Barack Obama arrived at the Oval Office with a long parade of expectations in tow. One special-interest group with a particularly colorful wish list is the hip-hop community, which has been plotting this moment for years. If Obama makes his policy decisions based on Nas’$2 1996 single “If I Ruled the World,” for instance, he will appoint Coretta Scott King to a mayoralty, fling open the gates of Attica, and grant every citizen an Infiniti Q45. If he follows the Pharcyde’s more modestly pitched “If I Were President,” he’ll buy Michelle some new clothes and treat himself to a new pair of sneakers. If he heeds the urgent lessons of Public Enemy’s 1994 video for “So Whatcha Gone Do Now?” Obama will staff the Secret Service exclusively with beret-clad black militants or else risk assassination at the hands of a far-reaching neo-Nazi conspiracy.
Hip-hop fantasies of a black executive have popped up throughout the genre’s history, visions of empowerment that speak to a real-life condition of powerlessness. In this sense, they’re merely a loftier version of the standard hip-hop fantasies of potency, whether it’s sexual domination, VIP access, or street-corner supremacy.
With Obama’s win, this dynamic stands to change. For 25-odd years, hip-hop has been black America’s main ambassador to the white American mainstream. How will hip-hop see itself now that the most powerful man in the country is a) black and b) a Jay-Z fan? Obama is doubtless the warmest—and smartest—rap critic ever to take the oath of office. When he has praised hip-hop, he has done so with near-impeccable taste. (His admiration for Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, and Kanye West would displease no rap blogger worth his RSS feed.) When he’s criticized it, he’s spoken with none of the condescension or cluelessness politicians often bring to the endeavor. For him, hip-hop is an art form, not culture-war fodder. “I love the art of hip-hop,” he told MTV last year. “I don’t always love the message.” Though it’s too early to say precisely how, there are already clues as to the effect Obama’s rise will have on both.
In the short term, the answer is simple: euphoria. Since November, Young Jeezy has teamed up with Jay-Z for a remix of the former’s “My President,” in which Obama figures as the ultimate status symbol: “My president is black, my Maybach too.” Busta Rhymes and Ron Browz released a remix of the club hit “Pop Champagne,” the title of which rhymes neatly, they discovered, with “Barack campaign.” Nas, Common, and will.i.am recorded giddy follow-ups to the Obama-boosting tracks they penned during his run.
In the long term, one useful way to imagine Obama’s effect on hip-hop is to consider the music that might have resulted from his defeat: probably some of the angriest hip-hop we’d have heard since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That was the era of N.W.A, young men broadcasting wrathfully from blighted Compton; Public Enemy, Long Island agitators with the Panthers in their hearts and revolution on the brain; and a subsequent school of East Coasters, Nas and Mobb Deep among them, who traded sawed-off animus for a hollowed-out, anaesthetized cool. Despite hip-hop’s prosperous rise in the intervening years, an Obama loss would have offered a painful reminder of the ways black success in America remains circumscribed.
Does his win risk obscuring this? Will Obama make grappling with social inequity and racial injustice trickier for rappers? It can be harder to speak truth to power when power looks like you. The rap duo Dead Prez exemplifies this dilemma with the recent “PolitriKKKs,” a song that offsets conciliatory language—”I don’t want to discourage my folk, I believe in hope”—with skepticism about the new president: “Either way it’s still white power, it’s the same system, it just changed form.” In three months, the song’s official video has notched a scant 12,200 views on YouTube—a would-be party crasher turned away at the door, left to hawk downers in the parking lot.
The predicament doesn’t just apply to rabble-rousers like Dead Prez. There is something inherently radical about hip-hop, period, a genre in which the historically voiceless command the microphone and, from the repurposed DJ equipment of hip-hop’s South Bronx infancy to the artist-owned labels of today, the means of production. Obama’s rise might weaken the position of those less explicitly political MCs, for instance, who rap about the allure of the drug trade in neighborhoods low on viable careers, or those whose gangsta tales make an implicit point about the conditions that create gangstas in the first place. Even an unabashedly crass commercialist like 50 Cent casts his boasts of alpha-male domination as a socioeconomic symptom: “Some say I’m gangsta, some say I’m crazy—if you ask me, I say I’m what the ‘hood made me.” Going forward, there may be less patience for this line of thinking. Our president overcame the disadvantages of growing up black and fatherless—what’s your excuse?
This raises another point, about Obama the role model. For years, America’s most visible black heroes have been athletes and entertainers; commentators have observed that Obama’s place in the mainstream imagination was prepared for him by people like Arthur Ashe, Sydney Poitier, Tiger Woods, and Will Smith. We can add to this list Jay-Z, probably the most iconic hip-hop role model of all time. Indeed, the two men form a mutual appreciation society: Jay-Z has called himself “the Barack of rhymers”; Obama appropriated Jay’s shoulder-brush maneuver on the stump and gave him choice inauguration seats.
Their affinity goes deeper. Among Jay-Z’s masterstrokes is that he never tried to rewrite the rules of the game beyond the one that said a black man couldn’t win. While he takes pains to portray his success as, at bottom, a racial coup, he’s never been interested in dismantling the status quo so much as infiltrating and mastering it. This is a fair description of what Obama did, too—with one crucial exception. For Jay-Z, the fact that he got rich as a businessman constitutes its own rebellion. Obama, though, is a former community organizer who chose public service over private-sector paychecks. His example might open up new sorts of narratives in hip-hop, ones where power isn’t a synonym for wealth.
In this regard, T.I.’s 2008 CD, Paper Trail, might be the first proper album of the Obama age. It is a work of personal reckoning well-suited for the “new era of responsibility,” the bipolar chronicle of a gangsta passionately defending and critiquing the choices that have brought hard times upon him. (T.I. will be headed to jail this year for amassing a small ballistics stockpile.) “Your values is in disarray, prioritizing horribly,” he raps, “unhappy with the riches ‘cause you’re piss-poor morally.” This might mark the first time that moral shortcoming has been invoked in a diss rhyme—and the line gains heft when you imagine T.I. aiming it not just at competitors but at himself. More recently, the flamboyantly boorish Cam’ron released a charmingly downsized single, “I Hate My Job,” which imagines the daily frustrations of an office girl with dreams of a nursing career and an ex-con trying to re-enter the workforce. At a basic level, Obama—and, to be sure, the recession—has put social awareness into vogue, and if he helps to foreclose a certain radicalism in hip-hop, these examples suggest a new style of political engagement, distinct from the long-marginalized sermons of so-called conscious rap.
What changes would Obama himself like to see? In campaign-trail interviews, he said he could do with less materialism, misogyny, and N-words in the music, even as he recognized the complex circumstances that foster those preoccupations. Talking about rap, he often sounds like the hip homeroom teacher affectionately telling his students to stand up straight. In one of Obama’s most widely circulated quotes about hip-hop, he offered a gentle sartorial admonishment: “Brothers should pull their pants up.” On the score of materialism and misogyny, his wish might come true. Getting natural-waist jeans into heavy rotation on BET? Well, fixing the economy might be easier.