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Is Obama A Hip Hop President?-Does It Really Matter?
by Davey D
Leading up to last week's Inauguration and in the days after, it seems like the biggest question being posed and bantered about in mainstream media circles is whether or not President Barack Obama is our first Hip Hop President?
For some this question seems important because Obama is young. At age 47, he is definitely a part of the generation of people who came up when Hip Hop was exploding across the globe. So at the very least you can assume he at the very least listened to Hip Hop. But does that make you a Hip Hop president?
For others, they're looking at the huge support he had within the Hip Hop community. His candidacy inspired scores of popular rap artists ranging from Will I Am to Common to Nas and Young Jeezy to record songs and videos. Here in the Bay Area artists like D'Labrie and Kev Choice did songs and in Kev's case an entire album with Obama as the theme. Many of those artists got to participate in numerous Inauguration ceremonies-But does that make him a Hip Hop president?
Others like Jay-Z did free concerts in an attempt to get people to register to vote and come to the polls while artists like Bow Wow, Killer Mike, David Banner, Bun B and T.I. all stomped for him in some form or fashion. There is no denying the artist support Obama had but does that make him a Hip Hop President? I mean if we really wanna keep it 100, Obama had a lot of support amongst Hollywood actors and professional athletes. Does that make him the Hollywood Actor President or the Professional Athlete President especially since the Prez does play basketball?
If we put this into further perspective, one may recall that when Bill Clinton ran for both his terms he had a lot of support within Hip Hop circles. No, he didn't inspire a lot of songs and Youtube wasn't really around back then, but I remember going to rallies and seeing artists like Queen Latifah introducing him much like she did Obama. If memory serves me correctly LL Cool J even performed for him. However, nobody in their wildest dreams ever suggested Clinton was a Hip Hop president although many tried to call him the first 'Black president' because of comedic references to stereotypical behavior like his philandering and his overall swagger which made him appear at ease and comfortable around Black folks as compared to past Presidents.
Style over Substance Reduces the Richness Within Hip Hop
In other words a lot of what Clinton was being judged on was style and not necessarily substance. This is where we have a big problem. There are many within the mainstream who have continued down this same path where they have literally pulled out a Hip Hop caricature check list which includes such salacious activities like smoking blunts, drinking 40s, being a playa or talking with exaggerated slang, and have been seeking to see if Barack Obama fills any of them enough to be considered a Hip Hop president. Now these people may try to cover things up and make light of such an approach, but it goes a bit deeper and reflects a fundamental disrespect that folks have for Hip Hop and the Black people attached to it.
There have been one too many conversations that start off with questions like; 'Hey Obama listens to Jay-Z' or 'Common shouted out Obama in a song' or 'Obama gave his wife a high five and fist pump while wearing a baseball cap to cover his eyes'- Does that make him the Hip Hop President?'. Very rarely are the questions and discussions centered around Obama's policy positions on particular issues that have galvanized the Hip Hop community that being used as the benchmark for people who identify with Hip Hop.
For example, in June of 2007 a number of artists including; Saigon, Rebel Diaz, Sess 4-5 and Mia X out of New Orleans teamed up with Washington DC based Hip Hop Caucus and the ACLU to do a concert and fund raiser at the 930 Club that brought attention to the elimination of Habeus Corpus and to the rampant torture that was going on at Guantamino Bay. Also being addressed that night was the plight of New Orleans residents who still found themselves unable to return to home two years in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The demands articulated that night to end the war, stop torture, restore Habeus Corpus and give folks the right to return home were loud and clear. Each performance was proceeded by artists taking the stage and talking to the audience about specific policy recommendations and actions steps. A few months later Reverend Lennox Yearwood who heads up the Hip Hop Caucus attempted to attend hearings on Guantanamo Capitol Hill and had the ligaments in his legs torn when he was beaten up by Capitol Hill police who refused to let him in the proceedings. This was widespread news within many Hip Hop circles and represented a strong position many had with respect to George Bush's War on Terrorism policies. However, when the the question of Obama being a Hip Hop president gets raised his stance and policy recommendations on torture, Habeus Corpus and issues surrounding New Orleans are hardly ever used as determining factors. The same could be said about any number of issues including police brutality, education, poverty and crime. These are all issues that have garnered well documented and widespread mobilization within the Hip Hop community yet are rarely woven into a discussion of Obama and his relationship with Hip Hop.
