Hip-hop speaks out for Obama

October 28, 2008

EVER SINCE Barack Obama became a serious contender for Democratic Party nomination, numerous rappers have lent their voices in support of his campaign. Since his nomination, the excitement has only increased.

Certainly, this is not the first time that hip-hop artists have encouraged their fans to vote. Rappers have been involved with MTV's "Rock the Vote" (a campaign to encourage young people to register to vote) since the 1990s. In 2004, rappers Sean "Diddy" Combs and 50 Cent led the "Vote or Die" campaign that was more specifically aimed at the hip-hop audience, but there damn sure weren't any hip-hop artists writing inspired anthems about John Kerry's candidacy.

The support for Obama among rappers is something entirely different, with multi-platinum artist Jay-Z doing free concerts for the Obama campaign in swings states like Florida, and rapper and music producer Kanye West actually doing a "remix" of Obama's Iowa victory speech set to soft hip-hop style background music. Also, there are numerous popular songs referencing, if not dedicated to, Obama.

Some of these are unfortunate examples, such as a random Obama reference on Three 6 Mafia's "Lolli Lolli Pop that Body" (dubbed "worst Obama reference ever" by one blogger) and Ludracris's "Obama Is Here," in which he refers to Hillary Clinton as a "bitch" (causing no little controversy for the Obama campaign, which quickly moved to denounce Ludacris).

There have also been thoughtful and nuanced Obama-related rap songs, one of the most notable being "Black President" by Nas. Nas is easily one of hip-hop's most brilliant orators, often painting himself as both street thug/gangster and Black revolutionary, while recognizing the contradictions of his own persona. In "Black President" Nas muses on what may follow an Obama victory:

KKK is like "what the fuck," loadin' they guns up
Loadin' mine too, ready to ride
Cause I'm ridin' with my crew
He dies--we die too
But on a positive side,
I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds
Of all races and colors to erase the hate
And try and love one another, so many political snakes
We in need of a break
I'm thinkin' I can trust this brotha
But will he keep it way real?
Every innocent nigga in jail gets out on appeal
When he wins--will he really care still?

In these few lines, Nas captures the gambit of fears, hopes and doubts that swirl together in the consciousness of many Obama supporters.

The new hit "Something's Gotta Give" from Outkast member Big Boi and R&B icon Mary J. Blige is a beautifully composed ode to the struggles of the poor and a call for social change that clearly presents Obama as solution, but also goes deeper. For the song's hook, Blige brings her legendary talents to bear, but this time, as a cry for change instead of tales of love and heartbreak:

They try to tell us to stay strong,
But every day we losing jobs
From College Park down to Beverly Hills.
Something's gonna have to give
Across the world they live in fear,
But it's the same thing over here.
If you can hear me on Capitol Hill,
Something's gonna have to give.

The video shows a homeless man and a struggling single mother who both find purpose (and apparently income) working on Obama's campaign. Obama as a solution is a big part of the message, but the video is also clearly promoting empowerment though self-activity.

Big Boi's lyrics are clever and class conscious throughout the song, with lines such as "You know the commonfolk, blue collar, day-to-day workers that squeeze a dollar/so maybe they can swallow a little, not a lot, just enough to fill that bottle/But it's a million dollars a gallon for gas to get to work tomorrow."

Later, Big Boi proposes that "Each one teach one/If you lend a helping hand/you may never need one." This call for solidarity is an example of the hopes and expectations Obama is creating, leading to raised consciousness that can transcend electoral politics.

Blige speaks to an issue that is crucial for the Black community when she sings "Out on parole with the promise that he'll do right/but a felon has no chance for a new start." But while Obama has conveniently ignored this issue and given us no reason to expect him to address institutionalized racism or reform of the prison system, Blige goes on to say "the only hope I have that helps me deal with the drama/is that maybe in November I'll be cheering for Obama."

Whatever their contradictions, socially conscious, progressive messages in mainstream hip-hop music are a very welcome development. Also, the message is often not one of blind faith in Obama, but a thoughtful and critical optimism.

Socialist Worker has written extensively on what Obama does and does not represent, and this article is not the place to expound further on it, but his response to the racist radio host Don Imus--well-known for referring to the young Black women of the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy headed ho's"--is worth mentioning for its relevance to hip-hop.

Don Imus was fired by CBS for the 2007 incident, but ironically, it was hip-hop culture that received much of the blame for his racist and sexist remarks. Obama contributed to this backlash when he commented, "If it's not good for Don Imus, I don't know why it's good for us. If we don't like other people to degrade us, why are we degrading ourselves?"

While criticizing sexism in hip-hop is an extremely important task, using it to change the subject away from white racism is misguided to say the least. By helping to shift the blame away from Imus and his ilk and onto misogynistic rappers, Obama followed in the Bill Cosby tradition of successful Black man giving credibility to an argument that ultimately blames the victim.

The challenge for socialists is to point out these issues in a principled way that moves the discussion about change forward, while not alienating or condescending to Obama supporters.
Zach Mason, Washington, D.C.

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