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

Obama and Ludacris

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.

All About the Beat

Publisher: Penguin
Subtitle: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America
Author: John McWhorter
Price: $20.00
Length: 192
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781592403745
US publication date: 2008-06

"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'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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.