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All This from Hip-Hop

A Johns Hopkins political scientist muses on rap music's role in Barack Obama's historic election.

By Lester Spence

Opening photo by Lester Spence On January 20, 2009, at 4:30 a.m., with three close friends and my oldest daughter, I was at the Mall in Washington, D.C. We had traveled from Baltimore on only three hours of sleep to see Barack Obama inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. That morning, the five of us stood in the bitter cold for several hours, waiting for the sun to come up. Then waited hours more for the ceremony. I had never attended an inauguration before. I had never even watched one on television. But this was too important to pass up. More people were on the Mall for Obama's inauguration than for any other event in Washington's history. And I've seen pictures of people watching the ceremony in places as far away as Kenya and the Middle East. This reflects a belief that Obama represents the best hope for political change, particularly given the current economic crisis. And the significance of Obama's election for racial politics is undeniable. No other industrialized nation has ever elected a member of its most subjugated racial minority to its highest office.

And this fact raises a critical question: What confluence of events made Obama's election (and his wide margin of victory) possible?

As a scholar of American politics, I can point to traditional political factors. For the majority of the last eight years, the Republican Party has controlled the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. And those eight years have been remarkably bad for America, domestically and internationally. Given the record of GOP control during these years (think Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, the current housing crisis), it was easy for voters to vote retrospectively, to look at the past eight years as representative of GOP control and vote another way.

But this only explains the ascendance of the Democratic Party, not the ascendance of Barack Obama.

It bears repeating: Not only had the United States never elected as president a man not defined as "white" by the census, but no other industrialized nation had ever done anything close. What explains Obama's election? Why, for the first time, did people feel comfortable casting a vote for a black man with the middle name of Hussein?

Why, for the first time, did people feel comfortable casting a vote for a black man with the middle name of Hussein?
We could turn to the standard answers. Perhaps campaign commercials painting his opponent, Senator John McCain, as out of touch did it. Perhaps voters saw McCain during the debate and were loath to cast a ballot for someone they perceived to be too old for the job. Perhaps the money that Obama raised simply overpowered his opponent. But each of these standard answers misses something. Why was Obama able to raise so much money given his race? What happened to give white voters the ability to ignore Obama's race in the debates?

Our ideas about candidates and about politics are shaped by what we see and hear on the Sunday morning talk shows, in the newspaper, on the local news, in political discussions with our friends. But I would also argue that our ideas about politics and about candidates are also shaped by other sources of information. By novels. By Web blogs. In this case, I believe that the production, circulation, and consumption of hip-hop looms large.

I grew up on rap and hip-hop. I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard "Rapper's Delight," the first rap single to get national airplay. The song was almost 15 minutes long, yet I memorized it. Hip-hop (which includes rap, but also DJing, graffiti, and break dancing) was like the air I breathed. For me, growing up in the 1980s, hip-hop was about young, urban, working-class black people (mostly males) speaking their truths to other young, urban, working-class black people. But now hip-hop has become much more than that, much more than a "black thing," coming not only to national but international prominence when some thought it a passing fad.

Around the world MCs are rhyming in English, in German, in French, in Arabic, in Swahili, in Japanese, using the raw components of rap (two turntables and a microphone) to speak to their own conditions. At the inauguration, the Jumbotron showed scenes of the seated crowd, the VIPs. There were politicians, foreign dignitaries, movie directors (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg), and pop singers (Sting). But from where I was standing, the largest cheers went up for Shawn Carter (also known as JayZ) and Sean Combs (also known as Puff Daddy), two of rap's biggest figures.

Rap and hip-hop have long worked in black communities as sometimes crass and misogynistic entertainment but also as a source of information. Black youth consumers of rap music in the early 1990s were more likely to express support for the tenets of black nationalism than those not consuming rap. Similarly, black St. Louis youth who favored rap music were far more likely than other youth to be critical of the police. And my own research has found that black suburban youths exposed to hip-hop videos are far less likely to believe their neighborhoods are beset with the same problems that urban ones are. And this connection exists in part because rap music itself communicates information about urban space and about black identity. As hip-hop crossed over to the mainstream, not only did it give nonblacks a glimpse of a heavily stylized and fictionalized black urban space. It also connected whites with that experience.

