How will Obama's presidency change hip-hop?

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Feb. 26 2009 6:50 AM

Stompin' in My Air Force One

How will Obama's presidency change hip-hop?

Hip-hop. Click image to expand.
Kevin Liles, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Mary J. Blige, and Jay-Z support Barack Obama on the campaign trail

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' 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.

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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.

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