Is Obama’s presidency the change hip-hop needs?

[20 January 2009]

By Glenn Gamboa

Newsday (MCT)

President Barack Obama will have his hands full dealing with the economic downturn, the Gaza Strip conflict, terrorist threats in Afghanistan and any number of relentlessly pressing matters.

But maybe he could spare a little time to help out hip-hop, too?

After all, Obama is not just the first African-American president. He is the first hip-hop president - the first one with Jay-Z and Kanye West on his iPod, the first one who speaks the culture’s language, the first one who embraces its mannerisms, from fist-bumping with his wife to throwing his hands in the air and waving like he just don’t care to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.”

Though he admits he’s older than hip-hop culture, he clearly understands it. “What I’ve appreciated seeing in this hip-hop generation is how entrepreneurial they’ve been,” Obama has said. “What I’m starting to see is (for rappers) to stretch out more to think about social responsibility and how they could impact the culture in a positive way and I hope that continues.”

Will that hope be enough to persuade many rappers and their fans to look at the genre in a different way? Is that the change hip-hoppers can believe in?

Because the genre certainly needs some change. While sales of rock music dropped only 6.5 percent last year, hip-hop sales dropped nearly 20 percent, according to The Nielsen Company - part of an alarming trend for hip-hop.

In 2003, hip-hop was the third-most-popular type of music. By 2008, it had dropped to sixth, behind country and metal, only slightly ahead of gospel music. Over the past five years, hip-hop sales have fallen 57 percent, according to Nielsen.

Though much of that decline is because of the overall sales decline in the industry - about 33 percent in the same period - part of it is a hip-hop-specific problem.

Jeff Chang, hip-hop historian and author of “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” says the change has already begun. “We’ve already seen this really interesting explosion of music last year - if not creativity, period - around the Obama campaign,” Chang says. “I think that’s where people’s heads are at now - ‘We have to raise our game now. This guy raised his game. We all have to raise ours.”“

In many ways, hip-hop has gotten lazy in recent years. It is far easier to rhyme about bling and rims and the club when you’re trying to keep people entertained than it is to tackle social responsibility or cultural positivity in a four-minute song. It is also far easier to market that. Unfortunately, for hip-hop, that all becomes too predictable too fast.

Chang says that Obama’s election has already inspired some artists to think outside the box, to attempt topics that they previously left alone.

“For me, the turning point was the Young Jeezy episode,” Chang says. “You have this guy who’s been all about ‘crack rap’ and he’s forced to defend the fact that he supports Obama. Jeezy comes out and says, ‘I’m basically supporting him because of the health care issue because my mom got sick and I had to pay for it out of my own pocket.’ That’s pretty amazing.”

That theme is one Jeezy continues to explore in “My President Is Black,” where he rhymes about the problems of the working class: “I woke up this morning, headache this big. Pay all these damn bills, feed all these damn kids, buy all these school shoes, buy all these school clothes, for some strange reason my son addicted to Polos.”

Though Obama’s candidacy and election haven’t spawned a major hip-hop album yet, they have inspired numerous mixtapes, gathering high-profile rappers’ thoughts on his presidency.

On DJ Green Lantern’s “Yes We Can” mixtape, for example, everyone from Akon to Jay-Z contribute new songs and interviews to celebrate Obama’s accomplishments.

“What (Obama’s election) represents is we as a people are a part of ‘the American dream,’” Jay-Z says on the mixtape. “The message is for a kid in Marcy Projects right now to say, ‘Maybe I can be the president.’ For a part, we were left out of the American dream at a certain point. ... Now the dream is that you can be anything. ... That’s more important than anything - the hope of that.”

And Jay-Z, who campaigned heavily for Obama and is a part of the inauguration celebrations, may be the first major rapper to address the shifting concerns of hip-hop head-on, though that is still up in the air as he continues work on his new album, “The Blueprint, Vol. 3.” On one of the new album’s tracks, “Jockin’ Jay-Z,” he rhymes, ” - _ talkin’ ‘bout the recession, it’s just depressin’/I rock wit’ Obama, but I ain’t no politician.” He then returns to talking about money and wealth, saying, “Haters, like, ‘Hov, why you still talkin’ money - _ ?’/‘Cuz I like money, - _ !”

Of course, that was written before the recent stock market swoon and all the bailouts - another reason hip-hop needs an injection of new ideas, observers say. Boasting about bling may be a nice fantasy in comfortable times, but it becomes increasingly hard to swallow in lean ones.

“We all know we’re in a recession,” 50 Cent says, backstage at MTV, adding that rappers who want to remain successful need to tap into their audience’s feelings. “(Rappers) have to hit with the first record and be in tune with their actual audience,” he says. “Because hip-hop is a youth-driven audience, the people that determine whether you’re successful or not do not have a long attention span.”

Some believe, however, that as much as change in hip-hop is needed, even Obama’s election isn’t enough to make it happen.

Paul Porter, co-founder of the Industry Ears nonpartisan think tank, says the music industry has to change first. “The artists are well aware of the change in the streets,” he says. “But when it comes to that radio-friendly hit and that YouTube video, they’re still going with the bling and the butt.”

Porter says he does expect a lot more rappers to be discussing more socially responsible topics after Obama’s election, though he doubts that the average music fan will know it.

“People think it’s the artist who makes the decision,” he says. “It’s the industry - the label, the radio station - that are the real decision makers. It starts at the top and they’re going to turn down these cuts, unless some of these names and faces change.”

And that’s where rappers and producers will have to step up their game. The only way for real change to come to hip-hop is for artists to make positive, socially responsible music that is also so undeniably catchy that radio stations will have to play it.

Some artists say the change will come naturally, if everyone simply does what they’re supposed to. “In a recession, people need good innovative music to help them through stressful days,” Ludacris says. “That’s our job as entertainers.”

Obama’s election has obviously touched a nerve with the country as a whole and that includes its artists. It would only be natural for them to write about it.

“The most important thing that happened this year was the election,” says Nelly, who has moved toward more socially conscious hip-hop with his latest “Brass Knuckles” album. “You have to be thankful that you’re a part of history and that you were involved, that your vote mattered, that you experienced something that 10, 15 years down the road will be a final for somebody. They’ll be talking about it, trying to study it and you’ll be like, ‘I can tell you what happened. I was there.’ ... Hopefully, he continues to inspire this country and people around the world the way he has.”

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