An example from the 2008 Democratic primary may be helpful here. Before the 2008 campaign began, most observers expected that Senator Hillary Clinton would become the Democrats' presidential candidate. She had already amassed a significant war chest, and she had the most name recognition of anyone among the likely candidates. When Obama entered the race, most thought he would be unable to overcome white reluctance to vote for a black man. After the Iowa caucus, it became clear that Obama was a legitimate candidate. Clinton had to change her tactics. One of her new critiques was that Obama was an elitist, out of touch. He was a candidate that the regular citizen (read: white, middle class) could not relate to. Obama would do well with minority and urban voters, but there was no way — so went the argument — that he would be able to speak to middle America. (The Republican Party and conservatives in general have used this critique over the last few elections with a great deal of success. George W. Bush, for example, was able to beat John Kerry in 2004 in part because Kerry had been successfully painted as being a member of the Northeastern blue-blooded elite.)

Author Lester Spence: "In this case, I believe the production, circulation, and consumption of hip-hop looms large."

When Clinton used this line of attack against Obama, she gained a great deal of traction and cut into Obama's lead. Media pundits and political analysts thought that Obama's campaign would falter if he did not figure out how to respond. And Obama did. On April 17, the day after Clinton and Obama debated one another in North Carolina, Barack Obama held a packed town hall meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. Talking about the media, and Clinton's propensity to paint her opponent as out of touch with regular Americans, Obama said the following:

"[The media] likes stirring up controversy . . . getting us to attack each other. And I've got to say, Senator Clinton looked in her element. She . . . was taking every opportunity to get a dig in there. . . . That's her right, to kind of twist the knife a little bit. Look, I understand that because that's the textbook Washington game. That's how our politics has . . . been played. That's the lesson she learned when the Republicans were doing the same thing to her back in the 1990s. So I understand it, and when you're running for the presidency you've got to expect it, and you've just gotta kinda let it — "

And here Obama coolly brushed off one shoulder, then the other.

By placing Clinton's attack within a much broader critique of "politics as usual," Obama deftly categorized Clinton's comments as part of the very problem he was attempting to fight and replace. But in words, Obama criticized Clinton's practices without offering an alternative. Instead of articulating a response, Obama simply brushed his shoulders off. Yet when he performed this gesture, the crowd — which from video appears to have been racially mixed and age-diverse as well — went wild. They understood its meaning in the context of Obama's speech. More to the point, they at least appeared to have understood where Obama had gotten the gesture.

In 2008, one of the most popular singles was "Brush Your Shoulders Off" by JayZ:

If you feelin like a pimp, go on brush your shoulders
Ladies is pimps too, go on brush your shoulders off
People are crazy baby, don't forget that boy told you
Get, that, dirt off your shoulder

In the song's video, every time the hook is played, JayZ can be seen brushing his shoulders off in the same manner as Obama. For JayZ, the song and the gesture were about taking the worst of what life presented and simply letting it roll off, not letting it move you away from your goals, from your mission. Obama could have tried in his speech to argue that he really was connected to "regular" Americans, that he wasn't an elitist. He could have noted that he was elected to the Senate by both urban and rural voters, that he supported causes that would help both Chicago and downstate Illinois. But this retort would likely have fallen on deaf ears, and given that Obama does not look like he could speak to rural communities, it would have fallen on blind eyes, too. Obama understood this. Instead of arguing that he was connected to real American constituencies, instead of arguing that he was in fact more attuned to the needs and wants of Americans than Clinton and the other candidates, he literally performed it.

