Rhyme & Reason: Hip Hop's Curious Relationship With President Barack Obama
Through the first four years some rappers have publicly supported President Obama and his position on issues, others have found reason to be critical of the man in office.
Inauguration 2013. A sunny day at the Capital with between 600,000 and 800,000 people on hand to see Barack Obama sworn-in for a second term as President of the United States.
Michelle, Malia and Sasha. Present. Historical déjà vu. Check. Lots of conversation, flashing cameras and conversation. Check. Extra (hopefully) tight security around the area. Check. Rap stars exhibiting national pride…some.
As Americans prepare to officially usher in the second phase of the Obama Era, the Hip Hop community is picking up the pieces of a strained relationship with the leader of the free world.
More than two months after President Obama was re-elected to serve another four years, the nation he vowed to unify and change is more divided than ever. Elected officials continue to play a game of chicken to see which one will remain loyal to the real puppeteers pulling their strings. The public at large continues to be less than pleased with how things are going regarding their chances of finding a job, buying and keeping their home without the threat of foreclosure and just being able to put food on the table without paying an arm and a leg.
Through it all, emcees have offered their unique commentary on the state of union in their respective locales. Some in favor of Obama and his administration. Some in dislike over the way the President does or does not handle his country’s business.
Speaking at a recent University of Michigan event, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke touted the economy’s upswing with continuing consumer optimism and a strengthening housing market. Despite the positive look, The Detroit News reports Bernanke as saying that the threat of a debt-ceiling default and excessive spending cuts threaten the economy’s slow recovery.
Consistent arguing in Washington coupled with unemployment rates decreasing at a snail’s pace has been a constant cause for concern. Figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show that unemployment closed out 2012 at 7.8% for December. The department notes the rate has been at or near that number since September as December counts 12.2 million unemployed people for that month.
Consumer spending fared no better, according to 2010 data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE). The effects of a sluggish economy carried over strong in that year, despite the end of the recession in 2009. Transportation and healthcare increased while food, housing, apparel and services, entertainment and personal insurance and pensions decreased.
High unemployment (more than 9.4% throughout 2010) resulted in less income earned by ordinary Joes and Jills, who were making less trips to spend their money. Overall, a glaring lack of consumer confidence arrived courtesy of the recession, in addition to declining sales of new and existing homes. A grim conclusion for homeowners as a record 2.9 million U.S. properties were foreclosed.
Four years before now…
In the Hip Hop landscape, a good number of rappers stood united in support of then-senator Obama's efforts to attain the highest office in the land.
What a difference one term makes.
The support may be there, but the Commander-in-Chief has picked up quite a few critics from emcees who joined the rest of America in saying "Yes We Can." The question is: Has "Yes We Can" turned in to "Not So Fast" as far as Hip Hop's love for America's first Black President?
Co-signers, Name-Droppers & The Barack Obama Inspired Rap Song
Stakes have never been higher in this day and time. Nevertheless, support for Obama has never been a question in the eyes of various rappers. The pride of seeing Obama's evolution from candidate to President was evident during his run for the White House as Jay-Z openly voiced his support of Obama by organizing fundraisers and joining in the President's support of same sex marriage. A Jigga fan himself, Obama, admitted to listening to the Marcy Projects emcee and famously brushed the dirt off his shoulders during a campaign stop in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Musically, President Obama inspired what could be interpreted as a "movement" of his own within Hip Hop circles both underground and mainstream. From Joell Ortiz's heartfelt "Letter To Obama" rapping ("It's time for a change and the change is Obama.") to Nas' "Black President" ("On the positive side, I think Obama provides hope and challenges the minds of all races and color to erase the hate.") to Young Jeezy’s "My President Is Black," also featuring God’s Son, with the host's verse claiming (“Tell him: "I'm doing fine." Obama for mankind / We ready for damn change so y'all let the man shine”) and Nas adding (“Gotta stay true to who you are and where you came from / 'Cause at the top will be the same place you hang from / No matter how big you can ever be / For whatever fee or publicity, never lose your integrity…Mr. Black President, yo Obama, for real / They gotta put your face on the 5,000 dollar bill”), it was plain to see that Obama's street cred was secure.
