Music and the President of the United States of America has always had an interesting relationship. Music being played in the White House is a long standing tradition, dating back to ever since the Marine Band were invited to perform in the Executive Suite for President John Adams on New Year’s Day 1801. Fast forward to 20 January 2009, President Barack Obama was elected and that evening
as part of the Inauguration the Wynton Marsalis Quintet played at the White House for the new President and 100 of his guests. Since then, the on-going White House music series has zig-zagged across the musical spectrum inviting a wide array of artists to perform at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue including Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and Ziggy Marley.
In May last year, Michelle Obama invited rapper, actor and poet Common to perform at a poetry reading for kids. Common is known to hip-hop fans as the “king of conscious hip-hop” with his two decade long career focusing on topics including aversion to violence, positivity and fatherhood. However, the poetry and reading was doused in controversy with the usual rightwing pundits fanning the flames by citing Common’s ‘ASong for Assata’; a track sympathetic to activist Assata Shakur, who was convicted of murdering two New Jersey State Troopers. Sarah Palin claimed the White House “lacked class and decency”, with Fox News alleging Common to be a “vile rapper” despite describing his music as “very positive” in a special report a few months previous. Common responded to the controversy through Twitter saying that “apparently Sarah Palin and Fox News doesn’t like me”; however, I wonder if it’d be more worrying if Sarah Palin and Fox News did like Common.
Obama’s association with hip-hop can be traced back to his election campaign of 2008. Before his nomination as the Democratic nominee, he revealed his iPod playlist showcasing his wide-ranging musical taste. Among the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis was Jay-Z who Obama even invited to perform at his Inauguration Ball. In April 2008, Obama referenced Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” when he famously brushed his shoulder off, in response to criticism by then rival Hillary Clinton, to wild cheers at Raleigh in North Carolina. Once elected Obama was even labelled the “first hip-hop President” and dubbed “B-Rock” by Vibe Magazine, however his 29-song campaign playlist for the upcoming election had not a single hip-hop song. A glaring contrast can be seen between not only Obama’s outlook towards hip-hop, but perhaps more interesting, is the change in the hip-hop community’s response to Obama since his election.
Rewind to before the 2008 election, and “95 percent of the hip-hop community [was] singing his praises” with figures such as Sean “Diddy” Combs, Russell Simmons and Jay-Z actively campaigning in support of Obama. References to Obama were widespread in hip-hop during this time, with
rappers Ludacris, Common, Talib Kweli, will.i.am, Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne, Jadakiss, Big Boi, Busta Rhymes and many, many more mentioning Barack Obama in their songs. Common had set the trend through namedropping Obama back in 2004 with the lyrics “Why is Bush acting like he trying to get Osama? Why don’t we impeach him and elect Obama?” on the remix of the song ‘Why’ featuring Jadakiss, Styles P and Nas. Hip-hop legend Nas endorsed Obama extensively through his song ‘Black President’ which contained samples from Obama’s acceptance speech as well as Tupac’s ‘I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto’ for the hook (“Although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready to see a black President”). Nas revokes Tupac’s cynicism and scepticism, renovating it into a message of hope and optimism, much in line with Obama’s campaign.
The hip-hop celebrity endorsements were obviously worth their while. Political scientist Darrell West of the Brookings Institution claims that “celebrities can help in particular niches... you can match a celebrity and target and appeal to those types of communities”. An analysis by Centre for Information
and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) showed the voter turnout for African-Americans aged 18 – 29 in the 2008 election was the highest in American history at 58.2%; up by 8.7% from the previous election. The turnout for this particular voter demographic was higher than any other eligible racial or ethnic group in that election, which was a first in the history of American voting.
However, as Obama’s term progressed the tide turned and voices of dissent appeared amongst the hip-hop crowd. Jay-Z and Obama have had an enduring relationship that has even been described as a “bromance” with Jay-Z declaring he has Obama on speed dial. Nevertheless, Jay-Z admits that some of the criticism directed towards Obama is “fair” acknowledging that “numbers don’t lie” when asked about unemployment during a Watch The Throne promotional interview with GQ. His fellow Inauguration VIP, Sean “Diddy” Combs told The Source earlier this year that “I love the President like most of us. I just want the President to do better”.
Perhaps the most critical attacks on Obama came from Chicago based rapper Lupe Fiasco. In an interview with CBS in 2008, Lupe Fiasco called Obama “the biggest terrorist” in the United States of America, who went on to further state that the terrorism in foreign states is directly related to Obama’s foreign policy. Furthermore, Lupe Fiasco’s single “Words I Never Said” expands upon his criticism by
referencing Obama’s silence upon Israel’s 22 day bombardment of Gaza through the lyrics “Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit. That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one either”. The disapproval of Obama in hip-hop isn’t just limited to American artists. London based political activist and rapper Lowkey labelled Obama as “handsomeface of an ugly empire” and released two tracks entitled “Obamanation” (part 1 & 2), which launch scathing condemnation of Obama. In “Obamanation (part 2)” M-1 (of political hip-hop group dead prez) declared Obama “a master of disguise, expert at telling lies”.
With less hip-hop artists promoting Obama, many hip-hop artists have changed their tune. Veteran rapper KRS-One and Mobb Deep member Prodigy both lent their support to Texas Congressman and former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul during the GOP primaries. Rapper Speech, of Arrested Development, who supported Obama in 2008, said he felt “disillusioned with some things that Obama has done” and that he would support Ron Paul. Snoop Dogg had posted a photo of Ron Paul on his Facebook page with the caption “smoke weed everyday”, although he recently posted on Twitter a list of reasons why he was voting for Obama as opposed to Romney.
Earlier this year, cult underground hip-hop figure El-P joined forces with Southern rapper Killer Mike and released the album R.A.P. Music. The combination of El-P’s trademark sonic and aggressive production and Killer Mike’s introspective and emotive lyrics took critics and hip-hop fans by storm
and is a shoe-in for hip-hop release of the year. The track “Reagan” attracted a wide deal of controversy as it vehemently criticised Ronald Reagan and his presidency, in particular the Iran-Contra scandal. Killer Mike also panned Obama calling him “just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters”. However, in an interview with HipHopDX, Killer Mike stated that he hasn’t jumped off the Obama bandwagon and that he’s “still firmly on the train in the first class” but he won’t be voting in the upcoming election. He isn’t alone. Compton based rapper Kendrick Lamar revealed that he wouldn’t be voting in the upcoming election, with Lupe Fiasco and SpaceGhostPurrp taking the same stance.
Voting or not, the election goes ahead next week. With Obama not including any hip-hop songs on his election campaign play-list, it’s clear that he is having a “Sister Souljah moment” and taking a moderate role up against Romney. The lack of hip-hop endorsements that Obama had had in 2008, may be an indicator of Obama losing the “cool factor”, begging the question on everyone’s mouth for next Tuesday: this time round, will it be hip to hope?