It’s fairly safe to say that Hip Hop’s political involvement has changed drastically since GZA flippantly dismissed 1984 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro saying, “The hoe didn’t win / But the sun'll stll come out tomorrow...” on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Clan In Da Front.” During the last two elections we’ve seen Questlove of The Roots campaigning for Barack Obama at the most grassroots level, while Jay-Z and Beyonce have hosted a $40,000 per seat dinner for the Commander-In-Chief. But we’ve also seen Lupe Fiasco call the President “the biggest terrorist” while Ab-Soul called him “just a puppet.” You can make an argument that we’re in the midst of one of the most highly politicized eras in American history.
The dynamic of the conversation has changed, yet it seems, at least anecdotally judging by sheer volume, not as many emcees are interested in the 2012 election. Have we essentially traded quantity for quality over the last few election cycles? Instead of just blanket endorsements from rappers giddy at the possibility of having a black president, we now hear about drone strikes, mid-term elections and Israel versus Palestine. Moreover, this talk isn’t coming from the usual suspects like Chuck D and Talib Kweli—there’s a variety of commentary to choose from regardless of your political leanings.
As more and more rappers both throw and quietly remove the fitted hats from the political arena, we ponder Hip Hop’s impact and interest in the 2012 Presidential Election. On board are Rob “Biko” Baker, the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters and frequent HipHopDX contributor, Ronald Grant.
HipHopDX: According to data provided by the US Census, African-Americans among the coveted 18-24-year-old age demographic voted in record numbers during the 2008 election. But the last election also saw a number of Hip Hop artists—at least on the most basic level—get involved in the political process. What was the appeal?
Biko: We also saw record numbers in 2010. Between our phones, Twitter and so many other ways young, black people are more connected than ever. For some that allows us to be more informed. And if you look at the average Hip Hop artist, they’re young, black men also. So in addition to that sense of connectivity, there’s a tremendous amount of influence.
Ronald: It was such an interesting thing to see so many Hip Hop artists in support of Obama in 2008, though they seemed to have little to no interest in the election or political process until then. I hate to say it, but I believe the main reason this happened was because voting for Barack Obama in 2008 was basically the trendy thing to do. This seemed true among so many populations, but especially young people, first-time voters, college students, and urban professionals. Hip Hop fits into all of these molds. People from each of those walks of life have listened to and lived Hip Hop for a while now. So in a sense, the Obama campaign may have inadvertently lit a fire among Hip Hop by targeting the youth vote so heavily four years ago. I believe another main reason that artists in 2008 were riding so hard is two-fold: it’s something that is billed as extremely important yet is fairly easy to do And it was also branded incredibly well. Hip Hop has always had a history of falling in line with slick, masterful marketing. The Obama juggernaut from 2008 probably made both Hip Hop artists and fans feel they were part of something historic but still modern and cosmopolitan. It managed all this while neatly packaged with a bright, red, white and blue Obama sticker.
Where Are They Now?
“[President Obama] told us this was gonna happen. The one thing that I learned on the campaign trail was that 80 percent of Americans think the political process is a hierarchy: ‘Why won’t he just wave his magic wand and make it happen?’ I’m like, ‘Are you going to vote in the midterm election?’ and they’re like, ‘Nah.’ And I’m like, ‘You do understand that the only way those ideas are going to come to fruition is through the Congress?’” –Questlove, Mother Jones interview.
DX: Where did all these artists disappear to in 2012?
Biko: Certain artists thought it was cool to be political, and there were some artists that thought it was just cool to be cool. Obama’s campaign was based on these concepts of hope and change. And if you look at the recession, unemployment and a lot of other factors, it’s understandable why some people don’t feel that same sense of hope going into this election.
Ronald: I personally didn’t see as many Hip Hop artists in such strong support for President Obama during this election cycle. I remember seeing a YouTube video of Bun B sporting an Obama T-Shirt and Diddy commenting on John McCain’s infamous “that one” debate debacle, among other examples. And even though artists like Snoop Dogg, T.I. and A$AP Rocky have come out in support of Obama in 2012, it did seem that the general energy of voting again this year just wasn’t the same among Hip Hop artists. I’d probably go back to the idea of voting for Obama being the trendy thing in 2008, and four years later, it’s not. I’d attribute that to general apathy amongst both these artists and the public at large as to why we’re not quite seeing the levels of support we originally did. And on top of that, the job of emcees is to be just that…emcees, not political leaders. So maybe this disappearing act is something we should have seen coming on the part of major Hip Hop artists.
Hip Hop's New Age Political Dissent
“You might get killed if you don’t listen enough / Well I guess I’m dead / ‘Cause I ain’t listen to Puff / Best believe our system it sucks / And a person like me don’t believe in assisting in such / Nah I be rippin’ ‘em up / But for every pond there’s different ducks / I believe if you participate at a lower level / You can get a lot more things done / Like working with the alderman / But I ain’t alterin’ this song to be a political statement / Let’s take it back to the basement…” –Lupe Fiasco, “Outty 5,000”
HipHopDX: Given all of the recent voter registration problems, and what happened in the 2000 election, do artists like Lupe who don’t participate in the presidential election have valid complaints?
