Common yanked as N.J. commencement speaker after police protest over song

Common yanked as N.J. commencement speaker after police protest over song
Common, shown at Starbucks' annual shareholders meeting in Seattle on March 18, is no longer speaking during commencement at a New Jersey university. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Common has been nixed as a commencement speaker at a school in New Jersey after police took issue with one of his more controversial tunes, "A Song for Assata," which takes a sympathetic view of a woman convicted in the 1973 death of a state trooper.

The Oscar winner was announced as speaker Monday on social media and then pulled Tuesday by Kean University, New Jersey's third-largest public university, according to the Associated Press.


"The students expressed interest in Common because he composed the Oscar-winning song 'Glory' with our prior commencement speaker John Legend," Kean spokeswoman Susan Kayne told the Record on Tuesday night, adding that the school respected his talent even though it was looking for a different speaker.

The announcement had been made prematurely, she said.

Common and John Legend's Oscar acceptance speech had political overtones, with the rapper commenting on performing their song on the bridge in Alabama where the first of three famous civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery began in 1965.

The state school's choice was a "slap in the face" to law enforcement, said Chris Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Assn. of New Jersey. He told the Record via email that the choice of Common was "troubling" coming from a taxpayer-funded organization.

Common's 2000 effort "A Song for Assata" features Cee-Lo Green and portrays Joanne Chesimard, whom the FBI has described as a former leader in black militant groups, as a victim. She was convicted of killing Trooper James Harper during a 1973 traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike that turned into a shootout.

At the time, she and her two accomplices were suspected in several bank robberies. One of the men with her was killed during the shootout; the other was also convicted in the trooper's murder.

Chesimard, who took on the name Assata Shakur in the late '60s and is now 65, escaped in 1979 from a prison where she was serving a life sentence; she was offered asylum by Fidel Castro and has been living as a fugitive in Cuba since at least 1984. In 2013, she was the first woman added to a federal list of most-wanted terrorists.

She has consistently maintained her innocence, according to the Washington Post.

"It is personal to us," Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, told the Post in 2013. "We've been pressing for an increase in the reward and to have her placed on the terrorists list. She continues every day to flaunt her freedom in the face of this horrific crime. It's an open wound for us."

Her addition to the list still appears as a highlight on the homepage of the State Police website, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke out in December against resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba unless Chesimard were returned to the U.S.

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