Still unsure? Take a look at DJ Drama, who christened himself after the politician with the name Barack O'Drama and Slaughterhouse's Crooked I, who titled his 2008 mixtape Block Obama: Hood Politics.
One of the most noteworthy displays of Obama support came courtesy of will.i.am, with his 2008 music video for the song "Yes We Can." The clip not only featured the Black Eyed Peas member, but a host of celebrity co-signers who stood proud and tall with their Obama pride. Prior to Hip Hop's widespread support, Common provided one of the first shout-outs to Obama with a mention in his song "The People" ("Standing in front of the judge with no honor / My raps unite the people like Obama"') as well as an appearance on Jadakiss' "Why" remix.
With additional mentions from Kidz In The Hall’s "Work To Do” remix ("Critics say we can't, but Barack says we can.") and Jin’s “Open Letter To Obama" ("Red states, blue states, that’s kinda late/In your eyes, it's only the United States"), being political was cool.
Years after Tupac Shakur proclaimed, "Although it seems heaven sent, we ain't ready to see a Black President" on “Changes," it looked like Hip Hop and many other Americans were indeed ready and willing to put a Black man in the White House.
Nevertheless, the sea of support has given way to waves of doubt and criticism from the very community that played a vital role in carrying him to the highest office in the land.
Critics, Conspiracy Theorists & The Anti-Obama Rap Song
Two years before now…
While Obama's first term is filled with notable accomplishments (the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) a/k/a "Obamacare," the bail-out of the Auto Industry, the passage of the Lillie Ledbetter Act, the killing of Osama Bin Laden), there were just as many faults and criticisms leveled at him for his style of government.
Despite sharing the same hometown, there seems to be no love lost between Obama and his fellow Chicagoan, Lupe Fiasco. Years before this weekend's controversial on stage comments criticizing President Obama during Inauguration Weekend in Washington D.C., the Chi-town spitter expressed some strong disapproval. Regarded as one of Hip Hop’s more conscious voices, Lu' made no qualms about how he felt as he labeled Obama as "the biggest terrorist" in America during an older interview with CBS' What's Trending. Speaking on Philadelphia’s Power 99, Fiasco came out again against the top-ranking Democrat, this time attacking the Obama administration’s foreign policy by labeling Obama as "someone who is a great speaker, but kills little children."
Outside of interviews, Fiasco's view of Obama is found on the prime real estate of hit single "Words I Never Said." The 2011 Lasers track sums up the rapper’s philosophical difference of opinion, "Gaza Strip was getting bombed / Obama didn't say shit / That's why I ain't vote for him."
Echoing Fiasco's disapproval of Obama and his military policies was Killer Mike, who compared the current President to former President Ronald Reagan in the song "Reagan."
“Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor / Just an employee of the country's real masters / Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama / Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters,” the Dungeon Family alum stated on 2012's R.A.P. Music single. “If you don't believe the theory, then argue with this logic / Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Qaddafi / We invaded sovereign soil, going after oil Taking countries is a hobby / Paid for by the oil lobby / Same as in Iraq, and Afghanistan / And Ahmadinejad say they coming for Iran / They only love the rich, and how they loathe the poor / If I say any more they might be at my door.”
Ironically, Obama and Reagan’s paths indirectly crossed during Obama’s first term when he signed the New START Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia. The agreement, an extension of President Reagan’s START treaty, ensured a commitment from the United States and Russia over the next seven years to reduce their number of strategic nuclear warheads, long-range missiles and bombers.
Fiasco and Killer Mike are among the artists who have been less than thrilled over Obama and his handling of the country since taking office. Having critics is one thing. Having questionable support is another.
