Barack Obama's hip-hop fandom: ‘‘In my first term, I sang Al Green. In my second term, I’m going with Young Jeezy’’

Many rappers campaigned for Obama, and to the dismay of the right wing, he didn't distance himself from hip-hop

Published April 10, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Barack Obama, Jay Z         (Reuters/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/AP/Robin Harper/Photo montage by Salon)
Barack Obama, Jay Z (Reuters/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/AP/Robin Harper/Photo montage by Salon)

Excerpted from "Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics"

Hip-Hop and Barack Obama

In 2008, a historic election placed a Black man in the Oval Office. Many of the voters of this election were brought into the fold as a result of the Barack Obama campaign’s savvy use of social networking media, grassroots mobilization, and celebrities including Hip-Hop celebrities. Hip-Hop music was prominently featured in Obama’s campaign. He declared he was a fan of Hip-Hop and even had a private meeting with controversial southern rap artist Ludacris. Obama has shared that he has various Hip-Hop artists on his iPod playlist, including Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Ludacris. He has also mentioned many rap artists in passing, including southern rapper Young Jeezy. But 2008 was not the POTUS’s first encounter with Hip-Hop.

Before his famous introduction to the American public at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama was backstage giving political participation and efficacy advice to Southern rapper Andre 3000, part of the duo Outkast, a conversation featured in the political documentary film "The After Party." During this interview, Obama explained why people should be interested in political participation regardless of their economic or celebrity status because ‘‘Uncle Sam is taking part of your check.’’ Obama elaborated on the importance of sophisticated political participation, primarily voting. Andre 3000 had previously rhymed in Outkast’s song ‘‘Get up, Get Out,’’ ‘‘Y’all tellin me that I need to get out and vote, huh. Why? Ain’t nobody black runnin but crackers, so, why I got to register? I’m thinking of better shit to do with my time.’’ Andre 3000’s disillusionment with the electoral process and system is noticeable from this verse. Obama contended that it was important to understand how politics and voting relate to the individual’s personal situation, receiving nods in agreement from the rapper. But Andre 3000 was not the only person in the Hip-Hop community to speak with Barack Obama that night. Sean Combs, who also created the Vote or Die campaign, was able to interview Obama while working as a reporter for MTV News at the DNC, and spoke with him about informed political participation on 16 January 2009. At the end of the interview Diddy stated he understood Obama’s points. Diddy offered to provide his support and a platform for Obama and assured him MTV would do the same. Early on, Obama was already making headway with some of the top members of the Hip-Hop community.

Similarly, in September 2007 Obama was featured in the Hip-Hop magazine Vibe. The magazine sported a double covered profile that represented the intrigue and enthusiasm young people felt about Obama’s campaign and potential as the first Black president of the United States. This feature also covered Obama’s own beliefs about Hip-Hop and the duality of the genre as one that described life in many urban communities while also presenting a pseudo-reality and glorifying aspects of drug culture, violence, materialism, and sexual encounters. The article gave Vibe readers a solid introduction to Obama’s past and beliefs. Continuing and using his link to the genre during his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama used the notorious Hip-Hop symbol of brushing dirt off his shoulders in reference to his opponents. The symbol comes from Jay-Z’s song, ‘‘Dirt off Your Shoulders,’’ in which he describes how to deal with those who oppose or offend you: simply brush it off and move on. Obama took his cue from this song and used the symbol without uttering a word to show how he felt about his opposition and their strategy, specifically that of rousing hateful, moblike crowds.

Many rappers campaigned for presidential candidate Obama and wrote songs that used his name as synonymous with success, pride, and manhood. In 2008, Will. I. Am. created the song ‘‘Yes We Can,’’ which featured direct Obama quotes, and he later donated the song, along with three other songs, to the album "Change Is Now, Renewing America’s Promise," officially adopted by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Similarly, Nas released his song ‘‘Black President,’’ which opens with a part of an Obama speech from election night 2008, and gave his full support of Obama through his lyrics. Additionally, several news outlets covered a group of elementary students who created and performed a rap about the candidates to the tune of a popular rap song by Hip-Hop artist T.I. And on election night, CNN spoke with a hologram of rap artist Will. I. Am. for his analysis of the election returns.

