Common’s “A Letter to the Law”

Image:  Common  Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

Hip-Hop artist Lonnie Rashid Lynn, a.k.a. Common, has concocted a “conscious art” drama, calling for peace in a colorful style, employing the Rap/Hip-Hop form, turning upside down actual events to his advantage and propagandistic legend into theatre.

Introduction and Text of “A Letter to the Law”

As a piece of “conscious art,” Common’s “A Letter to the Law” attempts to influence social awareness, which is the avowed purpose of that art form.  About that style of art, Jessica Cline remarks, “Art making began to take on a more blatant socially conscious role during the 19th century, frequently reflecting the plight of the poor and criticizing the government.”  As does Common‘s “A Letter to the Law,” many of these pieces make use of propagandistic legend in order to focus their issues.

Common is the stage name of Lonnie Rashid Lynn, whose letter turns out to be, at least, an open letter because not only does his speaker address the law, but he also addresses his fellow travelers as well as  those who may appreciate his art and message.

Rime Scheme

As nearly every Hip-Hop piece makes an attempt to create a rich rime-scheme, “A Letter of the Law” remains no exception.  The rime scheme is, however, unique in that it features essentially only one near- or slant-rime, for example “come/gun/unsung,” designated in rime-scheme parlance as “AAA.”   However, there is a 10-line exception that departs rather blatantly but overall only slightly from that AAA scheme:

Turn around and attack them
Black gem in the rough, you rugged enough
Use your mind and non power, get the government touch
Them boy chat chat on how him pop gun
I got the black strap to make the cops run
They watching me, I’m watching them
Them dick boys got a lotta cock in them
My people on the block got a lotta Pac in them
And when we roll together, we be rocking them
To sleep

Allowing “them” to function as a slant rime, only three lines in this section depart from the AAA scheme: the lines ending in “enough” and “touch,” which function as slant rimes to each other.  Then there is that total outlier, “sleep,” which cannot be considered to function as other than breaking the rime scheme. Otherwise, the piece features quite a solid unitary rime scheme, appropriately riming with “gun,” the central image and driving force of the theme played out in this piece.

(Please note:  The spelling, “rhyme,” was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error.  For my explanation for using only the original form, please see “Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.”)

A Letter to the Law

Dem boy wanna talk like dem wanna gon come
But what you gon’ do if you got one gun?
I sing a song for the hero unsung
With faces on the mural of the revolution
No looking back, cause in back is what’s done
Tell the preacher God got more than one son
Tell the law my Uzi weighs a ton
I walk like a warrior from them I won’t run
On the streets they try to beat us like a drum
In Cincinnati, another brother hung
Again he won’t see the sun, with his family stung
They want us to hold justice, but you handin’ me none
The same they did Kobe and Michael Jackson
Make them the main attraction
Turn around and attack them
Black gem in the rough, you rugged enough
Use your mind and non power, get the government touch
Them boy chat chat on how him pop gun
I got the black strap to make the cops run
They watching me, I’m watching them
Them dick boys got a lotta cock in them
My people on the block got a lotta Pac in them
And when we roll together, we be rocking them
To sleep
No time for that, cause there’s things to be done
Stay true to what I do so the youth dream come
From project building, seen a fiend being hung
With that happening, why they messing with Saddam?
Burn a bush, cause for peace he no push no button
Killing over oil and grease, no weapons of destruction
How can we follow leader when this a corrupt one?
The government’s a G-Unit and they might buck young
Black people in the urban area one
I hold up a peace sign but I carry a gun
Peace y’all, love

Common performing “A Letter To The Law”

Commentary

This “conscious art” piece offers a useful call for peace, colorfully revising actual events to fit the speaker’s agenda.

First Movement:   Testosterone Needed

Dem boy wanna talk like dem wanna gon come
But what you gon’ do if you got one gun?
I sing a song for the hero unsung
With faces on the mural of the revolution
No looking back, cause in back is what’s done

Speaking in dialect, the speaker of this piece begins by noting that some fellows talk big but do not have the power to accomplish much. He asks his fellow-travelers what they intend to do, as he implies they can do little because of their lack of firepower.  They got one gun; they need an arsenal in order to be effective in their struggle for revolution.

The speaker then declares that he is singing for the unsung heroes of the faceless revolution, even as he has just emasculated them for their lack of steam.  The paucity of literal weapons may be interpreted as the symbolic short supply of testosterone in combating their opposition.

Second Movement:  Useful Didacticism

No looking back, cause in back is what’s done
Tell the preacher God got more than one son
Tell the law my Uzi weighs a ton
I walk like a warrior from them I won’t run

The speaker then offers a very thoughtful, useful bit of didacticism. He tells his listener that there is no use looking back on the past because the past is gone. He advises those cousins, brothers, fellow revolutionaries to defy the notion that God created only one son, implying appropriately and beautifully, that they are all children of God.

The speaker then hyperbolically claims that his mind (and theirs) is very large, and he instructs  his fellows to tell that to the law. He metaphorically refers to his brain power as “my Uzi” and asserts that he is a warrior, and he will not run from the law.

Third Movement:  Grinding the Sharp Axe

On the streets they try to beat us like a drum
In Cincinnati, another brother hung
Again he won’t see the sun, with his family stung
They want us to hold justice, but you handin’ me none
The same they did Kobe and Michael Jackson
Make them the main attraction
Turn around and attack them

In this movement, the speaker alludes to the Cincinnati riots, turning the actual events on their head but to his own narrative advantage, pitting the law, which he wants his listeners to equate with power, against his community, or more specifically against the brothers to whom he is appealing. He concocts the revisionist but useful notion that the power structure in society builds up sports stars such as Kobe Bryant and entertainers such as  Michael Jackson in order to them take them down.

