A great poem is one that resonates with us, that challenges us and that teaches us something about ourselves and the world that we live in … As a nation built on freedom of expression, poets have always played an important role in telling our American story."
With that, Rita Dove kicked off the night's performances. The second African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (the first was Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950), Dove performed two "love poems" — a traditional piece, and one dedicated to the librarians who opened her up to the world of reading as a child.
A beaming Jill Scott, who said she was "really geeked" to be there, presented three original poems, including the playful "Wo-manifesto" which began: "Clearly I am not some lump of flesh squeezed into tight jeans." She continued to melodiously detail what she is: "an active brain," "strong legs that roll off the 36 bus," "eyes that sing" and "indeed the shiznit."
Other performers in the diverse lineup included singer Aimee Mann, a poised Virginia eighth-grader named Moira Bass who won the silver medal in this year's Scholastic Writing Competition, former Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins and actor-comedian-writer-musician Steve Martin, who performed with the bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Each performer had a different story, expressing the joys, hardships and everything in between from their own experiences and the lives of those around them. All that was missing were a few verses from the president who declined to do his own spoken-word piece.
"In the spirit of full disclosure, I actually submitted a couple of poems to my college literary magazine," he joked to the audience. "And you will be pleased to know that I will not be reading them tonight."