Rapper Common performing at a recent show
By Nicole Brown
Kean University backtracked on its decision to have hip-hop artist Common deliver this year’s graduation commencement speech after New Jersey state police raised concerns over the artist’s support of convicted cop killer Joanne Chesimard in his song, “A Song for Assata.”
The decision surfaced on March 30, but hours later the university apologized for the premature announcement on Twitter. The University’s flip-flop gained national attention and sparked social media weigh-ins after the incident was reported by The Record on March 31.
The New Jersey state police opposed the content of the Common song in question since it tells the story of Assata Shakur, whose legal name is Joanna Chesimard. She was convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1977, but escaped from prison and fled to Cuba where she now lives as a fugitive.
“I’m thinking of Assata, yes,” Common says in a song recorded in 2000. “Listen to my love, Assata. Yes, your power and pride is beautiful. May God bless your soul.”
According to reports, two state troopers were patrolling the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973 when they stopped a car with Chesimard and two other passengers. Court testimony explains that Chesimard opened fire on the troopers, killing Foerster and wounding another state trooper.
In a telephone interview Capt. Stephen Jones, spokesman for the New Jersey state police, said he has nothing against the artist but noted, “We don’t need to glorify a convicted felon.” He also said Kean’s selection would be “a slap in the face” towards law enforcement.
“We will continue to bring awareness to the public about the death of the state trooper, and will continue to seek the return of Chesimard to New Jersey to face justice,” said Jones.
Common, 41, known for his Academy-Award winning song in “Selma,” has spoken at Kean in the past. Last year he was the keynote speaker at Kean’s Black History Month celebration.
Gerard Smithwrick, President of Kean’s Student Organization, defended the University’s decision in a statement.
“When we learned of the heightened sensitivity surrounding the choice of Common as our speaker, we (the students and the administration) felt that by continuing with the event as planned, it would detract from this momentous occasion,” Smithwrick said in a statement e-mailed to all students on April 2.
New Jersey state police erupted in anger over the rapper’s invitation to the White House in 2011, but it is unclear if the University had prior knowledge about this incident. Several attempts were made to contact Kean’s spokeswomen, but no one responded by this article’s deadline.
Richard Katz, an English professor at Kean, said this is just another case of the University’s poor management.
“This is sad,” said Katz. “This is a lack of research. Somebody did not do their homework.”
Mylon Wason, a freshman student at Kean, was baffled by the University’s decision to pull the artist.
“People need to be more open-minded,” said Wason. “There is no reason why he should not be allowed to speak at the ceremony.”
A replacement speaker for the graduation ceremony has yet to be named as of publication of this article.