US President Barack Obama and hip-hop: a breakup song

September 28, 2015 1:12 pm


During Obama’s 2008 run for office he encouraged artists such as Jay Z to campaign for him. Photo / Getty Images

In 2008, Barack Obama flipped the script on more than three decades
of conventional wisdom when he openly embraced hip-hop – a genre
typically viewed as politically radioactive because of its frequently
controversial themes and anti- establishment ethos – in his campaign.
Equally remarkable was the extent to which hip-hop artists and
activists, often highly skeptical of national politicians, embraced him
in return. As a result, for the first time it appeared we were
witnessing a burgeoning relationship between hip-hop and national
As we approach the 2016 election, however, this
relationship is all but gone. Ironically, Obama – often called the first
“hip-hop president” – largely is to blame.
This is especially
disappointing in light of Obama’s 2008 run for office, when he
encouraged artists such as Jay Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs to campaign for
him, referenced rap in his interviews and speeches, played rap at
his events and openly contemplated a space for hip-hop in an Obama White

In one of the lasting images of the campaign, Obama stood in
front of an audience in Raleigh, North Carolina, and referenced Jay Z’s
2003 track “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” to raucous applause. In that moment,
voters had every reason to believe that hip-hop indeed would have a
seat at the table in an Obama administration.
Rappers certainly
seemed to believe it. By summer 2008, when Obama emerged as the
Democratic front-runner, we heard a barrage of songs from artists such
as Nas, Jay Z, Common, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy
that expressed support for Obama. At the same time, a number of
performers – including KRS-One, Nas, Busta Rhymes, T.I. and Young Jeezy –
publicly declared that they would vote for the first time in a
presidential election, a significant and potentially risky gesture for
artists who have traditionally followed iconic rap group Public Enemy’s
militant call to “Fight the Power” rather than join it.
These and
other rappers provided the soundtrack for, and undoubtedly helped
generate, a radical shift in the electorate that propelled Obama to the
White House: Youth voter turnout was the highest it had been in 35
years, and for the first time young black voters went to the polls at a
higher rate than whites.
Once Obama took office, however, hip-hop
all but disappeared. In 2009, for example, the Obamas launched the
White House music series, which has sponsored a variety of musical
performances, paying tribute to a wide range of genres, including
classical, jazz, Motown and country. Hip-hop never has been included.
And three years later, when his 2012 campaign released its 29-song
playlist, there was not a single rap song on it.
It’s unclear
what motivated the president’s retreat. Perhaps he saw hip-hop as a
political liability, as it was when Michelle Obama was attacked by the
right for inviting artist Common to read at a 2011 White House poetry
event. Or perhaps he decided that the youth vote was a sure thing for
his second election, allowing him to shift his attention to other
constituencies. Whatever his reasons, it is clear that the “hip-hop
president” turned his back on hip-hop.
He also turned his back on many of the issues most important to hip-hop artists and activists.
example, he’s done little to address the war on drugs or the
incarceration crisis. He’s presided over an economy in which
unemployment rates are twice as high for African Americans as they are
for whites. He’s been weak-kneed in the face of the gun lobby, even as
urban areas such as Chicago are ravaged by gun violence. And, in what
was perhaps the least hip-hop move of all, his administration made Tupac
Shakur’s godmother, Assata Shakur, the first woman to appear on the
FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List in 2013.
Hip-hop artists and
activists took notice. After Obama’s first term, support from rappers
began to sour as more and more became disillusioned by his backpedaling
from hip-hop and his disappointing record in office. In recent months,
that disillusionment has translated into vocal opposition. For example,
rappers Kendrick Lamar and David Banner have attacked Obama in their
lyrics for failing to address the most pressing issues facing the black
community. Lil Wayne offers a similar criticism in his song “Trap House”
when he raps, “Black president ain’t do nothing/We need a real n—- up
in that office.”
Symbolism without enough substance has led to
disappointment with Obama – and by extension, the Democratic Party. On
his July 2015 song “Hillary,” Tef Poe, a prominent activist in the
Ferguson, Missouri, protests who has been openly critical of Obama,
raps, “Hillary Clinton and Obama still telling lies” and goes on to add
“F— the entire Democratic Party.”
The changing tone from
hip-hop artists appears to signal a more profound shift in hip-hop-based
activism as well. A number of community organizers we’ve spoken to,
many of whom work for political organisations that actively supported
Obama, have become increasingly pessimistic about national politics as a
vehicle for meaningful change. What they are telling is that they
will instead mobilize their members to address local, grass-roots
If Obama had remained engaged with hip-hop, not only
would he have fulfilled an implicit promise from 2008, but also he would
have given voice to a vibrant and diverse cultural movement, one that
has encouraged young people to defy the assumption that they are
apathetic, uninvolved and uninterested in voting.
hip-hop’s support, we are left with serious questions about whether
those young people, and particularly young people of color, will in fact
go to the polls as they did in 2008 and 2012. While hip-hop artists and
activists have proven that they can motivate these voters – a
demographic that could be even more influential in 2016 – Obama has left
many feeling as if national politics are, to quote rap group dead prez,
no more than “politrikkks.”

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