Obama's gesture was a subtle signal to his constituency that he understood them. That he was authentic, legitimate.
After the speech, the Washington pundits weighed in. They were clueless almost to a man. They had no idea where Obama's gesture had come from. To them it was further proof of his elitism. Only later, after white and black bloggers chimed in, did they realize the source of the gesture. Here Obama secured another victory. Because they had no idea that Obama's gesture came from hip-hop, they, too, showed how out of touch they were. This further enhanced Obama's cachet. No other candidate could have pulled this off.

Were we to boil the duties of elected officials down to one word, that word would be "represent." "Representing" is a fundamental component of hip-hop as well. Rap MCs and break-dancing crews represent their neighborhoods and their cities, graffiti taggers represent themselves, all in an effort to express not just affinity but authenticity. Obama's gesture was a subtle signal to his constituency that he understood them and their issues. That he was authentic, legitimate. The gesture was quickly picked up by rap MCs, DJs, and graffiti artists. (The picture that accompanies this story was taken near one of the Washington, D.C., Metro stops and is one of literally thousands of graffiti dedicated to Obama scattered across the country.) Politically conscious rap MCs like Kanye West, Talbi Kweli, and Common have name-checked Obama in their raps. In the same way that national politicians routinely change their accent depending on where they are speaking, Obama used the gesture to indicate his connection with American communities. Not African-American communities — American communities. And although perhaps 10 years ago such a gesture might have been used only with (young) African-American audiences, with the explosion of hip-hop both nationally and globally, Obama could use such a gesture to speak to urban and rural America simultaneously.

Photo by Lester Spence Although African Americans turned out and voted for Obama in large numbers, they expressed two concerns about his campaign. Early on, understanding how his run would at least symbolically threaten America's racial regime, some were fearful that someone would assassinate Obama either during the campaign or after he was elected. Older African Americans with direct experience with Jim Crow-era racism were particularly affected here. After blacks realized that he had a real shot at victory, some wondered whether he would really support "black" interests. Although the question of whether Obama was really "black" was a non-starter in black communities — seeing his (black) wife and children quickly put to rest those claims — some did wonder whether Obama would be invested in dealing with the issues of poverty and discrimination that concern many African Americans, particularly during the current economic crisis.

One of the most interesting attempts to wrestle with these concerns was a hip-hop song, Nas' "Black President":

What's the black pres. thinkin' on election night?
Is it how can I protect my life?
Protect my wife?
Protect my rights?
... 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
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?
Nas wonders aloud whether Obama himself is thinking about the possibility he may be assassinated. He fuses Obama's thoughts about protecting his own life (and that of his family) with Nas' thoughts about his own rights. I referred to Obama's authenticity above. As an MC, Nas takes his concern with authenticity ("will he keep it way real?") and goes beyond the symbolic by wondering whether Obama will truly represent the political interests of African Americans, defined here as being interested in dealing with the horrific effects of the prison-industrial complex. Rap was used not only by Obama to establish and cement his political stance as, on the one hand, an outsider (compared to other Washington, D.C., politicians), and on the other a political intimate (of urban, suburban, and rural constituencies). It was, and still is, used by people outside of traditional politics to speak to his potential.

In 2004, Sean Combs held a "White Party" — all guests were required to wear white from head to toe — at his estate in the Hamptons. At the party he toted an actual copy of the Declaration of Independence that he borrowed from television producer Norman Lear. He used the event (and the borrowed copy of the Declaration) to announce the formation of a political group "Citizen Change." His goal was to use rap to organize young voters. I don't think that Combs had any clue that just four years later he would see a black man sworn in as president. And I don't think that 40 years ago, when black and Puerto Rican youth created what we now know as hip-hop, they thought someday it would span the globe and be used as a tool of empowerment, resistance, and political accommodation. But thinking back on Obama's campaign, on his election, and on contemporary black and American politics, all I can think of is this snippet from Lauryn Hill's speech, given several years ago when she was awarded a Grammy for the groundbreaking The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: "All this, from hip-hop."

Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. His book Stare in the Darkness: Rap, Hip-Hop, and Black Politics will be released in 2010. He is currently working on a book examining neoliberalism in black politics.

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