How Will Obama’s Presidency Change Hip-Hop?


So goes the headline on a smart Slate piece by Jonah Weiner about rap and Obama. Smart because it neatly grasps the theoretical implications an Obama win has for hip-hop. Weiner’s crucial graf:

Obama’s rise might weaken the position of those less explicitly political MCs, for instance, who rap about the allure of the drug trade in neighborhoods low on viable careers, or those whose gangsta tales make an implicit point about the conditions that create gangstas in the first place. Even an unabashedly crass commercialist like 50 Cent casts his boasts of alpha-male domination as a socioeconomic symptom: “Some say I’m gangsta, some say I’m crazy–if you ask me, I say I’m what the ‘hood made me.” Going forward, there may be less patience for this line of thinking. Our president overcame the disadvantages of growing up black and fatherless–what’s your excuse?

So then in the new world order, T.I.’s self-flagellating Paper Trail might be what rap going forward looks like: “a work of personal reckoning well-suited for the “new era of responsibility,” the bipolar chronicle of a gangsta passionately defending and critiquing the choices that have brought hard times upon him.”

But one might also point out that it was precisely the “less explicitly political MCs” who “rap about the allure of the drug trade in neighborhoods low on viable careers” who were the rap bloc most effective in terms of getting Obama elected. Young Jeezy, T.I., and Jay-Z, probably the holy trinity of hip-hop for Obama in ’08, were not known political entities before 2008. Neither T.I. nor Jeezy had even bothered to register prior to Obama. Far from having their positioned weakened, they were — as Jonah points out — actually awarded prime inauguration seats. Jay-Z played a presidential ball.

If anyone got marginalized, it was the Dead Prez-types, who’d been rapping about social change for years and then got wrong-footed when it finally came. What was interesting about rap and Obama in 2008 was not the de-legitimization of hip-hop’s seedier stars but their ascension to real, honest-to-god political actors. In the process, they cleaned up, but not particularly — witness the concert at which Jay-Z and Jeezy unveiled their “My President” remix, and the O’Reilly flap that followed.

Some of this does make it into Jonah’s piece —

At a basic level, Obama–and, to be sure, the recession–has put social awareness into vogue, and if he helps to foreclose a certain radicalism in hip-hop, these examples suggest a new style of political engagement, distinct from the long-marginalized sermons of so-called conscious rap.

— except that again, I’d argue that he’s sort of got it backwards (well, except for the part about the deathblow dealt to “conscious rap”; agreed, and amen). What Obama did was open a whole new sphere of radicalism in hip-hop: one where the culture might conceivably bend to these guys as they are, rather than forcing them to become more like the Michael Steeles of the world just to get their voices heard.

What’s being left behind here? Surely not this old line — “there is something inherently radical about hip-hop, period, a genre in which the historically voiceless command the microphone.” The Vitamin Water ad-execs long ago put paid to this vision: anybody heard from Chuck D lately? In many ways, rappers have been wandering since in a desert of their own making. Weirdly, it was precisely Obama who taught them how to be radical again.