Such oversights indicate the type of shallowness, lack of sophistication and overall sad state of affairs for mainstream news who in 2009 still insist on putting people and entire communities in neat little demographic boxes complete with a superficial marketing plan. Now don't get me wrong, I clearly understand that corporate media has always been like this and at the end of the day it's gonna be up to us to force the issue and flip the script whenever we notice this shallow line of questioning. I just want to make sure that we who are on the receiving end of this don't get too comfortable and allow this discussion to get framed a certain way because we collectively represent so much more. For example, shortly after the swearing in ceremonies I was interviewed by a Japanese reporter who wanted to know my feelings on Obama. Eventually she got to the 'Is he a Hip Hop president' question and I told her whenever I'm asked this question its because the reporter is secretly expecting him to do some sort of performance like freestyle or break dance. With all the problems going on in this country and around the world, he better not be break dancing. The puzzled look on the reporters face was priceless so I continued, there's more to Hip Hop than just being an artist.
What makes Obama Hip Hop is that he's intelligent and he's a family man. He loves his wife and is a great father to his kids. He defies all the nasty stereotypes that have been put out by corporate media that has left everyone around the world with a false impression of Black men. That's what makes him Hip Hop. The fact that he was able to come seemingly out of nowhere and outsmart and outmaneuver the mighty Clinton machine when they appeared to have everything all sewn up-Makes him Hip Hop. The fact that he was able to defy the odds by outlasting and overcoming all the racism heaped on him by his Republican opponents and full onslaught of Fox news and all their lies was incredible. Now depending on which way he goes on some of these key issues will determine whether or not we continue to see him as Hip Hop.
Hip Hop is More Than Just a Good Performance
Former Green Party Vice presidential candidate Rosa Clemente raised many of these points in her widely read article about 'Why Obama was not the Hip Hop President'. She too was not interested in his rhyme skillz or dancing abilities instead Clemente held Obama's feet to the fire on a number of issues that she felt he had not adequately addressed leading up to the inauguration. Her article in turn sparked debate amongst many within Hip Hop. Some felt, she was coming down on him too hard too soon others felt that he had been given a pass long enough. Others debated the stances he should or shouldn't take on key issues like his cabinet picks and his position on the conflict in the Middle East. Many of the conversations generated by Clemente's article both pro and con was and is a beautiful thing and has been commonplace in many Hip Hop circles for a minute. That sadly comes as shock and surprise to many who falsely thought Hip Hop's biggest debates were along the lines of 50 Cent versus Kanye West which was given a two week national platform by corporate media. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This past year college campuses throughout the country were treated to author Bakari Kitwana's Rap Sessions panels which focused on the election. His panels included everyone from scholars like Michael Eric Dyson, Mark Anthony Neal and Jelani Cobb to artists like M-1 of dead prez to activists and policy experts like Jeff Johnson of BET, William Upski of the League of Young Voters Maya Rockeymoore of the Global Policy Solutions and Angela Woodson of the Ohio Governor's Office. The discussions at Rap Sessions were never ever a slam dunk endorsement for Obama or any other candidate. Instead folks grappled with the role and influence Hip Hop would and could play in the election and whether or not any of the candidates were addressing key issues that have been identified by various Hip Hop orgs over the past few years.
Many may recall the big debate that sparked off during the primaries between fellow Chicago rappers Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco. Rhymefest an early Obama supporter, had a well publicized back and forth with Lupe Fiasco who came out for Hillary Clinton. Many were fascinated with the discussion as the mainstream attempted to frame it as a serious beef where each had to be wary of the other. While the debate was spirited it didn't get personal and the two were never enemies, but it was chock full of good information and viewpoints for folks to ponder.
For me what I found most interesting about that exchange was the types of issues, serious questions and ultimate decisions Rhymefest had to struggle with when then candidate Obama took unpopular positions on issues that meant a lot to him. I remember talking with Rhymefest not too long after Obama voted to go along with the FISA Bill. Rhymefest decided that he needed to send a strong message and hence cut off the monthly payments he was making via his credit card to the Obama campaign. He then used his high profile position and voiced his disappointment. He remained an Obama supporter, but his stance and questions represented that type of complexities and complications one can have with a candidate and their campaigns. Many in Hip Hop weren't just blindly following a charismatic figure. Many have moved well beyond the 30 second soundbite, one size fits all mentality that this Obama and Hip Hop discussion is often reduced to.
So is Barack Obama a Hip Hop President? First and foremost one needs to ask Obama how he identifies with Hip Hop and to what degree? Is he fan? A consumer? Are we even on the same page in terms of how he and those questioning him are defining Hip Hop? Is Obama someone who dips and dabs here and there or his he someone who follows various aspects of the culture, embraces its full history and stays abreast of its every move? Is he someone who is constantly engaging the culture to add to it and help it evolve, grow and be enriched or is Hip Hop culture something that contains a viable body of potential supporters, donors and voters who need to be tapped right and marketed to? Does President Obama consider himself a practioner?
