Barack’s Big Hype

Is Obama the Candidate of the Hip-Hop Generation?

For many, the answer to this question might be an enthusiastic “yes.” In recent weeks I have spoken on a radio show on “the hip-hop effect on the Obama campaign.” I’ve talked to politically active MCs who are beyond stoked that Obama is ahead in the primaries. I’ve been sent e-vites to online groups called “Hip-hop for Obama.” The phenomenon is striking. It seems lately that there is no paucity of those inspired by the righteous message of hip-hop who now feel they finally have a voice through Barack Obama. Indeed, a friend of mine who observed an Obama rally recently told me that, “it was like a rock concert.” Footage from other rallies seems to back that up. Large crowds, overwhelmingly young and multi-racial, are absolutely ecstatic at the thought of an Obama presidency.

At that same rally a clip was played that has become among the most viral of videos online. The “Yes We Can” video, produced by Black Eyed Peas front man and producer will.i.am, is something unlike anything I have seen from a mainstream presidential candidate. Various figures from film, television and music, speaking or singing lines from Obama’s speeches. It has to be said: there is something inspiring about seeing people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Common saying that “it was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom: ‘yes we can.’”

The precedent is notable: when was the last time that a mainstream presidential candidate openly embraced the work of a hip-hop artist? John Kerry kept Sean Combs’ “Vote or Die” campaign at arms’ length. I have no recollection of Al Gore dancing to Lauryn Hill (thank god!). And Bill Clinton made it a point to denounce hip-hop artists during his 1992 campaign. As for the Republican side, it goes without saying that they can’t even begin to understand a music genre about the Black experience in America, let alone embrace it.

And yet, in a certain sense, it is fitting for a man with Obama’s past. It’s worth noting that, if elected, Obama would be not only the first Black president, but the first to be a teenager at the dawn of the 1980s. Before he was the polished, silver-tongued, self-appointed harbinger of hope, he was a student transferring to Columbia University in a New York City smack in the middle of a hip-hop explosion. Rap had busted out of the Bronx and was sinking its roots into the culture of NYC. Even for the ambitiously studious Obama, it would have been impossible to escape the phenomenon. One can only speculate if he spent nights in his dorm room digging to Zulu Nation, or bobbing his head to the sounds of Fantastic Freaks.

Far fetched? Perhaps. But the evidence suggests that he could not have been sealed off from the dynamic beats sweeping the city. In his autobiography he speaks of his involvement in campus activism against apartheid in South Africa and in favor of affirmative action.

This was no mean feat in the Reagan ’80s, and yet similar movements could be found on campuses across the country. Furthermore, being open anti-racist struggles, they had a profound effect on the development of hip-hop’s politics. As the ’80s progressed, Afrocentrism continued to be a theme in the rhymes of many an MC. South Africa’s segregation would feature prominently in the music of the most politically outspoken hip-hop artists.

Today, Obama treats his activist years with a dismissive attitude we’ve come to expect from politicians. Yet he cannot deny them. Indeed, he seems to have tapped into the experiences of those days in recent weeks. He has invoked the history of the movements against slavery, past union struggles and the women’s movement. He has spoken in favor of immigrant and gay rights, and denounced the priorities of prisons before schools. His words against the war have hardened. And he has actually been telling attendees at his rallies that, “this is what change from the bottom up looks like.” While most candidates prattle on about how change comes from “great men,” this is certainly a breath of fresh air.

Have the past months re-ignited Obama’s days as a campus activist? Might this, coupled with his own relative youth, provide him with an understanding of music’s power in inspiring and mobilizing? Or is it that he has simply read, better than the other nominees, the writing on the wall of a nation that is itself changing? The past few months have seen a sharp swing to the left among the population on a wide array of issues. Most Americans hate the war in Iraq, they want decent healthcare that won’t empty their pocketbooks, they want the government to intervene in creating jobs and are angry at the banks foreclosing on their houses.

This hits home even more for the youth of this country, the first-time voters who have known nothing but Bush and Clinton, and know very well what each president’s policies have done to themselves and their families. This is a generation who have come of age during a war to which they will be the first sent. They are staring in the face a job market that has little to offer in the way of security. And they have grown up around the biggest diversity of cultures and racial backgrounds that this country has ever seen. They have also grown up during hip-hop’s reign as a global phenomenon. Their hunger for change is widespread, and very, very real.

But just like any song, flashy production cannot make up for flimsy substance. The harsh reality is that Obama is part of a Democratic Party that has always put the interests of business before those of ordinary people. Like all other candidates in this race, the vast majority of his campaign money comes courtesy of Corporate America. Maybe this is why he has yet to mention taking on the insurance companies when talking about healthcare. When asked how he would end the war, he states that it would be important to keep some presence in Iraq long-term. And as long as his ideas on hip-hop are on the table, it is worth mentioning that he towed much of the mainstream line on rap in the post-Imus backlash.

In short, the kind of inspiring change talked and sung about in “Yes We Can” is something that Obama himself cannot bring. The shift in his campaign, though, has opened a door. By openly talking about the history of struggle in this country, Obama has created space to talk about what that struggle might look like today. The question is what will happen to the excitement he has tapped into after the primaries, after November, and beyond. It is up to ordinary people to maintain that excitement, and fight for the kind of change that both they, and hip-hop itself, have craved.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.

