Obama Hip-Hop

It looks like the august and influential – and therefore sometimes a little stuffy – German weekly newspaper Die Zeit sometime in the recent past, when I wasn’t looking, established a new affiliated website, Zuender, to try to appeal to the younger generation which greatly prefers to access the publication’s content via the Net rather than the newsstand. (Zuender, or rather Z√ľnder, means “detonator” in German.) There’s really no doubt that this is Zuender’s purpose, as one can tell not only from the much more edgy graphical set-up of the website but also from the nature of its articles: as I look at the Zuender homepage right now, the headline article’s title is “Undress, Apartment Inspection!: What do the furnishings in amateur porno-films betray about their directors?”

Sorry, I’m afraid we’re not going to discuss that one today. (I know, I don’t even give you the link. That’s just another reason why you should go learn German yourself.) Rather, let’s take a look at a couple of other pieces, which together give a German look at the current political influence within the US of rap/hip-hop music, starting with one entitled The Irrelevant-Bitch Dilemma, by Oskar Piegsa. (Please pardon the expression, but that’s the title: apparently Nutte is “bitch” in German, i.e. the disparaging term for females. Please do not misuse this knowledge.)

This title, we can safely assume, is only secondarily another attempt at providing Zuender with that youth-attracting irreverent attitude, because “irrelevant bitch” is mainly what the rapper Ludacris called Hillary Clinton in a recent ditty that he composed in honor of Barack Obama. And Ludacris stands central as the embodiment of what hip-hop’s influence in the American political process (on the Democratic side exclusively, it hardly need be said) has become. Rap has been political from its earliest days but, as Piegsa reminds us with citations of “Fuck tha Police” from NWA in 1988 and “Fight the Power” from Public Enemy a year later, it has rarely been mainstream – until recently, until 2004 to be exact, when rap stars started to participate in public voter-participation efforts (e.g. Snoop Dogg with “Rock the Vote,” P. Diddy with “Vote or Die!”). Quite apart from the distaste for the George W. Bush administration that presumably lay behind such campaigns, they made sheer political sense because there was in fact a voter-bloc that these stars had reasonable hopes of being able to mobilize, namely what is called in the article the “HipHop-Generation” of Afro-American and Latino youth in America’s big cities. Despite the ultimate failure then to unseat Bush from the presidency, yet more rap stars have engaged in the 2008 presidential campaign (on the Democratic side exclusively, it hardly need be said), from the Obama endorsement by Jay-Z and Common in their music to the contribution Obama video contribution from the Black-Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am.

Lock Up Your Daughters!

And from Ludacris’ music, as well – including his song “Politics (Obama is Here),” in which he he claims “McCain don’t belong in ANY chair unless he’s paralyzed” and, speaking of Hillary Clinton, claims “that bitch is irrelevant.” And there we see the problem: hip-hop artists and their ballades can all-too-easily become loose cannons when they are too closely affiliated with presidential campaigns, which, as Piegsa takes care to note, can potentially be sunk by one single inappropriate sentence. No wonder a spokesman for the Obama campaign was quick to disavow Ludacris’ support, terming his song-lyrics “outrageously offensive”; no wonder that Obama himself, while otherwise praising Ludacris as a great talent in an interview with Rolling Stone, qualified that with “It woul be good if I could let my daughters hear that without having to worry that they would get a bad self-image.”

Then again, Rolling Stone did not get around to endorsing Obama for President until late March of this year – at which point his nomination was not quite yet in the bag (the Reverend Wright controversy, among others, had yet to rage) but nonetheless likely. The hip-hop magazine Vibe, on the other hand, endorsed him back in September of 2007, and even as the very first presidential candidate it had ever endorsed.

Still, it is still by no means assured that Obama completely owns that “HipHop-Generation” voting bloc. (Piegsa tries to show how Hillary also had hip-hop support, in the person of Bob Johnson, formerly of Black Entertainment Television, who for a while campaigned hard for her (particularly in the South Carolina Democratic primary) and controversially alluded to Obama’s past drug use. I personally think he simply wastes the three paragraphs he devotes to Johnson – he’s black, for sure, but he definitively ain’t hip-hop.) Remember that, for most of its existence as a distinct musical form, rap has deliberately placed itself on the side of social outsiders determined to “Fight the Power.” Some rappers still refuse to come in from the cold, despite Obama’s appeal and his color, and Zuender also features an interview (“Obama lost me” – the title is in English, though the interview is entirely in German) with hip-hop activitist Troy Nkrumah, Chairman of the National HipHop Political Conference, which at the very beginning of this month held its biennial convention in Las Vegas, attracting 1,000 participants.

Nkrumah Disses Obama

What is Chairman Nkrumah’s problem with Barack Obama? interviewer Oskar Piegsa (yes, our old friend) wants to know. Don’t – don’t – don’t believe the HYPE! is basically his answer: Obama has gone too centrist. Nkrumah objects to the right-ward shift Obama has taken in many of his policies since winning the Democratic nomination: a support for Israel (and Israel-in-Jerusalem) that even goes beyond conventional Democratic expressions of support, and which according to Nkrumah is inconsistent with Obama’s alleged championing of human rights; his support of the recent FISA Amendment Bill which freed US telecom companies for liability for illegally spying on Americans at the request of the Bush Administration; and most especially his support for the “Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act” (here Nkrumah must be referring to the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which is still just a proposed law, not yet passed), which Nkrumah claims would greatly sharpen penalties for civil disobedience at demonstrations. On a more fundamental level, while Nkrumah concedes that Obama would be a very intelligent president, he cannot bring himself to believe that he would change the “System” in the radical ways that he feels it needs to be changed. He maintains that the more radical rapper groups that he claims to represent, such as Dead Prez (right, not a good group to be seen supporting Obama) and Immortal Technique, intend to support the Green Party candidate for president instead, Cynthia McKinney, even as he admits that she has no chance of winning. (Hey – she would be the first black and the first woman president! And it looks like the Green Vice President would also be a woman, and Latino!)

So it looks like hard-core hip-hop is going “green,” even as mainstream rappers stay “black” and the Obama campaign continues to try to figure out how close to allow them to get to the candidate. This should be a minor but fascinating process for cultural observers to continue to track – if, that is, Obama’s many hip-hop supporters can refrain from inadvertently providing that sentence or public scene that so turns off the wider mainstream of American voters as to deny him victory in the presidential election.

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