As with the reference to the Cincinnati riots, the speaker suggests that the targets of the lawsuits are simply innocent men targeted because they happen to be black. These anti-racist racists have become quite skillful in feigning unawareness that there are many fine African American sports figures, musicians, actors, and other entertainers who have not been the target of a lawsuit but have instead remained admired and financially successful while never being attacked because of their skin tone.

The practiced pretense that such notable and influential personalities as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, Morgan Freeman, Tim Scott, Hiram Revels, Candace Owens, Condoleezza Rice, or Aretha Franklin never existed remains a mainstay in the conscious art community that has an axe to grind, even if the axe is not dull.  Propagating a novel form of propaganda as truth infuses the very foundation of this style of art, and such subterfuge often heralds popularity, even as it stings the players themselves and their audience.

Fourth Movement:  Brain Over Brawn

Black gem in the rough, you rugged enough
Use your mind and non power, get the government touch
Them boy chat chat on how him pop gun
I got the black strap to make the cops run

This movement returns to a well-reasoned, sensible advice the might have been offered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. He tells his fellows to use “your mind and non power.” The speaker says those fellows who are not using their heads just brag about gunning down the law, while he thinks remaining alert to injustice is the answer.

Fifth Movement:  Braggadocio vs Thought

They watching me, I’m watching them
Them dick boys got a lotta cock in them
My people on the block got a lotta Pac in them
And when we roll together, we be rocking them
To sleep

The speaker explains the useless dichotomy of us vs. them: while detectives and the law, are filled with testosterone, his buddies—his people— have “Pac,” referring to the thug life-style portrayed by the late Tupac Shakur, whose run-ins with the law elevated the rapper to legendary status in some circles.

The speaker surmises that if he could get the two groups, the braggers and the thinkers, together, they could quell the violence and discord that exists between the law and the citizens.

Sixth Movement:  Down with Braggadocio, Up with Dreams

No time for that, cause there’s things to be done
Stay true to what I do so the youth dream come
From project building, seen a fiend being hung

The speaker then claims that they are losing time by engaging in this discord and braggadocio. He insists that he will stay true to what he does so he can realize his dream, thus urging his fellows to do the same.

Seventh Movement:  Printing the Legend

With that happening, why they messing with Saddam?
Burn a bush, cause for peace he no push no button
Killing over oil and grease, no weapons of destruction
How can we follow leader when this a corrupt one?
The government’s a G-Unit and they might buck young
Black people in the urban area one
I hold up a peace sign but I carry a gun
Peace y’all, love

The final movement finds the speaker once again turning actual events upside down for his narrative advantage, as he alludes to the widely noted legend that the Bush administration perpetrated war against Iraqi strongman/dictator for “oil and grease“; he then again makes use of an allusion to the legendary claim that there were “no weapons of [mass] destruction.”

The speaker in this conscious art piece cannot be faulted for any deviation from the truth, for he is merely adhering to the old adage spouted by Maxwell Scott in the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Plus his universal, accurate, rhetorical inquiry—”How can we follow leader when this a corrupt one?”—will resonate with the installation of any “leader,” simply through the magic of a two-sided political world.

The speaker has offered some appropriate advice to his listeners/readers, and he leaves them on a positive note. With the claim that unity prevails in the black community, he asserts that he holds up a peace sign but he carries a gun—an assertion reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”

In this case, the gun, that is, his Uzi that weighs a ton, is a metaphor, just as it was in the Roosevelt quotation. But in this piece that Uzi is a metaphor for the mind, while in Teddy Roosevelts the big stick was a metaphor for actual war weapons.

And with his final remark, “Peace y’all, Love,” the speaker leaves the listener positively charged to go out and do the right thing with mind and heart fully engaged.  The speaker’s ultimate message remains useful, appropriate, and creatively expressed in a colorful, dramatic American (Innovative) form.

Sources

Comments

Common’s “A Letter to the Law” originally appeared on HubPages, and it had garnered the following comment from one of my followers. I have included my response:

Audrey Hunt 6 days ago from Pahrump NV

Linda

This article is marvelous. The 7th movement and your explanation is nothing short of inspiring. This is a keeper. Big thanks.

Linda Sue Grimes 6 days ago from U.S.A.

Thank you, Audrey! Delightful to hear from you.

Pieces like Common’s “A Letter to the Law” remain problematic; they offer interesting theatrically poetic dramas while descending into the bowls of hell to do so. Some of those kinds of works deserve a nod of recognition but not a lot of respect, while most of them deserve not even a second read. A piece belonging to the second category is this year’s inaugural word-salad, “The Hill We Climb,” by the very young spoken-word performer, Amanda Gorman. Thus far, I have not seen fit to address any commentary to her out-pouring; now, I have determined never to do so.

Pleasantly for my own sanity, I plan to limit my commentaries to real poems that demand respect and attention, poems like Emily Dickinson’s, that have stood the test of time, offer true insight into human emotional life but remain somewhat elliptically inaccessible for many beginning readers. At some point in one’s life, one must make the choice of looking up at the stars and not down at the gutters. I think I am now at that point.

Have a blessed day, Audrey! And thanks again for the kind words . . .

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