Grammy Award winning Atlanta rappers Ludacris and Big Boi of Outkast were very vocal about political and social issues during the 2008 election season. These artists both created political rap songs, which are not typical of the type of rap they usually produce. Ludacris is widely known as a comedic rapper whose songs often include misogynistic lyrics like ‘‘I got hoes, in different area codes,’’ part of the chorus in ‘‘Area Codes,’’ a 2001 single from his second album Word of Mouf. While Big Boi’s work with Outkast (comprising himself and childhood friend Andre 3000) frequently includes commentary on social and political issues, his contributions just as often exalt big butts and casual sex. Both artists received a lot of attention during the 2008 presidential campaign for their songs, but the songs were received differently. The media praised the positive message propagated by Big Boi’s lyrics in ‘‘Sumthin’s Gotta Give.’’ Through these lyrics Big Boi summarizes the pain and economic strain many felt during this economic recession. He raps about his hope that the problems plaguing many minority communities will be solved with the election of senator Obama. At the same time, Big Boi voices his doubt, shared by many African Americans leading up to the election, that a Black man would ever be elected president. Displaying the cynicism endemic in minority communities in regards to the political system and the equality of American society. The song ends with R&B singer Mary J. Blige referring to the many political promises that have been made throughout Black history but have not been upheld.

And I heard him say that every man, woman, child was gonna be ok

I heard him say that they would bring our soldiers home in one piece today, hey!

But its not that way

They been tellin us a dream

Tellin us we[’]re on the same team

Now we all gotta deal with the lies.

‘‘Sumthin’s Gotta Give’’ invokes imagery from the Civil Rights Movement era and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech. This song pays homage to the gains made by the Civil Rights movement while acknowledging that the political struggle continues. Big Boi voices a common sentiment among the Hip-Hop generation when he contends that the promised equality is simply a lie.

In contrast, Ludacris found his song ‘‘Politics as Usual’’ the subject of derision on numerous television news broadcasts, primarily as a result of the harsh words he had for Obama’s opponents, including senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Less controversially, the song encouraged people to register to vote. Ludacris starts off by detailing his relationship with Obama, how the future president acknowledged Ludacris as a great rapper and had the artist’s music on his iPod playlist. Specifically,

With a slot in the President’s iPod, Obama shouted him /

Said I handled my biz and I’m one of his favorite rappers.

But by the end of the song Ludacris puts Obama’s support of him in a compromising situation through his misogynistic lyrics toward Hillary Clinton and derogatory statements about John McCain and George W. Bush. Ludacris states,

McCain don’t belong in ANY chair unless he’s paralyzed

Yeah I said it cause Bush is mentally handicapped

The song prompted criticism from many organizations and leaders including presidential candidate Obama himself.

Rappers have been seen campaigning with and for political candidates in increasing numbers recently. Politically involved artists include Young Jeezy, Ludacris, Big Boi, Jay-Z, Will. I. Am., T.I, Nas, Common, Scarface, Ice Cube, Chamillionaire, Souljah Boy, and Bow Wow. Many of these artists have publicly supported candidates other than Obama on the campaign trail. For instance, T.I., Ludacris, and Young Jeezy supported Georgia’s Democratic senatorial candidate Jim Martin in his run-off election. Unfortunately, this endorsement did not help Martin secure the 2008 senatorial seat. In 2008, many Hip-Hop artists gathered to assess Obama’s viability as a candidate and their support for him. But they were also mindful of how their endorsement or association could hurt his campaign. Specifically, rappers Scarface, Young Jeezy, Jay-Z and Ice Cube spoke candidly about avoiding the mistakes of Ludacris’ ‘‘Politics as Usual’’ in their associations with the candidate. Because of the characterization of rap music as misogynistic, sexist, materialistic, lewd, obscene, violent, and destructive, many believed that a public association with Hip-Hop and its artists would adversely affect Obama. Former NWA rapper turned actor Ice Cube stated,

