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Strange Bedfellows? Rap and the Political Right

Hyper-masculinity, sexism, homophobia, offensive speech and distrust of institutions are some of the traits shared by rap culture and the American far right.

Recent reactions to hip-hop culture from far-right factions provide a portal into understanding their changing political strategies. Less overtly condemnatory than a generation ago, the right has increasingly exploited the political and financial benefits of co-opting from this multi-billion dollar industry. Rappers, long excluded from the corridors of power, are increasingly stepping onto that welcome mat, practicing a form of entryism aimed at empowering themselves. Kanye West, for example, regularly ingratiates himself to Donald Trump and the extreme right by any means necessary, grasping at the robes of the powerful to remain relevant.

The age of “old school” condemnation of rap is far from over. Far-right politicians and talking heads still see political points to be earned with their followers by bashing the more controversial outposts of rap music. The legacy of gangsta rap still lingers in the forms of trap, drill, and Chicano styles, while bawdy rap is as ubiquitous as ever, offering plenty of talking points to raise the blood pressure of the likes of Matt Walsh, Bill O’Reilly, and Ben Shapiro.

Republican Party presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy still used Ice-T’s 1990 song “Cop Killer” to campaign before he dropped out of the 2024 race. As long as it plays well with the base, the rap-race card will continue to be used to stereotype and denigrate young African Americans, fostering levels of fear and hatred necessary for this battleground in the culture war to be useful. Nevertheless, whereas condemnation was once a self-sufficient reaction to rap, blanket moral denunciation has been replaced with a strategy of whataboutism. Nowadays, when anyone on the far right is called out for promoting or condoning violence or discrimination, its defenders will invariably grab a (false) equivalent from their trusty rap bag to counter with.

As overt racism has become less acceptable in America, now mostly the province of extreme extremists like David Duke, far-right commentators have shifted their primary targets of prejudice. With anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments still voraciously welcomed on the right, rapper Lil Nas X has become a convenient figure to spit venom upon. Despite being that rare example of an openly gay black man performing country-infused rap, to the far right, he is less a trailblazer than a moral abomination. His portrayal of eroticism in the video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” (2021) would likely have gone unnoticed had its innuendo been heterosexual in nature. Instead, the video’s homoerotic images had Candace Owen, Kaitlin Bennett, Greg Locke, and Kristi Noem dashing to their keyboards to share their (faux) outrage.

Still, Lil Nas X’s broad cross-cultural appeal has made attacking him a less rewarding strategy than it would once have been. Today, rap is too popular among even right-wing constituencies to be slammed without cost by political opportunists. Moreover, rap culture is not (and never was) as left-wing as many white liberals assume and imagine it to be. Despite being battered from the right since the genre’s inception, rappers are not monolithic in their political leanings; they are just as ideologically diverse as the customers who purchase their products. For some (white) liberals, it has been disturbing and disheartening to see rappers they once heralded as rebel heroes of the left now bed down with the right. Had they been paying attention, though, they would have noticed that those rappers always harbored certain attitudes and beliefs that align with those on the white right.

Hyper-masculinity, sexism, homophobia, offensive speech, self-absorption, materialism, and distrust of institutions are just some of the standard traits of the far-right and rap culture. Yet, when Ice Cube cozies up with Tucker Carlson, exchanging his anti-vax and anti-cancel culture views, or multi-billionaire Jay Z champions the trickle-down rewards to the black community, white and black liberals cry heresy, reacting with the same incredulity that aging punks display whenever Johnny Rotten declares his support for Donald Trump. 

Of course, not all rappers have shifted to the right, but as David Leonhardt recently reported for The New York Times, voters of color are increasingly coming out of the closet, voting on the right because that is where they consider their values to be represented. Leonhardt finds that class rather than race is becoming the main criteria for political alignment, and as with their white counterparts, the black, Hispanic, and Asian working classes are moving rightwards Moreover, as more black leaders and rap heroes publicly declare themselves proud to be black and right-wing, so the peer pressure to be liberal diminishes. Thus, when Louis Farrakhan declares Donald Trump hand-picked by God and praises him for battling the same “swamp” enemies as the Nation of Islam does, acolyte rappers echo his opinions through a larger megaphone—with real trickle-down effects.    

These political (re)alignments have not gone unnoticed on the far right, which has changed its strategies accordingly. Condemnation of the world’s most popular music genre was bound to reap diminishing returns, but co-opting it garners multiple rewards. By breaking bread with famous black rappers, the Fox News diaspora can establish a protective wall against charges of racism; thus, chatting with Ice Cube helps cushion the more vulnerable parts of Tucker Carlson’s brand. Co-opting rap also challenges the established reputation of rap itself, enabling counter-narratives to form against established suppositions.

