On Monday, the New York Post reported that Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Maya Angelou publicly expressed her disappointment with Common’s use of the N-word on “The Dreamer,” the opening track on Common’s ninth album, which is a collaboration between the wordsmiths. Angelou, who penned her lines at the rapper's request, recites on the song, “From Africa they lay in the bilge of slave ships/ And stood half naked on auction blocks/. . . and still they dreamed.”
Common’s lyrics include lines like “Told my n---a [Kanye West] I’m ’bout to win the Grammys now” and the boast “N---as with no heart, I’m the pacemaker.”
“I had no idea that Common was using the piece we had done together on [a track] in which he also used the ‘N’ word numerous times,” Angelou told the NY Post.
Angelou said she never knew Common used the N-bomb at all, calling it “vulgar and dangerous” to the Black community.
“I’m surprised and disappointed,” added Angelou. “I don’t know why he chose to do that. I had never heard him use that [word] before. I admired him so much because he wasn’t singing the line of least resistance.”
Common insisted that Angelou, whom he met years ago when they did separate poetry performances at the same event, knew that he used the N-word. But he did admit that Angelou wasn’t told he would be using it on the song in which she is featured.
The day after the Post story, Common diplomatically broke down the “beef” to The Grio’s Todd Johnson. "It's important that I express who I am and [Angelou] is able to express who she is,” he told Johnson. “At the end of day, I'm not going to always do everything that she probably would see as right but at the same token, she respects and she is in full support of me and is grateful to be on the album and I'm grateful to have her on the album."
On Tuesday night, Angelou called in to BET’s “106 & Park” during Common’s appearance to settle the matter once and for all.
“I don’t think the word 'disappointment' quite makes it. I was surprised. I know Common is brilliant. He may, in fact, be close enough to be called a genius. I’m not sure,” said Angelou. “I know that we’re all in process, and young artists are in process.”
Though Angelou clearly wasn’t pleased with Common’s use of the N-word, she noted that their close relationship -- so close that Common performed at her birthday party in 2010 -- would not be ruptured.
“There was a statement made by Machiavelli in the 15th Century,” Angelou added. “He said if you want to control the people, separate them, you can rule them. Divide them and you can conquer them. I will not be divided from Common by anybody’s imagination.”
This here is how a beef should be handled. Clear communication (finally) and open dialogue (even if it’s after the fact) -- and if you can’t see eye to eye, just agree to let it ride.
No one’s asking me to choose sides, but I’m going to have to ride with Angelou on this one. I’m no fan of the N-word, but if Common wanted to use it, the least he could have done was give his mother-figure the heads-up out of respect, and allowed her the ability to choose whether she still wanted to participate on the song.
Do you think Common was wrong?
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of "A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life" (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk