Electoral Relaxation: The Myth of the Hip-Hop Achilles Heel

“Barack Obama and Hip-Hop: Does the Support of Jay-Z, Nas, T.I. Hurt His Chances?” ran the MTV News headline on August 20.

“Will Rappers Cost Obama the Election?” asked Village Voice‘s Sound of the City blog on September 22.

What exactly is hip-hop’s impact on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign? The topic has arisen frequently because the two movements have been closely linked to each other since the inception of Obama’s White House bid. Shortly after the senator’s 2004 DNC convention speech, emcee Common asked on a remix to Jadakiss’ “Why”, “Why is Bush still acting like he trying to get Osama? / Why don’t we impeach him and elect Obama?”

Fast forward four years and Obama has graduated from receiving passing mixtape references to public endorsements from celebrities like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Russell Simmons, and many others. Yet for all this coverage, the relationship is usually characterized in one of two vague manners: either Obama’s “hip-hop candidacy” makes him appeal to a heretofore disaffected and/or untapped voting bloc, thereby legitimizing his claim as a candidate of hope and change; or this unwelcome connection to a controversial art is a liability. Frustratingly, neither claim is ever fully substantiated.

As the November 4 general election draws closer the headline continues to appear, but with a peculiar sense of urgency. The stakes of this relationship are increasingly being weighed from within hip-hop circles — not just by painfully out-of-touch pundits. The aforementioned MTV News piece is a prime example as it highlights perspectives from numerous notable rappers and hip-hop activists. Though far from a consensus, most seem to concede parts of both aforementioned arguments and subsequently err on the side of caution with their support. As rapper Chamillionaire says, “It’s cool to make a couple comments, but be careful about what you say because they’re gonna try to pin it towards [Obama].”

The glaring case in point is Ludacris. Luda met Obama in late 2006 while the two were stumping in Chicago on behalf of an AIDS awareness campaign. A seemingly natural conclusion would have been positive: two icons promoting a worthy cause. And especially considering how few hip-hop icons had (and continue to have) actual face-time with politicians (especially outside of a congressional hearing), Ludacris was privy to a unique opportunity. However, all this went out the window in July 2008 when Luda released his mixtape, The Preview, which included the song “Politics as Usual” with the now famous couplets, “Hillary hated on you, so that bitch is irrelevant” and “McCain don’t belong in any chair unless he’s paralyzed.”

Relatively speaking, the track was tame by both Luda’s and mixtape standards. And the song was arguably not for mass consumption — after all, when is the last time you heard your local Clear Channel affiliate station blare a DJ Drama exclusive? Nevertheless, the song was cherry picked as a clear example of the harm hip-hop would bring to Obama’s campaign. Bakari Kitwana summarized the inherent problem in this relationship: “If hip-hop is the problem with American moral values, the logic goes, then a vote for Obama is to vote against family values.” Unsurprisingly Obama distanced himself from both the song and Ludacris.

That said, the suggestion that all of hip-hop music‘s support would negatively impact the Obama campaign seems disconnected from the intent or content of many of the purported hip-hop “Obama songs”. Most of these don’t even function like campaign songs in the last century. As Samantha Henig explained in her Slate piece, “The Sordid History of the Campaign Song”, campaign music in the recent past has either served as a “mantra” or “entrance music”. What most of the hip-hop Obama songs do instead is draw parallels between the Obama campaign-cum-brand and the artist; call them pitches in song form. However, the irony is that many of these songs only make tacit references to Obama.

Common’s “The People” and Talib Kweli’s “Say Something” invoke themes of change from the status quo (“I’m stayin’ conscious to radio playin’ garbage”) or populism (“This is street radio for unsung heroes”) — principles that have practically become brand associations with Obama — while only making a passing reference to the man himself. A similar approach also builds on an Obama campaign strategy by drawing attention to past and present mistakes, and then to stress the need for immediate change. For example, Joell Ortiz’s “Letter to Obama” paints an explicit picture of urban poverty before calling on Obama to “make sure the next [letter] I’m writin’ is better”. Janelle Monae is comparatively subtle on “Mr. President” because she never name-checks Obama or points to any one particular issue, but she makes clear the gravity of present day American morals: “We can’t go starting wars with hearts of hatred / Our nation’s greed won’t make it better, or quiet the fears in our heart.”

Big Boi and Mary J. Blige’s “Something’s Gotta Give” similarly points out a number of flaws in the current American “fundamentals” that weigh heavily on everyone “from College Park out to Beverly Hills”. While the song remains wistful, its principle hope being “that maybe in November I’ll be cheering for Obama”, the video is more optimistic. The rapper and singer rally “at-risk” folks by literally handing out messages of hope; the strategy evidently works as everyone comes together to help build an Obama campaign headquarters.

Nas, on the other hand, works in reverse on “Black President”. He builds his first verse from his trademark images of disillusionment and despair (“They forgot us on the block / Got us in the box / Solitary confinement — how violent are these cops?”). But he gradually warms to the idea of both a black president (though not without his skepticism: “What’s the black president thinking on election night? / Is it how can I protect my life? Protect my wife? Protect my rights?”) and Obama in particular: “I think Obama provides hope, and challenges minds.” The song closes out with an introduction of Obama as the “next President of the United States”, suggesting a glimmer of hope from the normally cynical Lil’ Homie.

Even when the song has little or nothing to do with Obama’s values, it at least piggybacks on the interest surrounding Obama. Recognizing the Obama campaign’s brand strength, Kidz in the Hall heavily promoted “Work to Do” as an “exclusive” campaign song though it had only a broad connection to Obama’s outlook. “Took my time from the grades, now I’m ’bout to win a race,” raps Naledge before bringing making clear the song’s focus is on himself: “I dropped 40 g’s a year for the best degree / Now I’m back to spread love in the streets.” Young Jeezy’s “My President” wins the award for most nonsensical self-identification through Obama. “My president is black, my Lambo is blue,” Jeezy repeats on the hook, though to his credit he makes clear his distrust of the current administration: “Bush robbed all of us, would that make him a criminal? / And then he cheated in Florida, would that make him a Seminole?”

Better still is Crooked I’s recent mixtape Block Obama, which takes the cake for simultaneously being the most catchy word association with Obama and the least in sync with his campaign. In seriousness, besides the pun, Block Obama‘s main connection with the candidate is its hip image brand — a series of alternate covers that accompanies “leaks” of songs prior to the mixtape’s official release. The connection is so superficial, yet strangely in tune with the strength of Obama’s campaign savvy.

However, what each of these songs implicitly recognize is that they are more inspirational than active agents of change. Looking across the aisle at John Legend, whose “If You’re Out There” is being offered for free download on Obama’s site, the R&B pianist and singer conceded in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, “I’m not going to personally convince these people if they’re not for [Obama]… What I can do is inspire those who are for him, that they show up to vote, that they stay motivated, that they volunteer, that they get involved.”

Case in point is will.i.am’s “Yes We Can”, a pastiche folk-pop viral video based on Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech, which functions well as a publicity tool. The music itself scarcely resembles hip-hop — it’s mostly a deliberately strummed guitar and various voices singing or reciting parts of the speech — but uses hip-hop’s sampling aesthetics to condense the inspirational power of Obama’s speech into a concise four-and-a-half minutes. It distills an idea into a short amount of time just like advertisements. And the best part (for Obama) is will did it for Free Ninety Nine!

Jay-Z on stage, with Obama on screen

If anything, the great lesson of “Luda-gate” was the need for a specific political strategy for hip-hop. While numerous rappers continue to name-drop Obama or write whole paeans, several key superstars have taken a more measurable role in the political process. Common got the early jump by appearing in a “Vote Hope” ad to endorse Obama during the February primaries. T.I., whose recent conviction made him ineligible to vote, joined Hip Hop Caucus’ Respect My Vote! campaign to promote voter registration. Nas visited Hampton University to stump on behalf of Obama, and the Roots’ ?uestlove similarly spent his summer in California door-to-door campaigning for the candidate.

Russell Simmons, co-founder of both Def Jam Records and Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), flip-flopped for months prior to Obama’s official party confirmation — he was even one of Obama’s most vocal critics during last August’s Don Imus flare-up — but he lost no time making the rounds to announce his endorsement in March. And, for good measure, he also proposed a mixtape with maven DJ Green Lantern (though it is still nowhere to be seen). And Jay-Z perhaps wins the award for most extensive use of hip-hop celebrity to boost Obama: he used the senator’s likeness on a Jumbotron montage to get the crowd hyped during his Heart of the City tour last year (fast forward to 1:52; and take note of his disclaimer, “This concert is not sponsored by Barack Obama… I’m just a free American citizen stating my free American citizen fucking opinion.”); made the requisite reference in a song allegedly off his upcoming album; “designed” duds for Obama’s fundraising page (while you’re there, you can also drop coin for Pharrell, Rush Rush, and/or Beyoncé‘s fashionable contributions); and, most recently, headlined free concerts in Michigan and Florida, key battleground states, to promote voter registration.

This breadth of support reflects a nuanced view of hip-hop’s role in politics. Speaking with MTV News, Ice Cube advised, “[Rappers] gotta work in other ways to get [Obama] in the White House. It’s not really about doing a song right now. He has to separate himself from that stuff; he’s in a political race.” In the above cases, a clear distinction is being made between the music and the movement. Ludacris’ fall-out, regardless of one’s opinion about whether it was deserved or not, was a clear reminder of (pardon the cliché) rap’s dodgy rep. Instead, hip-hop artists are learning to also use other forms of endorsement.

Of course, as a recent study on the impact of Oprah Winfrey’s celebrity endorsement on the Obama campaign made clear, trying to objectively measure celebrity endorsements on an election is new territory. However, a wholesale dismissal of hip-hop’s campaign excursions, such as John McWhorter’s All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America, seems rash.

Hip-hop will likely neither be the cause of Obama’s victory nor defeat, but the more noteworthy news is that hip-hop has its closest tie to a presidential candidate — a heretofore unseen accomplishment. And anyone that can get Jay, Nas, Kanye and 50, all of whom have beefed with each other, to agree on something makes me believe: hell yeah, we can.