I think the first thing [the hip-hop community has to] do is let the man become president,’’ Ice Cube opined. ‘‘They gotta work in other ways to get him 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. Everybody should kick back for a minute, see what happens in November. If he becomes president, he wouldn’t have to separate himself as much from some of these statements. Because Obama can’t come as hard-core as Ludacris as far as his message right now—he can’t do that. Us rappers might have to hold our tongues for a few months. (quoted in Reid 2008)

Likewise, Texan rapper Scarface suggested that rappers withhold endorsements and not release songs in support of Obama until he was elected (Reid 2008). ‘‘[Rappers] need to be quiet, super quiet on Barack,’’ he continued, ‘‘All it takes is for a mutha----er getting out there being real [ghetto] and people will be like, ‘We don’t wanna f--- with Obama’; they’ll wanna smash on him because of what somebody else said. [Someone] speaks for himself and its Barack’s fault? What did Luda say—that’s Barack’s fault? Is it Barack’s fault what I’m saying? I don’t wanna be the reason he don’t get [the presidency] . . .’’ (quoted in Reid 2008). As a compromise, some artists endorsed Obama at their events or concerts but did not actively participate in his campaign for fear that their presence would hurt it. Jay-Z even went as far as to state at his concerts that his messages and support of Obama are not ‘‘Obama sponsored’’ (quoted in Reid 2008). As it turns out, support and endorsements from rap stars positively affected support for Obama by making voting popular among a typically alienated, disenchanted and nonvoting segment of the population. Hip-Hop fans were taking cues from some leading rap stars about not only whom they should vote for but concerning the very fact of political participation. In less than two years, Obama became Hip-Hop’s newest trend.

But not all rap artists supported Obama. Some artists who are left of center produced songs that criticized Obama. British rapper Low Key produced the songs ‘‘Obama Nation’’ (Parts 1 and 2), which discussed the continued oppression of the American government, capitalism, racism, imperialism, colonization and wars on Islamic nations as well as his disillusionment with Obama’s presidency. Part Two, which featured artist M-1 from the rap group Dead Prez, discusses the lack of impact Obama’s race or heritage had on his politics and instead argues that Obama is still a part of an American system that is oppressing and killing minorities. The two versions of the song were very harsh criticisms of America’s government and President Obama. Still others, such as Lupe Fiasco and Immortal Technique, have also offered lyrical critiques of President Obama. In fact, Lupe Fiasco is one of the more outspoken critics of Obama, so much so that he shared his decision not to vote for Obama in his song ‘‘Words I Never Said.’’ It has been reported that Lupe Fiasco was kicked off-stage after rapping at an inaugural ball in 2013, ‘‘Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit. That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one either. I’m a part of the problem; my problem is I’m peaceful’’ (Peralta 2013; Weiner 2013). Lupe Fiasco continues his critique of Obama in interviews and through his Twitter account as well. In an ABC interview Lupe Fiasco stated, ‘‘To me, the biggest terrorist is Obama in the United States of America’’ (quoted in Nielson 2012).

Some of the positive and supportive relationships between Obama’s campaign and the Hip-Hop community did change between the 2008 election and his second election in 2012. For instance, when Obama released his campaign playlist for 2012 and no rap artists were included, many were shocked. Additionally, in 2012, many of those who had been enthusiastically supportive of Obama in 2008 no longer carried the same hopeful flame. Rap artist Speech of the rap group Arrested Development and Snoop Lion (Dogg), who were both previously supportive of Obama in 2008, threw their support behind Ron Paul in 2012 (Nielson 2012). Similarly, Nas commented, ‘‘The historic part of him being elected president was got, and everyone was happy about that, and I’m glad I lived to see it. The flipside is, after we get over that, it’s back to the politics, and it’s something, which doesn’t have time for people. It’s its own animal’’ (quoted in Nielson 2012). The most prominent rap supporters of Obama’s 2008 campaign also expressed their disappointment in Obama’s first term (Nielson 2012).

