Common to caller on radio: ‘I was disappointed that I didn’t get to come speak’ at Kean


Common, the rap artist who was pulled as Kean University’s commencement speaker last year. Photo via Facebook.

By Rebecca Panico | Published Dec. 18, 2016

Common, the rap artist who was set to speak at Kean’s 2015 commencement before being pulled, told a caller on WNYC radio Friday he “was disappointed” he didn’t get to speak at the university.

The administration changed commencement speakers last year after New Jersey State Police expressed outrage over a song the artist had written in support of convicted cop killer, Joanne Chesimard, who also goes by Assata Shakur. The song was called “A Song for Assata.”

Common, whose birth name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., was on the Brian Lehrer show to talk about his song for a Netflix documentary focusing on racial issues in America titled “13th.” During the call-in segment, a person asked the musician about last year’s commencement.

“I’m a member of the Kean University community, and we were so excited about having Common come and speak for our commencement last year,” said the caller, who was only identified as Julie. “Unfortunately, our administration decided somewhat at the last minute not to make that happen. I was just wondering if you would like to comment on that.”

At first, the artist had a hard time remembering the reason why Kean backtracked on its invitation last year. The university last year announced him as commencement speaker on Twitter and then recanted about a day later.

“I was really enthused to come to Kean and speak,” Common said, later adding that “I read [Chesimard’s] autobiography and it really inspired me, and I definitely didn’t believe that she was a person who […] was guilty of what she was accused of.”

Chesimard, once a Black Panther, was convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in the 1970s. She escaped from prison and fled to Cuba, where she’s believed to still be living as a fugitive.

Kean University’s Student Government at the time supported the administration’s decision, saying they didn’t want to detract from the “momentous occasion” of graduation after learning of the “heightened sensitivity” surrounding the choice of Common as commencement speaker.

“I really was looking forward to coming to Kean,” Common said on-air. “And I was disappointed that I didn’t get to come speak because I love getting to speak to the college students and just to the people.”

Students’ reactions to controversial speakers at college campuses across the U.S. have sparked a national conversation about free speech versus students’ desires for safe spaces.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn’t speak at Rutgers’ commencement in 2014 after students protested, The Daily Targum reported. Rutgers students also protested Breitbart News’s Milo Yiannopoulos during his visit to campus this year.

“Does it give you sympathy for people on the other side?” asked Lehrer, the host of the WNYC radio show. “‘Cause it seems to happen more often to conservatives, where they’re going to get booked to speak on a college campus and then they’re deemed politically out-of-bounds.”

The rap artist said he definitely had “sympathy and empathy” for the situation on college campuses today.

“It’s something that I like to do, and I’m inspired to do,” Common said, referring to public speaking. “So I was disappointed in knowing that other people have to go through that. It kind of makes me realize why I’m not a politician.”

The university had Anna Deavere Smith — who starred in series like West Wing and Nurse Jackie — speak at last year’s commencement instead. 

Rebecca Panico may be reached at Follow The Tower on Twitter@KeanTower. Find The Tower on Facebook.

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