Barring a significant last-minute vote swing influenced by an unprecedented Bradley effect (or if, perhaps, someone over at 310 First Street calls in a few favors from Diebold and Sequoia), it's looking very likely that Barack Obama will be our next Commander-in-Chief. This past winter, I wrote about my own thoughts on Obama, thoughts that have remained largely unchanged after a full year of campaigning, but with this historical election on the verge of finally coming to an end, I think its worth revisiting the subject and taking a look at hip hop's role in the process.
Since the start of 2008, we've seen something rather unprecedented in hip hop: a large amount of rappers coming out in support of a presidential candidate. It's been a somewhat surprising development, as hip hop has historically been anti-establishment (the corporate-sponsored pop rap of the past decade not withstanding), and the support of any mainstream candidate would seem to run counter to that sentiment. The '04 campaign saw a smaller movement, with rappers like Eminem speaking out, yet that seemed to be more of a case of voting against Bush than of supporting a specific candidate. Yet here we are, with dozens of rappers throwing their hats in the ring for Barack Obama - including Jay-Z and Diddy, who have been stumping for Obama down in Florida this past week - and a wave of mixtapes and other projects built around Obama's campaign. There's certainly a case to be made that this level of political activism in hip hop hasn't been "seen in a generation."
Yet there's been very little depth to the political message that rappers have been sending with their lyrical shoutouts to Obama. Judging by the early poll returns, which are showing a significant turnout among young, minority and first time voters, it's hard not to concede that rap's turn to the political has had at least some success as an engine to get out the vote, motivating some portion of the hip hop community to head to the voting booths. It's been significantly more effective than 2004's failed "Vote or Die" campaign, yet hip hop hasn't had much more to say about the election than a uniform repetition of Obama's name, shouted out in almost the same way that rappers name drop their favorite sneaker brand, alcoholic beverage or diamond reseller. What exactly have rappers like Jay-Z and Ludacris been encouraging us to vote for when they drop Barack's name in their rhymes? Sure, we know they want us to "Barack the Vote," but why?
Obviously a large part of hip hop's enthusiasm for Barack Obama stems from the fact that he's black, and that's certainly understandable. Though he's not the first black candidate to run for the presidency, he is the first to run during a time when a significant majority of hip hop's now aging audience has been old enough to vote (other than the ongoing campaigns of former Republican Alan Keyes; I would argue that hip hop had not yet generated a significant enough following by the time of Jesse Jackson's campaigns in '84 and '88). And if there is one thing about Obama's campaign that does have me genuinely excited, it is the social implications that would necessarily come with having a black man hold what is arguably the most powerful position in the world. We still have a long way to go before this country is able to fully realize Martin Luther King Jr's dream, but this would be a significant step towards that goal. So in that regard, I fully appreciate hip hop's enthusiasm and support for Barack Obama.
Yet, as I've argued before, I don't think that Obama himself is particularly representative of the hip hop demographic, and I don't think his policies will do much towards improving the lives of the average listener of hip hop. To get to the point where one can be in a position to run for president - which is to say, to be able to gain the support of one of the two mainstream political parties in this country, and generate enough funding to run a viable campaign - one has to compromise a tremendous amount of the idealism that would lead one to enter politics in the first place. To make it to the national stage, one needs the full support of corporate lobbyists and the mainstream media, two factions that very rarely take the interests of the common man into consideration (this post running long as it is, I'll offer up just one example: his support of FISA, a vote that, at best, can be seen as a concession of Constitutional rights to the telecom industry). It is virtually impossible to meet the demands of the corporations that he is now indebted to while effecting the change that so much of hip hop expects from him.
One specific aspect of an Obama administration that will have a direct impact on both rappers and their target audience that's worth mentioning is the Democratic party's close ties to the RIAA. While Obama has spoken in broad terms of the need for copyright reform, the Democratic Party itself has always been in favor of extending copyrights and has been very supportive of any legislation that protects the interests of the RIAA and MPAA. It should be noted that both the DMCA, the law that currently governs the state of online copyright (and the reason why so many videos get pulled off of YouTube), and the more recent bill to create a "Copyright Czar" came from Obama's party. Of particular interest is Obama's new right hand man, Joe Biden, who's voting record should be of great concern to frequenters of mp3 blogs. Over the past decade, Biden has proposed and voted for legislation that would limit the right to record radio streams, make it a felony to bypass DRM restrictions on mp3s, and establish a billion dollar national program to monitor p2p networks, while also speaking out against proposed legislation that would protect net neutrality.
A "copyright czar" could be just the tip of the iceberg in the war over Intellectual Property, as Biden's position as Vice President, and therefore President of the Senate, will allow him a fair amount of influence over any new legislation. It's understandable that rappers, and any other musician signed to a major label, would be in support of these policies, but it's hard to see how the average rap fan, "Joe Hip Hop" if you will, would see any benefit from this at all.
