B-Rock and Hip-Hop: A Retrospective

In a notable scene from Straight Outta Compton, members of the hip-hop group N.W.A. sat at a press conference, answering questions from a coterie of white male journalists bewildered at the emergence of “gangsta” rap. To explain their rapid elevation into fame, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) asserts, “We give the people a voice,” while Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) adds, “Our art is a reflection of our identity.” Two things are clear: Rap music often gives credence to voices that have been muted, and thus rap music is marked by its politics. But when young black members of underserved communities express these voices, political tension with those in power is inevitable. Historically, rap and politics have never had a particularly amiable relationship: Take Kanye West’s assertion that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a comment that aptly sums up the relationship between politicians and hip-hop artists over the last three decades. However, this fractured dynamic seemed to flip over on its head when Barack Obama appeared on the national scene, exuding bright rays of trendy “cool” to anyone who followed his charismatic ascent to power.

Obama, affectionately known as “B-Rock” by the hip-hop community, concretized his relatability among youth, and quickly garnered a label as the “hiphop president,” thereby galvanizing young voters. However, following Obama’s rap-fueled rise to the executive office, he quickly did away with his associations with the genre, acquiescing to vehemently antirap Washington politics. Unsurprisingly, this opened him up to a barrage of attacks by hip-hop artists disillusioned by both his disregard of the genre and his inability to keep up with his idealistic promises. As Obama completes his final term, he has reconciled his relationship to rap, emblematic of his overall ideological freedom from the constraints of reelection. Thus, through the course of his presidential career, Obama’s relationship to hip-hop has followed a parallel course to that of his overall politics: in Obama’s 2008 campaign, politics and rap coalesced, skyrocketing up in a firebrand fashion, but after assuming office, his rosy relationship with hip-hop and promises of watershed change fell apart. Now, Obama’s hip-hop relationships and political reputation have settled into an atmosphere of overall satisfaction, pushing his public persona as the pinnacle of “cool” into posterity.

Common, one of Chicago’s most eminent rappers, trumpeted in his 2008 song “The People”: “My rap ignites people like Obama.” Indeed, Obama’s timeless declarations of “Yes We Can” and “Change We Can Believe In” brought rappers to their feet, with Jay Z having Obama “on speed dial” and Young Jeezy and Nas making a song called “My President is Black.” Possibly the most memorable moment from Obama’s 2008 campaign arose from Jay Z’s 2003 hit “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” in which Obama nonchalantly brushed off his opponents’ (namely Hillary Clinton’s) invectives to raucous applause. Obama embraced hip-hop culture with open arms, and it served him well politically.

As Obama’s presidency comes to a feel-good end, an end magnified when juxtaposed to Trump’s election, his relationship with the rap community has also found much stronger footing.

Obama’s hip-hop connection paid off — voter turnout among the young was at its highest in 35 years, assisted by his seamless connection to rap. According to Jermaine Hall, the editor-in-chief of Vibe Magazine, “Hip-hop brought awareness to a group of young adults who probably would not have voted otherwise.” Although other factors such as his progressivism and his historic status as the potential first black president played major parts in his vehicle of ecstatic hype, the effects of many hip-hop artists’ full fledged support cannot be understated in its mobilization of enthusiastic young voters. Hip-hop’s effects, although statistically unquantifiable, had an undoubted effect on the mobilization of the “Obama Coalition,” and on Election Day, Obama blew out John McCain by over 30 percentage points with voters 18-29.

Once Obama took office, however, hip-hop all but lost its position in his political arsenal. In 2009, Obama launched the White House Music Series, including classical, jazz, and country artists but excluding hip-hop artists, thus severing the implicit ties between the now proper, refined president and improper, unrefined rap music. Obama’s disconnection served to be a justified one: In 2011 Obama invited Common, one of rap’s most socially conscious MCs, to perform at a White House party. Controversy quickly spread like wildfire as conservative figures like Sarah Palin and Karl Rove lashed out, cherry-picking Common’s rap lyrics such as one line supporting a controversial Black Liberation Army member, Assata Shakur. If Common, one of rap’s most peace-loving, positive artists could be labeled a police-hating “thug,” rap’s short lived tenure in mainstream political culture was effectively over. The final nail in the coffin occurred in 2012, when Obama’s campaign playlist featured no hip-hop, but unsurprisingly included a healthy dosage of country, including songs by Darius Rucker and Sugarland. Overall, Obama’s relationship, or lack thereof, to hip-hop elucidate his priority of politics over principles, part of his larger philosophy of not radical change, but incremental progress. Rap music was simply incompatible with his centrist realpolitik.

