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Beats Per Millennium - Hip hop and Barack Obama

Hip hop and Barack Obama

A lot has been made in the past year or so on other hip hop sites about Barack Obama. Rappers saying what rappers say, and the hip hop media just reporting on him out of obligation. To the casual observer, one might say the only thing that Barack Obama has in common with hip hop is that they both came from the combined efforts of a black person and a white person (in the case of hip hop, these two people are Fab Five Freddy and Deborah Harry, respectively).

The hip hop press has been awkward in its treatment of the Obama campaign – their coverage has been irrelevant to downright puzzling (I’m referring, of course, to the bizarre drop that AllHipHop gave to Joe Biden following the VP selection. Delaware represent?). The traditional media is a bit confused too – for all I can tell, they replace “Travis Byrne from Brown University” with “Talib Kweli” and have the same fucking quote about how Barack Obama is young and fresh and inspirational and different, and then make a big deal about how Obama has a few Jay-Z songs on his iPod. Congratulations, I’ve learned nothing.

There are a few ways that rappers have reacted to the Obama campaign. There’s the “celebrity” response, where the Cool Kids perform at fundraisers and Kidz in the Hall re-record a song so that it’s an endorsement. Thankfully, we’ve received very little of the “I’m a celebrity, care about what I care about” from the hip hop community, short of hip hop embarrassment Sean Combs. Maybe that’s not a mistake. Rappers, unlike most popular entertainers, are very careful with their words by default. If they’ve got something to say, in most cases, they know they can make their point more convincingly on track 7 than on channel 7. There’s the businessman response, where Obama has said he’s met with Jay-Z. Political strategy? Sure. It legitimizes the culture, to an extent, but that’s such a tiny little subset of hip hop that I doubt that it’s of any importance. It’s just reaching out to people who might not vote otherwise, hoping not to relive the VOTE OR DIE embarrassment of 2004. Then there’s outright enthusiasm, as expressed by Young Jeezy and Nas on the final track of Jeezy’s “The Recession.” Imagine, Jeezy and Nas as optimists!

But do you remember, a few months ago, when Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco argued about the Democratic primaries? Lupe said:

“my opinion of Hillary being in Office over Obama is merely because she is a woman and I believe the act of a woman leading the strongest nation in the world will have unforeseen side effects and may act as a catalyst for change the world over more so than that of a black man”

The Democratic primaries are long over, but the idea of President as catalyst for change on demographic grounds could be a strong one. Senator Obama’s work as a community organizer in urban areas makes distinctly erases the popular criticism of politicians being out-of-touch with the people – at least, inner-city people. Obama will be the first President to reach adulthood after the Vietnam war, after the assassination of King and Kennedy, after the Civil Rights Act. Ever since Hip Hop began, it’s been about alienation, nihilism, struggle, and a distrust of authority. Ever since Grandmaster Flash recorded The Message, through Straight Outta Compton and Illmatic, even as recently as “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” there’s always been the core thesis at the center of most hip hop – no one’s on our side, and nothing’s going to change.

OK, Barack Obama isn’t going to let your cousin out of jail. Barack Obama isn’t going to give you a ride, and Barack Obama certainly won’t lend you any money. But psychologically speaking, imagine the effect on disadvantaged youth, to see that the most powerful person in the world has brown skin, just like them. In the United States, almost two-thirds of black children are in single parent families – more than any other ethnic group. In a way, Barack Obama could be the strong male role model to the inner city, nationwide. Lupe had the right idea – if you’ve ever seen The Candidate, starring Robert Redford, you know that no one running for office can stick to their ideals the whole way through. Compromises have to be made and panders have to happen, and no one person is going to be able to take on the entire system without letting themself be dirtied by it. But even if their positions are a mess of compromise and pandering, the President plays a number of key roles, among them diplomat to the world. As a friend of mine once said to me, “when Obama is elected, Al-Qaeda will probably send us a bottle of champagne, and it won’t be laced with strychnine.” Perhaps that one’s a bit far-fetched, but when policy is so malleable and subject to the maneuverings of a bloated bureaucracy, it seems possible that image and rhetoric may have the capacity to inspire. Remember what Obama himself said about his rhetorical prowess back in January: “…the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don’t discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens.”

Electing Barack Obama will not change things overnight, and the changes he brings may not be tangible. But we’re nearing the end of the age of Reagan, the age that started when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights bill and signed the South over to the Republicans with it. The age of Barry Goldwater, who while for civil rights didn’t believe in the Government’s power to legislate morality, and the age of Ronald Reagan, who rode into power trying to do just that. But just as the age of Roosevelt expired with the election of Richard Nixon, so will Barack Obama usher in another political era, likely with a majority of electoral votes rivaling Nixon’s 301. What I’ll tentatively call the Obama era (because really, who can tell whether or not some other seminal politician is 10 or 15 years down the road?) will be among the most progressive eras we’ve ever seen for the nation in general, if not the rest of the world. The Obama era will be one in which the nation as a whole becomes more ethnically mixed, in which the ugly legacy of segregation continues its necessary erosion and fuel consumption concerns decrease the viability of white flight to the suburbs as projects are torn down. Will schools get better? Will gang violence start to waver? It’s hard to tell – as a Democrat, I’d like to think so, but as a Chicagoan, I know nothing is as easy as it seems when political influence and bureaucracy comes into the picture. Still, it was 25 years ago this year that Chicago, a town King once said could teach Southerners how to hate, elected its first black mayor, defeating the son of Chicago’s most legendary mayor, an incumbent mayor, and the former boss of the Cook County Democratic party. Pardon my spacy idealism, but maybe all it really takes is to know that someone – perhaps even the most powerful person on earth – knows first-hand what people who are dirt poor on the streets of Chicago are going through.

What changes a President Obama will make remains to be seen: significance of his policies and the legislation he signs will undoubtedly be argued until everyone involved is dead and buried. But the effect on hip hop culture is already being seen. Abandonment, indifference, nihilism, and hopelessness – sure, hip hop has been on a steady track toward maturity for a while, but a black president can only serve as a catalyst. More than any other art form, hip hop serves as a portrait of a group’s American experience – the continued, centuries-old systematic societal disadvantage toward blacks. Really, how many young black kids do you think really believed they could grow up to be President one day before Obama made his run? How many good role models are there for young black kids? Wouldn’t it be something if the most idolized figure in black culture wasn’t a rapper or an athlete, but a Harvard-educated lawyer and professor who spent time volunteering after college and ended up President? As Young Jeezy says, “Win, lose or draw, we congratulate you already, homie. See, I motivate the thugs, right? You motivate us, homie.” Head down to 47th Street on a summer afternoon and look at the t-shirts on the people walking around – he’s right.

Posted by Joe Kaiser at Sep 11, 2008 12:08 PM


Hip hop, reggae, soca, jazz, latin, afro, rock, country – you name it. Listen to more than 170 of the BEST SONGS in support of Barack Obama:

Svarten (Sweden) · Sep 16, 01:18 AM · #