Foreshadowing a likely sign of upcoming developments, Rolling Stone recently reported on a deal struck between the right-wing streaming service Rumble and the popular black live-streamer and Trump supporter DJ Akademiks. The writer, Andre Gee, titled his piece, “Rumble’s Deal with Akademiks Is a Sign of The Hip-Hop World’s Right-Wing Impulse”.  

Known for the “art of the deal”, nowhere has Donald Trump more successfully turned art into a deal or a deal into an art form than in the way he has co-opted hip-hop culture. Long before his reign as president, the real estate tycoon was a celebrated icon of hip-hop. Pre-2016, Azealia Banks, Mac Miller, Lil Wayne, Nikki Minaj, Tribe Called Quest, and Ice Cube all fed the businessman’s ego by dropping his name in their lyrics. The personification of extravagance, wealth, power plays, boasting, and sexual conquests, Trump’s brand has never been massaged more by any cultural constituency then or since. Returning the favor to those most loyal (i.e., complementary) to him, on the eve of exiting the presidential office in 2020, Trump went on a pardoning spree that included the rappers Kodak Black and Lil Wayne, as well as Michael “Harry O” Harris, co-founder of Death Row Records.

Theretofore unknown for being sympathetic to black criminals or suspects (just ask the Central Park Five), Trump’s pardons—like his feigned interest in prison reform with the First Step Act—can more credibly be interpreted as strategic acts of co-option. Exonerating the two rappers on weapons charges played well with gun rights advocates (i.e., the right’s base); releasing popular black celebrities helped establish a loyalty block and appeal within a demographic Trump had struggled to win over; associating with fellow rich and famous characters provided both cross-branding and brand extension for Trump; and affiliating with “cool” criminals helped romanticize his own rebel image as someone above and beyond legal curtailments or consequences. In authoritarian regimes that revolve around an omnipotent “great” man, the personal and political identities merge; such is the power purpose behind Trump’s co-option of hip-hop.

From Co-Option to Hybridization of Rap

The history of black music shows how initial condemnation is followed by co-option from white-dominated industries, white right-wing organizations, and white fans. A part and extension of this co-option process has been the introduction of hybrids. As soon as rap gained an audience beyond black inner-city followers, the industry promoted its own Elvis Presley: the Beastie Boys. Whether mixing white country with black R&B (Presley) or white punk with black rap (the Beasties), these hybrids and hybridizers provide what Tricia Rose calls “fabricated white authenticity”.

For the white far right, hybrids offer multiple advantages that simple co-option cannot. Cross-racial hybrids allow for refinement of the original product, a remake according to the controllers’ desired image; they allow for racism to prevail while still exploiting race-based music; they also enable black music to be—through time and tinkering—magically transformed into white music. This is the story of rock ‘n’ roll but also of rap music. Once a distinctly black style, rap in the new millennium has been hybridized (and diluted) so thoroughly that it is now embraced by organizations that once banned it from their buildings. In The Devil’s Music, author Randall Stephens illustrates this journey from condemnation to co-option to hybridization in his overview of the relationship between Liberty University and rap music. 

Until the ’90s, Jerry Falwell’s college had a “music code” that did not allow students to even listen to rock and rap music. If they did not surrender their records at the entrance door, reprimands would be forthcoming. Such music was, according to Stephens, “associated with deviance, race-mixing, and rebellion”. This hardline policy was softened as Christian rock entered its boom years, then changed entirely with the arrival of DC Talk, a group formed by three Liberty students (two white, one black). Described by Stephens as “a scrubbed and profanity-free Beastie Boys or Run DMC”, DC Talk first captured the hearts and minds of the student body, then went well beyond, earning two gold records, a Grammy for Best Rock Gospel Album in 1997, and performing at Billy Graham crusades.

While the band’s success did not open the floodgates to Liberty or other fundamentalist Christian institutions accepting just any rap music, it did crack the door for “pastor-approved sanitized versions”. Falwell, once on the frontlines of evangelicals damning such music with race-baiting sermons, suddenly changed his tune, conceding, “Young people will often attend…a concert or rally—particularly if rap is involved—that would never attend a traditional church-type meeting.”

The aging Bible thumper realized that rap could lure new recruits, funding, power, and new and improved branding. Furthermore, as hybridization became part of the co-option process, he learned, says Stephens, that it “was better to borrow from and exploit popular culture than to reject and condemn it outright”.

Works Cited

Rose, Tricia. Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America.Wesleyan University Press. April 1994.

Stephens, Randall. The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll, Harvard University Press. March 2018.