Rappers felt Obama’s Judas kiss, both in terms of his rap affiliations and his idealistic policy promises, as an acute backstabbing, and left no shortage of lyrical excoriations behind. Jay Z, previously one of Obama’s most vehement supporters, expressed displeasure at his policies, stating that “It’s fucked up out there. Unemployment is still high.” Other prominent rappers, such as Lupe Fiasco, who told voters in 2008 that “a vote for Obama is a vote for the future,” later rapped in “Words I’ve Never Said” that “Gaza Strip was getting bombed / Obama didn’t say shit / that’s why I ain’t vote for him,” even going as far as to say that “the biggest terrorist is Obama, and the United States of America.” Overall, the milieu among the rap community was that Obama had not only let them down, but had dissipated their advocacy for social justice, which they felt had been echoed by Obama’s grandiose promises made before entering office. As a result, according to Killer Mike, Obama was no longer a conduit for their political voices, but merely “another talking head telling lies on teleprompters.” However, although Obama alienated the rap community in his first term, he was nevertheless comfortably reelected in 2012, eventually leading to the restoration of this soured relationship.

Now, as a lame duck president untethered to the political imperative of reelection, Obama has, in short, reconciled his downcast relationship with hip-hop. He has invited the new wave of popular rappers, such as J. Cole and Chance the Rapper, to support his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. At the end of 2015, Obama called Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost,” which coincidently ends with a cry for forgiveness, one of his favorite songs of the year, and invited Lamar to the White House. And on October 3 of this year, Obama cemented the reconciliation savvy by launching the all-inclusive South-by-South Lawn festival, blaring Public Enemy’s politically charged “Fight the Power” while hosting Leonardo DiCaprio as moderator. Common, Obama’s consistent cornerstone, although acknowledging that Obama could not achieve all that he set out to do, nevertheless extolled him the same way he did in 2007, stating that Obama “still represents hope.” As Obama’s presidency comes to a feel-good end, an end magnified when juxtaposed to Trump’s election, his relationship with the rap community has also found much stronger footing.

As a whole, Obama’s rocky relationship with hip-hop artists serves as an emblem for his overall political philosophy: One of pragmatic, centrist deliberation, a notion that many artists see as “selling out.” A confused, irking irony swept through the music genre, as Obama, who had once embraced hip-hop with open arms, instead represented the Washington politics rap artists castigated regularly. Nevertheless, Obama, as an astute politician, effectively wielded the cultural capital of hip-hop when he most needed it, eventually reclaiming his position as the “hip-hop president” when, no longer seeking reelection, he could place more priority on his principles over politics.

There might never be a president as “cool” and “hip” as “B-Rock” Obama in the near future. Moreover, the relative ease at which the hip-hop community and the White House supported each other is now irrevocably lost. Donald Trump, before entering into politics, had served for years as a tabloid symbol of opulent moguldom, comically revered in songs liked Rae Sremmurd’s “Up Like Trump.” However, once Trump launched his presidential campaign, he became inundated with tremendous animosity from the hip-hop community. Trump was recently the target of a barrage of social media attacks by Chance the Rapper, Macklemore, Snoop Dogg, and countless others. Instead of songs like “My President is Black,” Trump has been the subject of songs such as YG’s “FDT” (a not-so-seriously masked acronym), which features profanity after profanity thrown at the President-elect. YG reciprocates Trump’s disavowal of political correctness with a rejection of political correctness himself, repeating the song title 24 times. Amidst its abundance of ad hominem attacks, however, one line rings viscerally, and soon nostalgically clear: “He got me appreciatin’ Obama way more.”