In the end, a more effective message, were rappers really interested in getting their listeners to effect change through voting, would have been to encourage the hip hop community's involvement on a more local level. Admittedly, it's unlikely that Jay-Z would have garnered as much attention if he had name-dropped his local councilman in a song, but it's on a local level where your vote has far more impact. In a presidential election, your vote is just one of millions, and its influence is further diluted by the fact that the power of your individual vote is competing against the millions of dollars from corporate lobbyists that presidential candidates depend upon. At the local level, however, races can be decided by single digit margins (votes, that is, not percentages) and the candidates are much more in tune with the needs of the community. Your vote could very well be the deciding ballot in that case, but the electoral college effectively eliminates that possibility in a presidential election (I concede, however, that, had you been living in Florida in 2000, you would have an effective counter to my argument.)
We seem to be on the verge of electing the candidate that hip hop has championed, so I would hope that the various rappers who supported Obama over the past year don't move on to something else once the man is elected. Should Obama fail to deliver on his promise of change, hip hop needs to speak out and remind him of why he was elected. Too many times in the recent past - from the Vote or Die campaign of 2004 to the outrage over the government's response to Katrina - we've seen rappers take up a cause and then lose focus after a couple of months, well before any resolution has been reached. Here's hoping that Obama lives up to what the hip hop generation believes he is capable of, but if not, here's also hoping that we don't let him off the hook for not living up to those hopes.
Just as importantly, if not more so, we must never forget everything that's happened over the past eight years. Electing Obama doesn't undo everything that's happened under the previous Administration, and I'm concerned that so many people seem to be only focused on the future. The laws that have been passed under Bush - the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, etc., etc. - are not going to get repealed by themselves, and my final hope would be that those who helped elect Obama will also call upon him not to overlook what has transpired.
Though I don't think it needs to be said, I will add as a disclaimer that the alternative to Obama - four years of McCain and Palin, who seem to offer little more than a continuation of the past eight years - is far more troubling to me. My concern is that, in all of the excitement over what Hip Hop as a community assumes Obama will be, we will overlook everything that he turns out not to be.
Finally, for the musical portion of this post, a song from Rebel Diaz, one of the few hip hop acts that have actually questioned Obama's policies:
Due to a mishap with the site this morning, I accidentally deleted all comments that had an email entered for them. The good news is that all of the spam that's flooded this site over the past two months has been deleted, the bad news is that we lost a lot of great comments. It'll take me a few days, but I should have all of them restored eventually.
11/5/2008 1:41:24 PM posted by fresh
I agree. Well written. I'm pleased with the results but now that he is in office, let's see what he and his administration can do.
Lastly, Hip-Hop can be full of shit sometimes...Hip-Hop is driven by fads and whats the hottest thing to talk about.
Once it was rocking dookie ropes, then it was nikes, then it was being extra conscious, then it was slanging mad weight, then it was driving a "merci alago", then being fly, then it was rocking skulls, then it was pink t shirts, then it was mixtapes, then it was rapping a verse over the same recycled beat 30 more times, then it tight clothes, then it was swag and now it's talking about Obama...
I upset but thats just what it's about in mostly mainstream Hip Hop.
what really flumoxed me was all these rappers name dropping Obama....and the ONLY ones who contributed to his campaign were will.i.am and John Legend.
Check out Jonathon's post at the Passion of the Weiss a few days ago on rappers spending money, but not on the presidential campaigns they "promote" in their rhymes, on stage, via their t-shirts, etc. I would link to it but the Passion freezes my computer at work.
Kanye, Common, Jay, T.I., Jeezy, Nas---NONE OF THEM put up a dime to help Barack win.
@Mally: Yeah, it's hard not to see the Obama shoutouts as just the latest fad in hip hop. Not that I don't think many of the rappers shouting him out actually do support his ideals, but I question just how deep their support runs, and I question how much effort they've put in on their own to come to the conclusion that Obama is worth supporting.
@Zilla: As far as the campaign contributions issue (which was an interesting post over at passion's - here's the link), I can't say that I'm particularly bothered by celebrities not giving money to the candidates that they support in public. The Democrats and Republicans receive, and spend, such a ridiculous amount of money as it is for Presidential campaigns that one celebrity's maximum campaign contribution is just a drop in the bucket. Far more effective would be for a celebrity to instead use that same money to support an organization that's actively working towards whatever goals the celebrity is interested in, rather than just throwing a few more dollars towards a candidate that they can only hope will one day work toward that goal if elected. Of course, I don't expect most rappers are doing either with their money, so yes, I can see how the act of not contributing to Obama's campaign is just one more indicator that their political support is only given because it's the current trend to follow.
(If a celebrity were endorsing an independent candidate, that's a different story. I would say that their campaign contributions actually would make a difference in that case, as independent parties generally only have a fraction of the funding that the two major parties receive. But other than Prodigy, I didn't see any rapper coming out in support of a third party, so I suppose that's a moot point.)
(I think that's the link you're talking about, let me know if it's not.)
I don't entirely agree with Mumia's thoughts on Obama's campaign. The demographics of this country are such that the only way to get a majority of the vote is to run the "post-racial" campaign that Mumia refers to, so I can't entirely fault Obama for that. I will agree with Mumia, however, on the idea that Obama won't be much different than any other Democrat once he takes over.
11/10/2008 8:16:18 AM posted by fresh
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