Rapper/actor Common won’t be giving the commencement speech at New Jersey’s Kean University, thanks to police officials who complained about a song he released 15 years ago. Kean University initially announced via its official Twitter that Common would deliver the address, but a few days later the University’s vice president of relations said the announcement had been released “prematurely,” adding, “While we respect Common’s talent, Kean is pursuing other speaker options.”
Between the two announcements, Chris Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, gave an interview with a local paper in which he said the selection of Common was a “slap in the face” to law enforcement officers. He specifically cited Common’s 2000 song “A Song For Assata,” which celebrates controversial Black Panther activist Assata Shakur, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1977 and currently lives as a fugitive in Cuba after escaping from prison in 1979. Shakur (who was born JoAnne Deborah Byron) is a notorious figure amongst New Jersey law enforcement, but she’s also a revolutionary icon to many civil rights activists. (She’s also been celebrated in at least a dozen hip-hop songs.)
While working on his 2000 album Like Water For Chocolate, Common traveled to Havana to meet Shakur and wrote “A Song For Assata” as a tribute to her:
Lyrics include: “Assata had been convicted of a murder she couldn’t have done/Medical evidence shown she couldn’t have shot the gun/It’s time for her to see the sun from the other side/Time for her daughter to be by her mother’s side.” It also accuses police of mistreating Shakur following the shootout, although on the whole the song is more pro-Shakur than anti-police. The chorus is: “I’m thinkin’ of Assata, yes/Listen to my Love, Assata, yes/ Your Power and Pride is beautiful/May God bless your Soul.”
Interestingly, Common has also recently received criticism from some black activists for focusing on respectability politics rather than systematic inequality. Now he’s simultaneously facing criticism from law enforcement for being too controversial. Common has not yet issued a statement, although presumably he just wants everyone to remember that time he won an Oscar and made Chris Pine cry. That was a great day.