At a Washington holiday celebration Sunday night, he shook hands with the "Gangnam Style" rapper. Was that a mistake?
We've all had that experience: You RSVP for a big holiday party, start making preparations, and then learn that one of the other honored guests called for the murder of American soldiers a few years ago.
OK, so not all of us. But that's what happened to President Obama. After the White House announced that he would attend a "Christmas in Washington" concert this past Sunday, it emerged that Psy, the rapper behind "Gangnam Style," the most viewed YouTube video of all time, had performed a viciously anti-American song in 2004. Covering N.E.X.T., which also hails from his native South Korea, Psy sang lyrics including the following:
Kill those fucking Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those fucking Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully
So, not just your garden-variety anti-imperialism. Former Atlantic staffer Max Fisher has a great explanation of the context for the performance. While we tend to think of South Korea as a stalwart ally of the United States against North Korea and China, there's a much more conflicted view within the general populace. And Psy's performance came at a time of particular tension between the two allies -- a South Korean missionary in Iraq had just been beheaded by Al Qaeda. Protests, first aimed at the terrorists, later directed their anger at the U.S. for putting their countryman in harm's way. Another anti-American performance by Psy, in 2002, came admidst months of protests after a U.S. Army vehicle killed two Korean teen girls. The soldiers were subject to U.S. military justice, rather than the Korean civil system, thanks to laws governing American troops stationed there. In the end, a court martial cleared them.
Of course, we've seen a situation like this before. Remember back in May 2011 when Michelle Obama invited the rapper Common to the White House for a poetry event? Fox News jumped to make sure their viewers were terrified that the emcee's lyrics mentioned guns and called for freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther-cum-left-wing cause celebre jailed for killing a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981. The backlash to the backlash split into two major lines of argument. First, some noted that the people most exercised about Common's attendance at the White House tended to cater to an audience of mostly older white folks who also had a history of antagonism toward hip-hop. Others, including Conor Friedersdorf, pointed out that silly hypocrisy of harping on Common given the equally controversial lyrics of plenty of other of performers who've been welcomed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- including Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and Aerosmith (to say nothing of the morality of the various musicians who presidents have proclaimed their fandom for). And let's not forget the time Willie Nelson, while a guest of Jimmy Carter, got stoned on the roof of the White House. (Perhaps not coincidentally, all of these performers play rock 'n' roll or country, not hip-hop.) When the dust cleared, Common came to the White House and the outrage brigade was laughed off the scene. U MAD BROS?
So is this a replay of that flap? The critics seem to have a more serious bone to pick this time around. There seems to be a substantive difference between believing that Mumia is wrongly imprisoned (a belief that a small but vocal contingent of Americans hold, and one that is obviously protected as free speech for citizens), smoking a little reefer (which is even, according to state law, legal in some places, and which Psy has also enjoyed), or even singing about murdering someone with a silver hammer on one hand; and calling for the murder of American soldiers overseas on the other.