Omar: Absolutely. People love to throw around that cliché about how those that don’t vote don’t get the right to complain, but to me, that’s 100% bullshit. If you’re a taxpaying American citizen, you can criticize your elected officials all you want as long as it’s not libelous. It should be noted that the emcees mentioned above are addressing separate issues. dead.prez and Kendrick Lamar are by-and-large talking about either abstaining from or withdrawal as a form of protest from what they feel is a fundamentally flawed political process. Generally speaking, they haven’t necessarily gone on record telling other people not to vote. And given that the popular vote does not determine the election, K-Dot and dead.prez aren’t harming anything in my opinion. Lupe’s situation is a bit more complex. Based on his previous support of Rhymefest’s Alderman bid, it appears he supports the election process on at least a local level. His stance on the presidential election has been pretty consistent.
Biko: No. Looking back over our country's history dating back to 1824, there have only been four elections in which the candidate who received a greater number of electoral votes won the presidency, even though he didn’t win the popular vote. Those four elections that didn't match up were won by Presidents John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and more recently George W. Bush.
You’ve got Al Gore—one of the people most infamously associated with the [seldom] discrepancy between the popular and electoral vote—campaigning for either an end to or a reform of the Electoral College. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan. I’m from Wisconsin. And everyone knows that touchdown call in the infamous Monday night game [this season with the replacement referees] against Seattle was bogus. It wasn’t a catch. But, guess what? The Packers still had to take the field the next game and continue trying to make the playoffs and the Super Bowl. The same applies to voting and the electoral process.
Ronald: Their points aren’t necessarily valid, but definitely understandable. I’ll never personally encourage anyone to not vote. But there are many examples of questionable election results from the past, in particular the 2000 Presidential election with Florida and the “hanging chad” controversy that eventually gave Dubya the White House. It becomes more difficult to argue against those that have suspicions about the voting process. Couple that with what we currently have going on with the wave of potential voter suppression/voter ID laws that seem to target the poor, the elderly, college students and people of color, and that suspicion grows. But the main beef I think artists like Lupe, Kendrick, Stic.Man and M1 have is with the electoral process as a whole. With the Electoral College, the media circus that surrounds Presidential elections and the general ideal that government, corporate America and the mainstream media all work together and under the cover of darkness, there may be at least some justification towards the cynicism that these and other artists have expressed.
My President Is Black
“I think it’s important that Hip Hop not understate its role. I’ve always viewed Hip Hop, because it was organized for young people by young people as an alternative to violence, as more than music but actually the extension of civil rights. Because of that, Hip Hop has brought, for 35 years, people black, white, Asian, Latin together under the muse of music. And it has grown a generation of people who are so accustomed to being around one another that slowly certain myths [about one another] began to fall. So I think Hip Hop has a significant slice [of credit for Obamas victory] because Hip Hop exposed us to one another before politics did. Hip Hop has done wonders in terms of breaking down the false walls of racial differences in this country. It’s brought us in big part to this point. Thank God for the art form of Hip Hop.” –Killer Mike, exclusive HipHopDX interview.
DX: How much weight do celebrity endorsements—particularly those from Hip Hop artists—carry?
Ronald: The bigger question to ask here is should celebrity endorsements—particularly those from Hip Hop artists—carry so much weight in a presidential election? The reality is that celebrity endorsements of politicians have always held a lot of stock, because everyday people have a tendency to do what celebrities do. Voting is no exception. In terms of the 2008 election, there were so many artists, Hip Hop and otherwise, that came out in support of Barack Obama. And Hip Hop from all corners and all sub genres were in strong support, from will.i.am (with his remixed Obama speech music video featuring lots of famous faces) to Bun B, Jay-Z and Diddy. I won’t go as far as to say that Hip Hop won the election for Obama in 2008, but I definitely would say that when fans of Hip Hop music and culture saw an artist they could relate to in support of one of the major candidates, it may have swayed them to pull the lever for him.
But should this be the case? It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, these artists probably did drive more potential voters from the Hip Hop and post-Hip Hop generations to the polls and did a masterful job at doing so. But on the other, it also shows that such a major decision such as which candidate to hire for the highest office of the land can be influenced by the ideal of, “Well, if so-and-so can vote for Obama, I will too.” And that’s troubling.
The Choice Is Yours
Ultimately, all three participants agree that the amount of political discourse Hip Hop has generated this election cycle is both great for the state of politics as well as Hip Hop.
“I was on a panel with Lupe Fiasco, and he expressed his thoughts on the president and the election,” Baker explained. “We didn’t get to chop it up. But his opinion comes from an informed place. And Kendrick has backed off from his initial statements somewhat. I think all of the discussion is dope. I can respect them on a certain level. And when November 6, comes, I’m going to be casting my vote.”
With all due respect to Young Jeezy, more specific and narrowly tailored debate and less “My president is black / My Lambo is blue…” talk probably benefits everyone involved in the political process this time around. More information and a livelier cliamate for debate can never be a bad thing. When the votes are tallied on November 6, it will be interesting to see both fans and artists alike weigh in regardless of the results. If the last few elections have taught us anything, it is that we most likely won’t see any wholesale changes to the election process in the near future. That essentially leaves the two choices of participating in and trying to change an admittedly flawed system from the inside or abstaining from the process.
***This article has been revised to reflect the following correction***
Correction: October 19, 2012
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the four elections during which the electoral vote has not matched the popular vote.
Rob “Biko” Baker is the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters. You can follow him on Twitter at @bikobaker and learn more about the League of Young Voter’s efforts to educate and empower young voters at http://www.theleague.com/splash.
Ron Grant is a freelance writer originally from Detroit and currently residing in Orlando. He has contributed writings to BrooklynBodega.com, PNCRadio.fm and runs two independent music blogs. Follow him on Twitter @RonGreezy.