Nonetheless, Obama has maintained a very visible relationship with some rap artists, especially Jay-Z, who performed a concert in Ohio for Obama’s last campaign stop for 2012. Jay-Z performed his song ‘‘99 Problems,’’ and changed the chorus to reference Mitt Romney the Republican candidate running against Obama. Instead of the original lyrics, ‘‘I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.’’ Jay-Z rhymed, ‘‘I got 99 problems but a Mitt ain’t one.’’ This slight interjection of a different word, while simple, was profound, based on the attention this change received in the media. In fact, on various news broadcasts that night, many were upset that the derogatory term bitch was replaced with Mitt. Many believed it was disrespectful and in bad taste to have Jay-Z, a rapper, perform this song at the last campaign rally.

After both elections, President Obama continued to acknowledge the influence and importance of Hip-Hop culture in American society. A star-studded inaugural concert on January 18, 2009, featured Queen Latifah, and Will.I.Am. During his first term Obama continued to include, acknowledge, and use Hip-Hop by inviting Pharrell and Diddy to celebrate Cinco de Mayo at the White House in 2010. He also employed Hip-Hop imagery and references at the annual Correspondents Dinner in 2011 and 2012 and was associated with First Lady Obama’s invite of Chicago rapper Common for the Night of Poetry event.

The Correspondents Dinner is an annual event that hosts reporters, writers, and other press members and is also attended by various celebrities and politicians. The main feature of the dinner is a comedic speech by the president. It was through these jokes that President Obama was able to reference Hip-Hop music and culture. At the Correspondents Dinner in 2011 Obama began by facing the birthers movement, led by Donald Trump, that questioned Obama’s nationality. At the dinner Obama referenced Trump by saying, ‘‘Donald Trump is here tonight! Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And, that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter like, ‘Did we fake the moon landing?’ ‘What really happened in Roswell?’ ‘And where are Biggie and Tupac?’’’ Obama was referencing popular conspiracies and included a Hip-Hop reference by mentioning the conspiracy beliefs about the murder of Tupac and Biggie Smalls. He ended his segment with a mockumentary detailing his life without a teleprompter. In this mockumentary Obama goes to Vice President Joe Biden for help on how to live without prepared remarks. The background music displaying Biden’s gaffes was a tribute to Hip-Hop with the song ‘‘Shimy Shimy Ya,’’ by Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB), famed member of rap group Wu Tang Clan. The short vignette highlighted the segment of the song, ‘‘yeah, baby I like it raw,’’ in reference to Biden’s gaffes.

Similarly, at the 2012 Correspondents Dinner, Obama continued his association with Hip-Hop and referenced southern rap artist Young Jeezy, who was associated with the notorious Black Mafia Family of gangsters in Atlanta, Georgia. Obama said, ‘‘In my first term, I sang Al Green. In my second term, I’m going with Young Jeezy.’’ While Obama was joking about the news that surrounded his singing of R&B singer Al Green’s song ‘‘Let’s Stay Together,’’ he was also alluding to the underlying fear among right-wing voters of his ability to be more aggressive and powerful during his second term. Many feared the unbridled power Obama would wield if he were granted a second term (Gunter 2012). Some feared Obama would enslave Whites, take away guns, become a dictator, and instill martial law or even cut the defense budget rendering America powerless (Chapman 2012; Gunter 2012). Obama, like the rest of the American public, heard these fears, and he decided to play on them. Here, rap music and Young Jeezy represent the Black radical image that most people fear: that radical Black stereotype that is upset about the history of oppression Black people have endured and who only wants to punish White people and America for his injustices. Obama was playing on the fear that he was a real life ‘‘Spook’’ playing the system for the right time to unleash a race war, similar to the famous 1970s character from Sam Greenlee’s book, "The Spook Who Sat by the Door."

No one should have been surprised by Obama’s use of rap imagery at this dinner, as he had used rap previously at Correspondents dinners and relating to other audiences (speaking to the NAACP and to young people). In this case, his choice of a rap artist was surprising. Obama may have referenced Young Jeezy because of his song ‘‘My President,’’ which begins,

Yeah, be the realest shit I never wrote

I ain’t write this shit by the way, nigga

Some real shit right here, nigga

In this prelude to the song Jeezy is suggesting that the topics he will rhyme about are fact not fiction. The song is a political rap song in which Young Jeezy discusess drug sales, disenfranchisement, war, prison, the election of Bush in 2000, Hurricane Katrina, and his admiration for Barack Obama. Jeezy ends his song by speaking directly to Obama.

It’s June 3rd, haha, 2:08 a.m.

Nigga I won’t say win, lose or draw man

Man we congratulate you already homie

See I motivate the thugs right

You motivate us homie

that’s what it is

This a hands on policy,

Ya’ll touchin’ me right nigga

Yeah, first black president,

win, lose or draw nigga

Haha matter of fact, you know what it is, man

Shouts out to Jackie Robinson, Booker T Washington homie

Oh y’all ain’t think I knew that shit?

Sidney Poitier, what d[th]ey do?

Haha, my president is black

I’m important too though

He congratulates Obama and acknowledges that Obama has motivated him and others in the rap community. He is moved by the symbolism of being able to witness the first viable Black candidate for president of the United States and also names other African American notables. Young Jeezy goes on to comment to MTV news that ‘‘I’m not endorsing the dude because he’s black. . . . Listen to what he’s saying: He’s saying what I wanna hear, just like my favorite rapper. If [an MC] is saying what I wanna hear, I’mma go buy his album. If [a candidate] is saying what I wanna hear, I’mma go vote for him. I can vote, by the way. Watch me, I’m going to register to vote’’ (Reid 2008). The sentiments behind this song could have been one of the reasons Obama referenced it at the Correspondents Dinner, but I contend he also wanted to draw attention to Jeezy’s known association with gangsters and thug imagery. This, of course, played directly into the stereotypes of Obama as the ‘‘spook’’ that would ruin the country (at least for Whites) after his reelection.

In May 2012, Michelle Obama invited Common to the White House Night of Poetry. This caused a wave of controversy because of Common’s reference to George W. Bush in a poem: ‘‘burn a bush, cause for peace he no push no button.’’ Common was depicted as a ‘‘gangsta’’ rapper and the White House was criticized for inviting him to this poetry event. As mentioned above, many in the Hip-Hop community would have preferred that Obama avoid these kinds of associations. But Obama realized the important cultural influence of Hip-Hop and used it symbolically as well as overtly to demonstrate his connection with the genre, offering credibility to the Black community, and pulling in the youth vote.

The Democratic Party was not the only party that included the HipHop community in its campaign. Others have attempted to capitalize on the popularity of Hip-Hop among youth including, Republican candidate John McCain, who shook hands on stage with rapper Young Jeezy. Similarly, previous Republican National Chairman Michael Steele publicly encouraged the Republican Party to figure out how to get the Hip-Hop vote and support (Reid 2008). Hip-Hop also figured prominently in the 2008 presidential bid of Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney, who selected Hip-Hop activist Rosa Clemente as her running mate. These candidates championed a platform of minority, youth, and women’s issues. Unfortunately, the viability of third parties in this country did not allow this party to amass much success electorally, but it did spark discussions of issues relevant to urban youth and gave them the opportunity to be included in political debates. Hip-Hop clearly has an influential relationship with electoral politics at the executive level, and it has been used extensively in lower-level campaigns as well.

Excerpted from "Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics" by Lakeyta M. Bonnette. Published by University of Pennsylvania Press. Copyright © 2015. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Lakeyta M. Bonnette

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Barack Obama Books Hip-hop Jay-z Ludacris Young Jeezy