Although he backs the President, even Diddy threw darts at Obama when he told The Source “I love the President like most of us. I just want the President to do better” in the magazine’s February/March 2011 issue.
That same year, Russell Simmons blogged an open letter to Obama in The Huffington Post, encouraging him to not abandon the poor.
“As a passionate advocate of yours since I joined your campaign in 2008, there is something you need to hear: In trying to soar above party politics, you risk forgetting your most important commitment to inclusion and empowerment,” the Def Jam Records co-founder wrote in April 2011. “If you don't put the poor at the heart of your policies for the next two years, with the interests aligned in favor of the rich, too many of the middle class will join them in their suffering. That is the 'trickle up' of poverty that has impoverished nations with unfair concentrations of wealth at the top. That is what destroys great nations.”
Speech of the veteran Hip Hop collective Arrested Development initially supported Obama in 2008, but stated last year that he was "disillusioned" with the Commander-in-Chief and ended up supporting Ron Paul during the last Presidential election. Speech wasn’t the only rapper to join Team Paul. KRS-One and Mobb Deep's Prodigy were also in the former Presidential candidate’s corner. TheGrio.com noted in 2010 how the Blastmaster went so far as to tour in support of Paul and state “They put a Black face on the New World Order and now we all happy. KRS ain’t buying it,” when he appeared on a DVD titled The Obama Deception.
While he hasn't been openly affected by the criticism, Obama has reportedly commented on the actions of at least one Rap star. After famously interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye West not only felt the disapproval of many music lovers, but also the Head of State, who called the hit maker a "jack-ass" for ruining the Country music star's first VMA moment.
Ludacris may not have faced as much ridicule, but the ATL representative found himself in the political crosshairs in 2008 after releasing his own song supporting Obama. The only thing was Luda struck a nerve by calling Hilary Clinton a “bitch.” As a result, the tune was deemed “outrageously offensive” by the Obama campaign, which ultimately distanced itself from the entertainer who had recently posed side-by-side with the President for a picture.
Even Common couldn’t escape the naysayers who didn’t approve of Michelle Obama’s decision to have him perform poetry in September of last year.
"Do you understand how cool that is? Do you know how that feels? I came from the South Side of Chicago wanting to be a rap artist and make videos. And now the President is like, 'No, you still come to the White House. We got your back.' It's just incredible," Common told the Huffington Post, while breaking down the Obama Hip Hop connection. "He understands that Hip Hop is expression and about individuals. And I don't think he's an individual who's going to let what other people think of him change his perspective. And those are the type of people that I highly respect. The Hip Hop community is part of America, so the fact that he embraces it means he's embracing young America, Americans abroad and people in other places. I love that he cares."
While Common is regarded for being anything but a gangsta rapper, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin begged to differ. Mama Grizzly and Fox News (which, in one article, deemed Common “vile”) went in on the Rap star for his poem, titled "A Letter To The Law," which included the line, "Burn a Bush because for peace he don't push no button."
Needless to say, Obama and Palin aren’t the first politicians to denounce rappers. Ice-T, Sister Souljah and Tupac Shakur have each been criticized by past Presidents, Vice Presidents and their wives over music they found to be unacceptable.
The first term of any Presidency is a bit of a training ground for anybody who comes in to the job as they learn the ins and outs of their position without running into too many problems. Still, Obama's handling of the economy and his promise of change sparked common sentiments of disappointment, which carried over across the pond via British rapper Lowkey's tune "Obama Nation (Part II)” featuring M1. The dead prez emcee did not waste any time getting to the point on the track as he outright called Obama "a master of disguise, expert at telling lies."
The art of telling lies goes hand in hand with telling the truth for many politicians in the eyes of many people. No matter what side they stand, rappers are truly divided on Michelle’s husband.
Crossroadsters, Skeptics & The Obama Rationalists
While it's easy to blame Obama, there are those who have come to his defense. Particularly Kendrick Lamar, who told MTV News that people should rely more on themselves rather than place the blame for the nation's problems on one person.
