Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Hip Hop Makeover of the GOP

Michael Steele, current chair of the Republican Party, very famously stated recently, that the GOP needs a hip hop makeover. Acknowledging a festering GOP concern that the party is becoming “regionalized,” is losing relevance and that a strong need exists to reach out “beyond our comfort zone,” Steele promised some “off the hook” public relations plans to win over the hip hop nation. Steele believes that Republicans need to “convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands for principles. But we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”

Meanwhile, recent rumblings around Washington, D.C. seem to indicate that reporters and pundits believe that President Barack Obama is resonating differently with his white and African American constituents. In the article “Blacks, whites Hear Obama Differently” the author opines that President Obama’s occasional slang, his loping gait and some of his mannerisms signal to the black community that he is “down” in a way that is largely “missed” by the white community. Recently, the President responded to a cashier “nah, we straight” when asked if he needed change, and on the campaign trail, Obama reminded voters not to be “bamboozled” by negative politics. These terms, "nah, we straight" and "bamboozled" say something very specific to those in the black community while the terms “sail over the head” of most whites.

As Michael Steele plans his wooing of the hip hop community, one thing that must be recognized, is that for the hip hop generation, authenticity and “being real” is sacrosanct. And Michael Steele and Barack Obama provide incredibly divergent examples of authenticity, at least to the hip hop nation.

At a recent symposium at the West Virginia University College of Law, Talib Kweli called President Obama not just our first black president but our first hip hop president. I think there is much more to this than the mere fact that Jay-Z appears on the President’s iPod. President Obama authentically connects with not just black folks, but with the hip hop generation in a staggering way. Obama was endorsed by hip hop superstars, up and down the coasts. Obama’s troops, those that ushered him into the White House, were on the ground in EVERY state, and were overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly diverse and ultra devoted. As Cornel West mentioned at the same symposium at WVU Law, when West was campaigning in the early days for Obama in Iowa, when the foot soldiers broke up from campaigning at night, the volunteers were not just listening to, but were feeling hip hop. And according to West, at that time, they were young and were mostly white.

Obama’s verbiage, gait and style, to resonate with the hip hop nation, HAS to be authentic. If hip hop is about anything, it is about "being real" and this is where Michael Steele fails. Steele’s dated references to “bling bling” and “off the hook” p.r. plans redound as inauthentic and very much, not “real.” It is difficult to imagine a single member of the hip hop generation being attracted by Steele's attempt to use hip hop lingo or language to attract a new breed of GOP voter. The words are inauthentic; the mission is inauthentic; and the outreach seems doomed to inauthenticity. Michael Steele needs to be real, to garner the attention of hip hop aficionados.

President Obama on the other hand has an easy manner and the "hip hop" in him is subtle. He knew that he needed to “deracialize” his campaign in order to win. Yet, he gives cues and clues to black america that “winks” at the community and the hip hop generation as if to see “i am down, and you know that i am down, I just can’t say it right now.” He has won an election and now has an enormously wide berth with the hip hop generation and the black community in general to do what he has promised to do. Of course, authenticity mandates that he carry through with his promises, of which portions of the stimulus package and new legislation seems to try to do.

I am not sure that the author of “Blacks, whites hear Obama Differently” got it exactly right. It is not just blacks that “hear” Obama. And not ALL whites hear Obama differently. It is the hip hop generation that hears Obama, together with the black community, including the civil rights generation (per Obama’s references to Langston Hughes, MLK and Malcolm X). The hip hop generation, includes whites, latinos, American Indians, Asian Americans, and so on – those folks that are profoundly influenced by the lyrics and culture of hip hop. President Obama has tapped into a very powerful force of support and loyalty. Michael Steele simply cannot. The authenticity is missing.


  1. I hope we get to the point in our society and world when our leaders will not have to reveal their inner-spirit, whether hip hop or country, only when it is acceptable for the masses. I believe that the new generation of leadership will continue to be influenced and even dominated by the social tendencies of Blacks. Hip hop is just another example of how the cultural tendencies of minorities permeate this world. Now if we can just get the young men in our society, black and white, to pull their pants up we will be on our way.

  2. Nice observations dre'.

    Regarding Michael Steele's efforts to appeal to the Hip-Hop community, I absolutely concur with your assessment that his message will lack authenticity. Oddly, my African-American stepfather, who did not grow up on Hip-Hop as I did, thinks that Steele's idea is great. I have struggled in explaining to him that most will respond to Steele's efforts as Jay-Z did to Prodigy: "We don't believe you, you need more people."

    Regarding Obama and his subtle comments (a/k/a his use of a dog whistle), I will never forget when Obama brushed the dirt off of his shoulders. There's a great recap of Jay-Z's take on that incident here:

  3. I believe the biggest difference between Obama and Steele is how both men present themselves to the hip hop community, aka, their “Swagger.” Obama's swagger reached out and touched an overlooked hip hop community, in a way that was unprecedented in presidential elections. Steele has not in any way, shape or form shown that he understands the hip hop community (other than the comment that the RNC needs a hip hop makeover).
    While this is not completely about Obama vs. Steele, it is important to note that the hip hop community looks for exceptional personalities to follow. Obama revealed himself as that individual over the past 4 years. In the words of Kanye West, during the 2008 Presidential Election, Barack's swagga was "on a hundred thousand trillion." (Swagger Like Us)
    Finally, I think a snippet of Jay-Z verse from Swagger Like Us sums up the problem Steele is going to have with developing the RNC and his image within the hip hop community. Jay-Z said, "But I can't teach you my swag, you can pay for school but you can't buy class." The RNC can hire the best "hip hop consultants”, and spend tons of money on marketing tactics. But the hip hop community support is something you can't buy. You have to earn it, like Barack did.

  4. Chairman Steele does have an authenticity problem. First, as pointed out in this post, his use of hip hop phrases comes off as forced and manufactured. He doesn’t have the “swagger” and “command” of the language like President Obama.

    Second, I give Chairman Steele credit for recognizing the need to appeal to the hip hop community; however, as long as the Republican Party continues to worship Ronald Reagan and his ideology and promote his policies, it will never be successful in appealing to hip hop voters.

    Lastly, the following youtube video and lyrics help us to understand and compare the differences between Michael Steele and Barack Obama’s appeal to the hip hop community.

    Republicans Go Urban

    In "My President is Black” Young Jeezy, referring to President Obama, says the following, “See I motivate the thugs right, you motivate us homey, that’s what it is.”

    Chairman Steele has a lot of work to do if he ever hopes to get a shout out like that in hip hop.

  5. Darren Nealy, J.D.March 27, 2009 at 8:09 AM

    In response to Chris Williamson

    " long as the Republican Party continues to worship Ronald Reagan and his ideology and promote his policies, it will never be successful in appealing to hip hop voters."

    You are so right. Most "aging" Hip-Hop fans (in their thirties) grew up listening to Chuck D and others discuss Reagan (or "Ray Gun") and his politics in a negative light.

    For many of us, hearing that from Chuck D was impactful and influential. A good number of 80's babies were politically influenced by Hip-Hop.


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