Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The first hip-hop president... so now what?

Much has been made of President Barack Obama being the first hip-hop president. Over a year after his election, it is probably time to ask, "What does that mean?" To be sure, many hip-hop artists have flocked to the President. Artists from Common to Nas and Young Jeezy, to Joel Ortiz have produced songs in support of Obama.

And many critics have questioned what hip-hop means or even has to do with being President. See Sasha Frere-Jones, in The New Yorker, who takes a less than enthusiastic view. Slightly more positive is the Harvard Political Review, Harvard's undergraduate political science magazine. Opposed to the notion is Rosa Clemente who wrote an article commissioned by the Green Institute. Then there's Matthew Cooper's piece at the Huffington Post that seems to blur the line between honest reflection and mocking hyperbole. Also look at an NPR story on hip-hop flocking to Obama.

What are hip-hop fans, community members, and casual listeners to make of this? There's a danger in assuming that because President Obama claims to listen to Jay-Z, is relatively young, hails from a city with a strong hip-hop scene, etc., that he is able to or even wants to represent hip-hop. Let's not let our excitement from the historical nature of this election blind us to the realities of presidential politics. It's a big task to shoulder the entire hip-hop community and hip-hop isn't monolithic. We might see this as a stepping stone, but Obama can't do it all. Obama will not solve the world's problems and he won't solve hip-hop's. Health care and climate change are pressing issues. Police violence continues to be endemic in many communities. There's a struggling economy that needs desperate help. Even if we expect Obama to lead the hip-hop nation, it's not going to happen soon. It is not a priority item on his policy agenda.

Has Obama done a good job representing hip-hop? What does it mean to represent hip-hop? Do we often think of President's as representing musical genres or communities? Did anybody call Bush II the Texas president or the country music president? And if they did, what did that mean? Often times elected officials will make claims that they best speak for a segment of the population, but that is not always true. It seems that the hip-hop community seized upon Obama and not that Obama seized upon the hip-hop community. Sure, he worked hard to mobilize minorities and young people, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was targeting hip-hop.

-- Nick J. Sciullo

(Obama poster courtesy of eshark design.)


  1. Obama is the 1st black president, not the 1st hip hop president. I read the articles you mention and all of them except the Clemente article try to make black and hip hop synonyms. It's the elephant in the room, Obama's black! Hip Hop would not accept Obama with open arms so quickly if he were not black. Obama is not the 1st hip hop president because Obama is smart. Hip Hop is not something a national politician would directly connect to.

  2. Anonymous: I think you're 100 percent correct in identifying the need to divorce hip-hop from Black. The two aren't synonyms. As this week's survey question begins to hint at, there's hip-hop of all shapes and sizes all over the world. With folks like Muzion, Black Eyed Peas, Immortal Technique, and others challenging the notion that Hip-Hop is decidedly Black and/or of the United States, it is unfortunate that the media has not thought as deeply about the issue before they make generalizations about what Obama represents. I'm not an expert on international hip-hop, but I'd venture to say there's quite a bit of diversity there that might not be know not to mention appreciated in the U.S.

  3. I'm glad that you posted on this... I have found all of the references to Obama being the president of Hip hop very bizarre. I respect the support for Obama, but exactly like you said, how does he represent a presidency for hip hop? And is Hip Hop important enough to be represented by a president? It must be strange for Obama to be put on this pedastool in all of these random things because he's black. He needs to be viewed as a politician and a president first, not a martyr for a music genre...

    If anything, Bill Clinton has shown the most support for a music genre, being a huge supporter of Jazz and Blues.

  4. talib kweli referred to president obama as a "hip hop preident." cornel west indicated that the "age of obama" dawned because of the hip hop generation. obama himself has called hip hop "smart," "innovative" and carries the "potential" to significantly impact social and criminal justice. i think that referring to obama as a hip hop president merely indicates that he is the first president of the united states that has been significantly influenced by hip hop in perhaps his own politics and worldview.

    that said, being influenced by hip hop in worldview does not necessarily indicate that a particular individual will act, legislate, lead or inspire from that perspective. while i personally believe that some of obama's worldview has been impacted by hip hop, i do not believe it is politically expedient for him to legislate from or lead from that perspective. during the campaign, obama embraced the hip hop support, but could not overtly make that plain. if nothing else, president obama is a skilled politician. it is my fervent hope that the influences of hip hop on the president will eventually make themselves manifest in his policies, particularly in addressing the mass incarceration of minority men in t his country and the draconian drug sentencing laws that literally fill our prisons with soft drug criminals.

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  6. What hath hip-hop wrought? White boy got that old school Busta Rhymes swag... "F*** your IQ if it's higher than two" rofl


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