Common's “A Letter to the Law”
Common aka Lonnie Rashid Lynn
Introduction and Excerpt from “A Letter to the Law”
Hip Hop artist, Common, stage name of Lonnie Rashid Lynn, dramatizes a call for peace in his “A Letter to the Law.” The 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 and those who appreciate his art and message.
Because this piece is spoken in dialect, this analysis does not comment on the fractured grammar, which is quite appropriate for this speaker's message and purpose.
Excerpt from “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 . . .
To read the entire piece, please visit “A Letter to the Law” on Genius.
Common Performing "A Letter to the Law"
This piece, despite its unfortunate allusions to political propaganda, offers a useful call for peace which may be considered a “conscious art” experience, a type of art employed by political activists. Political activism in poetry virtually never produces fine, true art, even when it does offer a useful stance. Peace is certainly a useful place to which our fellows try to lead us, but a piece of art that reflects inaccurate political talking points will remain a flawed piece of art, and likely will not resonate widely or effect the societal conditions it purports to support.
First Movement: Testosterone Needed
Speaking in dialect, the speaker of this piece begins by noting that some boys 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: We All Children of God
The speaker then offers a very thoughtful, useful bit of didacticism. He tells his cousin that there is no use looking back on the past because "Back is whats done." He advises those cousins, brothers, fellow revolutionaries to defy the notion that God created only one son, implying beautifully, if awkwardly, 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: An Unfortunate Misunderstanding
In this movement, the speaker alludes to the Cincinnati riots, but his understanding of the riots is faulty; thus, he offers a faulty conclusion. Those fellow revolutionaries who try to follow propaganda masquerading as facts will not find the peace that this speaker seems to want to promote.
The speaker pits the law, which he wants his listeners to equate with power, against his community, or more specifically the brothers to whom he is appealing. He makes the ludicrous assertion that they—the power structure in society—build up sports stars, Kobe, and entertainers, Michael Jackson, just to turn around and attack them.
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. Listeners and readers, however, will be well aware that there are innumerable fine African American sports figures, musicians, actors, and other entertainers who have not been the target of a lawsuit.
This hapless movement unfortunately diminishes the speaker's credibility that he so richly deserves in other movements, especially the second, which contains important universal truths.
Fourth Movement: Using Brain Over Brawn
This movement returns to a well-reasoned, sensible advice the might have been offered by a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or a 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: Braggers vs Thinkers
The speaker explains the useless dichotomy of us vs. them: while detectives, the law, are filled with testosterone, his buddies, his people, "got a lotta Pac in them." 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, has not done his compatriots who try to emulate him, any good.
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
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: Ending on a Positive Note, Despite Propaganda
The final movement finds the speaker once again emitting useless ideology: President George W. Bush went to war for oil and grease; there were supposedly no weapons of destruction. Using mere talking points spewed endlessly by opposition to the Bush administration, he tries to convince his fellows that that administration is corrupt, and thus they do not need to respect it.
While political posturing is never effective in poetry, this speaker, fortunately, 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 hold[s] 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 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. While the useless political inaccuracies mar the overall impact of the piece, the ultimate message is useful and appropriate.
- Common. "A Letter to the Law." Genius. Accessed May 2017.
- Heather Mac Donald, "What Really Happened in Cincinnati," City Journal. Summer 2001.
- Noah Schachtman and Spencer Ackermann. "Chemical Weapons, Iranian Agents and Massive Death Tolls Exposed in WikiLeaks' Iraq Docs." Wired. November 22, 2010.
Common on Hip Hop
© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes