During the 2008 presidential election, many from the political left and right insisted a straight line be drawn from Barack Obama directly to the “hip-hop community.” These folks, regardless of their political affiliation, often pointed to Obama’s race, his age, his claim to have Jay-Z in his iPod and his infamous brushing the dirt of his shoulder in South Carolina as proof that Obama had the makings of the first “hip-hop president.”
In his race-baiting piece “Hip Hop President,” conservative critic, Craig Smith wrote:
“I can see it now. Air Force Ones decked out with 22s and spinners. Maybe even a set of hydraulics.”
“Watching the hip-hop president in the Oval Office with his baseball cap on backward copping a gansta lean in the big chair. Should be really pimp, don’t you think?” Smith ended his piece, “And every day he is on the campaign trail dissing America, more Americans will realize he is not the savior. He is merely Barack Obama…hip-hop senator from Illinois.”
In the rush to scare white Americans away from supporting Obama, Smith conveniently ignored Obama’s consistent critiques of hip-hop music culture.
WATCH — MUSIC CRITICS AND REPORTERS DISCUSS OBAMA & HIP-HOP:
VIDEO produced by Todd Johnson>
At Vernon Park Church of God, way back in 2007, Obama said, “I don’t think that the hip-hop community is responsible for youth violence, but I think they haven’t fully stepped up to the responsibilities to change the attitudes among youth.”
While a populace that grew up rocking to hip-hop has overwhelmingly supported Obama, many have taken the question of what would it really mean for a sitting president of the United States to also be hip-hop’s president to task.
Allhiphop able founder, Chuck Creekmur told theGrio, “I can’t say that Barack is the hip-hop president. If we had a president who was truly hip-hop then I think a lot would be different. Chuck D is president of hip-hop.”
Chuck D also encouraged a lot of us to fight the power and never believe the hype. Hence, I want to agree with Creekmur. But I can’t. Hip-hop is not a nation state; Like Al Qaeda, it has no borders. Like the Internet, its impact can not be quantified or regulated. And like nothing else on this planet, hip-hop is a paroled self-reflexive local music and culture that has taught folks around the globe how to talk, walk, rhyme, write, love, like, hate, hype, destroy, build and front.
In some ways, the question of “Is Obama hip-hop’s first president” foregrounds Obama while reducing hip-hop to a wholly digestible and synthetic community. A more provocative and revealing question than ‘is Obama hip-hop’s first president’ might be ‘is hip Hop more important than any American president?’
If so, how do we use hip-hop to transform ourselves, neighborhoods, cities, states and nations in just ways that might have little to do with American and global politics?
Cool vs. Hip (Hop)
There’s a definable difference between cool and hip. Has there ever been a political figure to embody and embrace coolness more than Barack Obama? Obama used his cool demeanor as both shield and sword on his way to the White House. Most members of the supposed “hip-hop community” saw this and we understood. But does his coolness translate into hip? And do we even want it to? Athena Jones, of NBC News, says no.
“Apart from his race, I’m not sure what it is specifically about Obama that would make people want to call him the first hip-hop president. Having covered since the Spring of 2008 up till now, my sense is that he’s more of a square guy,” said Jones
Kevin Powell, a magnificent, thoughtful young politician with the potential of really becoming a congressman who identifies with hip-hop culture, goes even further in distinguishing it from President Obama.
“Were there elements of hip-hop around Barack Obama’s campaign in ‘08?” Powell rhetorically asked. “Absolutely. I love Barack Obama, let me make that very clear. In fact, it’s all those young people who grew up on pop culture and hip-hop who made that election happen in 2008…. Just because someone listens to hip-hop doesn’t mean they’re hip-hop, it doesn’t mean that at all.”
Powell is among a small, but growing number of young politicians invested in transforming local communities and Politics with and without Hip Hop culture. He and Athena Jones lead us to another question, however. Do you want the president of your country to be first president of a music and culture you love?
Uh … no, thanks. I’m good, breh.
Hip-Hop is African-American Skepticism’s 13th President
“For hip-hop,” Alec Barrett wrote in the Harvard Review, “Obama is not just an aesthetic change, but a black President is significant for the genre because of what he is expected to do for the demands of the community these artists address.”
Barrett assumes the communities addressed by hip-hop expect our demands to be met by Obama. He, like many, misunderstand African-American skepticism. Before Obama won the Democratic nomination, lovers of hip-hop, our mamas and grandmas, doubted the likelihood of ever seeing a black president. That’s three generations of folk echoing the same belief. That shared belief was melded with a lifetime of policing and sealed with a hearty glob of African American skepticism.
“We trust no black leaders,” Nas rhymes on the album Hip-Hop is Dead minutes before saying of Obama on the song “Black President”, “I’m thinking I can trust this brother/ But will he keep way real … When he wins, will he really care still?”
The word and concept “but” is to African-American skepticism what the word “I” is to hip-hop. Unlike cynicism, African-American skepticism accepts that though we weren’t supposed to make it this far from slavery, we are still standing, still moving and still reckoning. African-American skepticism also accepts the terrible and terrific price we have had to pay for this movement from property to second-class citizenship to paradoxically paroled Americans.
African-American skepticism rejects and embraces cardboard notions of progress, overly produced maxims conflating all things black with hip-hop and Obama. African-American skepticism needs more from Barack Obama but balances that need with the machinations of American politics and reality that he, Michelle, Malia and Sasha are walking through a particular kind of hell with gasoline vests everyday.
In a country partially dedicated to the infantalization and destruction of black and brown human being, We don’t care if Barack Obama is hip-hop’s first president. We want the brother to be excellent at loving us, diligent in loving the nation and daring in engaging with the world. Then we want him to make out of the White House in one piece.
That’s it. Whether that’s hip-hop or not, I don’t know or care. The president of the United States deserves better than he’s getting now from the country that elected him. But we also deserve more from him. The question is what are you and hip-hop gonna do about that?