Next we need to figure out what is the end game in this discussion. Are we trying to fit President Obama into our own little cultural box to satisfy our own agendas. Some want Obama to be the Hip Hop President as a way to diminish him and ultimately dismiss them. In their mind Hip Hop is the embodiment of every negative pathology that has impacted Urban America and if Obama is a part of that then he's inferior. Any mistake or misstep he has can and will be blamed on his connection to Hip Hop.
Others want him to be down with Hip Hop for the exact opposite reason. If Obama is the Hip Hop President then he embodies the brightest and very best aspects that society has to offer. He's a man who beat all the odds and created something where there was nothing-He's Hip Hop and his success is Hip Hop's success.
Still others have drawn sharp lines in the sand and steadfastly maintained that if Obama crosses or even compromises on any of those lines he is not Hip Hop and thus not part of something that far superior and more principled than him and his Presidency.
Pick the scenario and we can create the rules that define or or eliminate Obama from the embraces of Hip Hop culture.
Owning Our Victories and Being Taken Seriously
At the end of the day we need to look at this debate from another angle. Instead of asking if Obama is the Hip Hop President, lets take a look and see what role Hip Hop played in getting him into the White House. Let us as a community start owning and celebrating that success story. Did Hip Hop play a role in breaking down color barriers? Did it play a role in helping communicate a message and organize folks using both new technology and its unique cultural expressions? Let's see what roles our songs, debates spirited discussions,concerts etc played in mobilizing people? Can we harness those skills, talents and resources to create other political success stories i.e. Mayor? Congressman? Senator?
The other thing we should be looking at is whether or not Hip Hop is being engaged above and beyond appearances at the Concert on the Mall and the Neighborhood Inauguration Ball. Yes it was great to see Nick Cannon spinning records for the President. It's great to see Will I Am standing alongside him or Jay-Z performing for him, but what substantive conversations are any of those performers having with President Obama and his peeps? And if they do talk are their viewpoints taken seriously? That's what really counts at the end of the day.
Did the President talk to Jay-Z about his recent fact finding trip to Africa to see how he saw the impending water shortage situation? Did he ask Young Jeezy why he called his album 'The Recession' and how these hard economic times were really impacting his fan base? I ran into Bow Wow while in DC who talked about how he spent much of the year going from town to town stomping for Obama and getting people to vote, many for the first time. He explained how the economy was the biggest concern for his fans and friends-Has the Obama camp been talking with him?
Is Will, Kanye or Latifah having conversations that articulates and reflects the concerns being voiced by many within the Hip Hop community? Did any of these rappers get a chance to sit down and say to President Obama 'Oh by the way, you may wanna have your man Eric Holder the next Attorney General look into all these police shootings of unarmed men and women since the beginning of the year? Oscar Grant (Oakland), Andre Grimes (New Orleans), Robbie Tolan (Houston), Anette Garcia (Riverside).
I know there's a time and place for everything and one shouldn't expect a deep conversation to take place during a celebration, but you know how we do? Imagine if Obama or members of his team were record label executives who could sign folks to a deal? You can't tell me folks wouldn't have been working the room like you wouldn't believe. They'd be earhustling, side hustling and every other type of hustling to be seen and heard. Did any of those artists within earshot of the President get their political hustle on?
Now in all fairness, I do know that the Obama transition team has reached out and talked to various folks who are apart of Youth and Hip Hop oriented organizations. And those they haven't spoken to I know they are aware of them. How in depth those convos have been and how ongoing they will be I don't know. It's definitely a thing that those within Hip Hop should be pushing for, not just with Obama but with all the elected officials who impact their communities and day to day lives. From mayors to school board members, in 2009 its up to us to figure out ways to engage these folks and make sure our issues are on the table and taken seriously.
Now in terms of Hip Hop and the President, one thing I'm excited about is the recent forming of a Shadow Cabinet by some brothers and sisters out in Pittsburgh, Pa who are determined to make sure the President will always have a 'hood' perspective on key issues. They've been quietly meeting and putting things in place over the past couple of months and you will soon hear about them and the things they are doing. I'll get more into that in a future article.
Is President Obama the Hip Hop President? Lets move away from that question and start asking how is Obama serving the Hip Hop community? What is Hip Hop's relationship to Obama? What sort of things has Hip Hop done for Obama and how has it been reciprocated? Are those within Hip Hop who have access to him, are they articulating our issues and fighting forcefully on our behalf? Has Hip Hop really made itself a factor in the game or is it becoming irrelevant? Those are questions we need to honestly answer..At rthe end of the day I don't care whether he's Hip Hop or not as long as he's does right by me and my community-That's what I'm fighting for no matter who's in the white house.
Something to ponder...Peace out for now..
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