Is Obama Really the Hip-Hop President?



Young Jeezy's "My President" was the anthem of the 2008 presidential election. The song captured the enthusiasm of a gaggle of young Barack Obama supporters, and elevated Jeezy to semi-prophet status, as he recorded the track long before Obama emerged as the prohibitive favorite in the general election. Jeezy steps out of his lyrical comfort zone, highlighting the faults the Bush administration and calling attention to the economic collapse. Nas joins Jeezy for a guest verse, delivering incisive political criticism in line with much of his previous work. More than any other performance or commodity, the "My President" cemented the association between Obama and hip-hop.

Another factor contributing to the Obama/hip-hop association is the tendency to commoditize and sell blackness as the mark of trendiness: Obama is young, and he is black/biracial, and he plays basketball, and he charismatic, and that makes him cool. And if he is cool, he must be down with hip-hop, because hip-hop is cool too. We can actually hear this happening in Jeezy's "My President," with its chorus, "My President is black, my Lambo is blue." Obama's race is what makes him stylish—his color serves the same function as the car's paint job.

During his presidential campaign, Obama danced between the raindrops when the topic of hip-hop was raised, demonstrating pop cultural literacy without allowing himself to be cast as a representative of hip-hop culture. Despite "My President" and the fact that Obama's name continues to find its way into rap music, the president's public stance can be summed up in two basic statements, documented by legendary hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang. First, hip-hop deserves attention because it reflects and shapes reality, and we have to address the representations of sex and materialism that critics rightly object to. And second, though he might listen to rap on occasion, most of his "iPod probably is either jazz classics—Coltrane, Miles Davis—or it's got the songs of [his] youth." In other words, Obama is not deeply invested in hip-hop practice or identity.

For these reasons, those critical of the hip-hop/Obama connection have a right to be upset. We have to guard against the sloppy racial reasoning that fuels pop-cultural romanticism. But even though Obama does not claim a hip-hop identity, there are elements that both hip-hop and Obama share.

Hip-hop's coolness is more complicated than mere trendiness, and it cannot be described as coolness in the traditional sense—unflappability. Part of what makes hip-hop appealing is that performances often embody contradiction, allowing for the simultaneous expression of vulnerability and pride, and trumpeting countervailing beliefs and desires. The worst commercial hip-hop glorifies sexism and conspicuous consumption, but many of the most popular rappers give voice to the dissonance within each of us.

Obama's story fits within this paradigm, where exposing inner conflict is part and parcel of cool performance. In his two books, Dreams From My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama candidly discusses his struggle to reconcile his relationship with his absent father, arrive at a comfortable racial identity, accept Christianity, and manage his family life. He wept during a speech the day before the election, stricken with grief over his grandmother's death. Where governance is concerned, it used to be fashionable to scoff at Obama's penchant for considering multiple viewpoints at the same time, as liberals and conservatives alike chided him for trying to please too many people. But with the administration's recent bipartisan policy successes and his riveting, perfectly calibrated speech about the tragedy in Arizona, Obama's ability to speak more than one political language now enhances his glow.

This multiple subjectivity is everywhere in hip-hop—from Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac explaining why thugs cry, to Jay-Z's raps about "Big Pimpin'" and the pain of a fatherless childhood, to Kanye's self-loathing and naked arrogance, to Nas's "I Can" celebration of American individualism, delivered with heavy with black nationalist undertones. It is more than coincidence that Drake's cover art for Thank Me Later is a derivative of Shepard Fairey's iconic "HOPE" poster from the Obama campaign. First and foremost, the designers were looking to capitalize on a saleable and widely recognizable image from popular culture. But the Obama connection is more than visual, as Drake's music mixes lamentation and glorification of the trappings of fame with reflections about faded romance and his parents' break-up.

Should we expect a guest appearance from Obama on Drake's follow up album? No. Frankly, Obama may not utter a word about hip-hop for the rest of his presidency. But at their best, both hip-hop and Obama allow us to traverse those unsettled lands within us, and give us faith that we can make our way back to the world in one piece.