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Obama's Honeymoon With Hip-Hop Is Over

At a pre-inaugural party three nights ago, rapper Lupe Fiasco lived up to his reputation for stirring controversy when he played an extended, 30-minute version of his anti-Obama track “Words I Never Said.” For this, he was thrown off the stage by security guards. It’s unclear whether Fiasco was booted for repeating the song’s lyrics ad nauseam or for what StartUp RockOn, the concert’s organizer, described in an official statement as a “bizarrely repetitive, jarring performance.” The debacle raises legitimate questions about the wisdom of hiring a politically charged rapper, who routinely bashes Obama, to perform at a party in honor of Obama. But more important are the questions it raises about Obama’s relationship with hip-hop itself, which has gone downhill over the last four years.

During the 2008 campaign, many declared that Obama would be America’s first “hip-hop president,” and not simply because of his race. Whereas previous presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, treated hip-hop as politically radioactive (remember Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment”), Obama was eager to embrace it. Betting that he could energize young voters with his hip-hop credentials, he encouraged artists like Jay-Z and Diddy to campaign for him, even perform at campaign events, and he told interviewers about his love of, and appreciation for, hip-hop—at times even singling out performers such as the Fugees, Kanye West, and Jay-Z.

The hip-hop community responded. Although the genre is rooted in antipathy toward the political establishment, and American presidents in particular, rappers lined up in support of the man they hoped would be the first black president. A number of performers—including Busta Rhymes, Young Jeezy, and Nas—indicated that they would cast their first votes in a presidential election, ever, for Obama. And far more drew upon his rhetoric of hope and change in their songs, releasing a barrage of records and mixtapes inspired by Obama’s campaign, including major tracks such as Nas’s “Black President” and Young Jeezy’s anthem “My President.” Fittingly, when Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, Diddy, Jay-Z, and Beyonce had some of the most coveted seats available.

Jay-Z and Beyonce—stalwart supporters (and fundraisers) throughout the 2012 race—were in attendance again at Monday's inauguration, but the love for (and from) hip-hop hasn’t been the same. Although he said in a 2008 interview that he saw a place for hip-hop in the national dialogue, his engagement with it has largely consisted of slips and quips—calling Kanye West a “jackass” for interrupting Taylor Swift at the Grammy’s, joking at the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner that he sings Young Jeezy to Michelle, revisiting the Kanye remark, and so forth. Yes, he has maintained a close relationship with Jay-Z, self-proclaimed hip-hop royalty, but perhaps more telling was his 29-song campaign playlist for 2012: It didn’t have a single rap song on it. This year’s inaugural playlist is revealing as well; while it does have songs by Nick Cannon and the Far East Movement that would qualify as rap, these aren’t exactly the names you’d expect from the man who claimed to “love” hip hop. 

As I argued in an article for The Guardian last summer, many rappers haven’t been feeling the love either. Some, like Immortal Technique and dead prez, have been critical of Obama from the beginning, as has Lupe Fiasco, who became Obama’s most high-profile critic in the hip-hop community. The song that got him yanked offstage this week, “Words I Never Said,” includes the incendiary line “Gaza Strip was getting bombed / Obama didn't say shit / That's why I ain't vote for him.” In subsequent interviews, he doubled down on his criticism, at one point saying, “To me, the biggest terrorist is Obama in the United States of America” and at another describing Obama as “someone who is a great speaker, but kills little children.” Not exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to tone it down at a pre-inaugural concert.

Other rappers have been far more ambivalent in their support. Speech, of Arrested Development, supported Obama in 2008, but came out for Ron Paul in 2011, saying he’d become disillusioned with Obama. But then, as the election approached, Speech hopped back on the bandwagon, taking to social media in support of the president and encouraging others to vote for him. Killer Mike came out in support of Obama in 2008, but on R.A.P. Music, one of the best albums of 2012, he went on the attack. On the song “Reagan,” he characterizes Obama as “just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters" and goes on to compare his foreign policy to the Gipper’s. Yet, even as that song was raising eyebrows across the country, Mike was insisting in interviews that he wanted Obama to win reelection, going so far as to claim that black voters would sell out their race if they didn’t support him in 2012: “If you don't vote for Obama this time you're a fuckin' race traitor,” he said.

The list of mixed signals goes on. The pro-Obama anthems and interview shout-outs of 2008 have been replaced by a much more complex tension. In 2013, things appear headed in the same direction, not only with Lupe’s on-stage antics, but also Big Boi’s recent statement that although he thinks the president “is a nice guy,” he voted for Gary Johnson.

To some extent, all of this was predictable. Whereas in 2008, Obama was on the verge of becoming America’s first black president, by 2012 he had become part of the mainstream political establishment—something hip-hop has always been more comfortable attacking than endorsing. Obama’s record after four years also opened him up to criticism. He appeared to distance himself from the hip-hop community, perhaps viewing it as a liability after the ascent of the Tea Party, but more important was his lack of attention to the pressing concerns facing black America generally. Hip-hop author and activist Bakari Kitwana, whose organization Rap Sessions in 2012 conducted numerous town halls on hip-hop and the youth vote, put it to me simply: “We need candidates who can really be responsive to our issues. Obama demonstrated in his first term that he’s not that candidate, and I’m not expecting that that’s going to change.” Fredrick Harris, a Columbia Professor of Political Science, made a similar point over the weekend, noting that Obama “has spoken less about poverty and race than any Democratic president in a generation.” This, combined with a foreign policy that liberals would be howling about if a Republican were in office, has left some members of the hip-hop community with doubts. And if rap music is, as Chuck D once said, “the black CNN,” then rappers have a responsibility to call it like they see it, regardless of who’s in office.

Barring some significant shifts in policy over Obama’s second term, this fraying relationship isn’t likely to be mended. But for Kitwana, there is hope to be found in hip-hop activism. “At a grassroots activist level, I think there were more young activists who used hip-hop to engage their constituents in 2012 than in 2008,” he says. “There were not only more people participating, but there was a more sophisticated approach to organizing.” Yes, Lupe Fiasco and others may be dissatisfied with the president’s first term, but the broader role of hip-hop in politics, Kitwana says, is bigger than the president: “The Obama administration is just a blip on the radar screen of a long journey that we’re engaged in, and I think people who are really serious about the role hip-hop political organizing can play in electoral politics are looking past the Obama years to 2016, 2020, and beyond.”

In the meantime, we may begin to hear more voices of dissent from within the hip-hop community. Everyone understands that a president’s first term is largely about securing a second, but now that Obama has done that, it’s time for him to start delivering to the constituencies that were instrumental in getting him elected.  If he doesn’t, expect more rappers to echo the disappointment in the Blue Scholars’s 2011 song “Hussein”—about Obama, not Saddam—which opens, “This ain’t the hope or the change you imagined.”