"I think we tend to put it in the hands of higher powers, or higher politics, rather than doing for ourselves," the Compton lyricist stated. "When something don't go right in that world, you get people out here that want to blame Obama. I think that's corny."
Lamar’s words may sting the finger pointers, but the bottom line is he has a point. In a world where decisions are made everyday, the voting public decided to ride with what Immortal Technique deemed “the lesser of two evils” when giving their green light for Obama to enter his second term.
"People can tell me all day that Obama is a War President. He’s an individual who’s violated human rights of other people with drone strikes and whatnot, that he deported more people than [George W. Bush], which is true, all these things are potentially true,” the rapper said while airing his issues with Obama out in terms of his stance on the military and immigration.
Still, Obama’s victory isn’t enough for the underground rhymeslinger to change how he feels about Obama’s immigration and military policies.
“That doesn’t mean that I think Barack Obama is a savior or that I’m campaigning or even voting for him,” Tech told The Well Versed a few days before the 2012 Presidential election. “Don’t tell me simply because the food in front of me is rotten that the shit you got in the trunk of your car is better."
Plain and simple. That’s the way it goes. And the way it goes is that the prestige of being President isn’t an automatic pass to possessing absolute power.
“He’s the President of The United States, he has some power. But also, he has less power than some of the areas around him that have been in position,” Public Enemy frontman Chuck D relayed to HipHopDX. “See, he’s only in position for four to eight years. You’ve got power positions where people have been sitting in those positions for like 25 to 40 years…President Obama is sandwiched between a whole bunch of agendas that will propel him further and further away from the needs of the people. And when he first comes to the aid of the people it’s gonna come to the people who are ready and who are equipped, and people of color are not ready and we are not equipped to handle what comes down. We got to sometimes get out of the emotional handling of the matter and try to figure out what’s gonna actually be the realistic handling of the matter.”
Inauguration Day (And Everybody's Celebratin')
Everything is set. The only thing left is to experience the event itself. Although Obama was officially sworn-in yesterday (January 20) during a private ceremony, he will repeat the action today in a public setting. Celebrities and the Obama faithful - some near, some arriving from far away - are stationed among the many to catch as good a look at the swearing in as they can. And the rest of us are either making plans to watch the Inauguration on TV, enjoy the Martin Luther King holiday by honoring the man who advocated change before Obama or just carry on like business as usual.
To say that it will be an interesting final run for Obama is a no-brainer. He’s seemingly hit the ground fighting the opposition regarding the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling, a lot of back and forth with conservatives over gun control and a proposed ban on assault weapons after the rash of recent shootings and criticism over a lack of diversity in his cabinet.
“I think that President Obama has to be criticized, he has to be empathized with, protested against and he has to be voted for again, because we are his constituents and he owes us; but he only owes us what is on our agenda,” said Rhymefest during a 2010 interview with XXLMag.com. “… people fail to realize that you can criticize and support him. It’s our job as a people to let him know how he is doing and where to improve. We can’t act like everything’s good and things are still the same. It’s crazy because we [as a people] have mastered the art of Hip Hop, but have yet to master the art of lobbying.”
Like any President, Obama has his share of co-signers and critics. As long as there is a beat and a rapper with a pen and a pad, Hip Hop’s relationship with Head of State will remain double-sided.
Yes we can? Not so fast? Let the second wave wash into a new phase of rhyme and reason.
“ …we can have a million Barak Obamas and it not mean anything if your local judge is locking everyone up, or you alderman is leasing out your community to major corporations. I think that we need to learn and study politics to truly be informed so that we can make educated decisions regarding who we want to represent us as a people, because the President is a good start but it is the office with the least effect.”
Chris Richburg is a freelance journalist who resides in Rock Hill, South Carolina. In addition to HipHopDX.com, he has contributed to EURweb.com, AllHipHop.com, SphereofHipHop.com, Urban Hitz magazine and The Herald (Rock Hill), among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Qwest7.