15 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Mike McNiven said on February 17th, 2008 at 4:18am #

    Mr. Billet, please protect the socialist workers of this planet by reading the following DV piece. ( aren’t socialists supposed to be anti-imperialist? )

    https://www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/02/holding-barack-obama-accountable/#comment-14645

  2. Alexander Billet said on February 17th, 2008 at 9:41am #

    I fail to see what’s not anti-imperialist about my article. If you’d read it, you’d see that I say that yes, we do need to hold him accountable.

    Nowhere in the article do I call for a vote for Obama, just tried to explain why there’s a hell of a lot of young people amped abou his campaign. I think a lot of them are kids really excited about social change. The left needs to engage with these people so that Obama’s (or whoever’s) feet can be held to the fire after November.

  3. Deadbeat said on February 17th, 2008 at 11:36am #

    The left needs to engage with these people so that Obama’s (or whoever’s) feet can be held to the fire after November.

    I agree with Mr. Billet. Obama’s campaign has opened up space to engage disaffected and young voters so that they make demands and hold Obama accountable. Obama campaign has opened up a crack (albeit a hairline crack) that leftist can take advantage of by engaging people who are energized and deeply interested in politics and social change.

  4. Michael Hureaux said on February 17th, 2008 at 1:50pm #

    I appreciate your thoughts, here, Alex, as I have several friends in the underground scene here in what remains of the classic hip hop scene in Seattle who are sprung on Obama. The thing I have to conceded is that one of my buddies, Big Zo, was born in 1973, and grew up largely in the postmodern political era. I’m fifteen years older, and came of age during the Civil Rights Era and the small changes to the labor movement that came after the national Black Caucus in 1972, so there’s definitely a generational difference. I think one of the disappointments of the postmodern era for me has been that they have long been accustomed to settling for the symbolic “vote without the goat”- but in fairness, that comes from the co-optation of the community organizations that brother Adolph Reed has referred to in some of his writings. You know, the tendency of corrupted community leaders to live with the attacks on infrastructural gains that were gotten after the resistance of the sixties and early seventies.

    So I’m a little wary of my own tendency to completely dismiss the Obama phenomenon, as it may well be that this generation has also had enough, and may well be capable of putting Mr. Obama’s feet to the fire should he take office, may well be capable of pushing him much further than he wants to go. Given the tenor of his recent comments, he may already be feeling some of that. But we’ll see, after all, it’s only February, and if 40 years of watching national boojwah campaigns in the United States has taught me anything, it’s that it all looks different come September and the post-convention hoopla.

    At any rate, thank you for this piece, which was sober, and fair, and very helpful. —M. Hureaux, Seattle

  5. Max Shields said on February 17th, 2008 at 3:48pm #

    Deadbeat and what pray tell are you going to do to facilitate this dialog now that Obama has opened up the space?

  6. Alexander Billet said on February 17th, 2008 at 3:49pm #

    You bring up some good points, Michael. I think we live in a society that has become very apolitical in the past few decades. I certainly don’t blame ordinary people for that; it’s more that those thirty years have seen a right-wing backlash against the 60s and 70s that we’re only just starting to shake off now. A lot of the community organizations you mention certainly felt the pressure from that.

    In many ways, that’s what hip-hop shares in common with a lot of musical movements: the desire to break free of repression in the absence of a real alternative. So when someone like Obama comes along with rhetoric that is genuinely different from politics as usual, I don’t blame folks for seizing onto it. I’m actually excited about being able to talk to some of these people about what change from the bottom up can look like.

  7. Mike McNiven said on February 19th, 2008 at 1:41am #

    keith harmon snow said on February 16th, 2008 at 3:43 am #

    Barrack Obama is the “progressive” face of fascism. His foreign policy advisors include Samantha Power, one of the preeminent liars of the contemporary era, who has denied some genocides and inflated others, and won a Pulitzer for it. For example, Power has completely propagandized the public with all the upside-down fascist nonsense about Paul Kagame being a leader in Rwanda, instead of a mass murderer. Spanish courts on January 23 issued International Arrest warrants for 40 top former Rwandan Patriotic Front military leaders, now all with the Akazu around Kagame, who was himself named for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in both Rwanda and DR Congo from 1990 to 2004. (The legal case does not consider the ongoing war crimes and genocides in DRC and Rwanda from 2004 to today).

    Other members who are advising the Obama fascist party are former Clinton administration officials Anthony Lake and Susan Rice, both responsible at the highest level for war crimes during the Clinton era — Sudan, Yugoslavia (another area where Sammy Power massively perpetuates disinformation serving the US permanent warfare agenda), and Congo (for the short list).

    Obama is heavily funded by some of the world’s greatest and most secretive criminals, and teh biggest enemies of people of color, especially Maurice Tempelsman.

    But worse than all this is the idea that people spend even 10 minutes (as I have) wasting their energies in teh US elections arena. The entire exercise is meant t o distract people from teh realitie sof the contiguous warfare programs and emasculation of civil liberties and expansion of the warfare-prisons-nuclear-diamonds-financial complex. Until people wake up and realize that they are drawn into this exercise as a means to divert and distract then nothing will change for the positive.

    General Alexaander Haig’s point is not appreciated for its educational and agitation potential: “They can (substitute word of choice: march, protest, vote) all they want, as long as they pay their taxes. Hereion lies the answer, but Americans — even the most progressive amongst us — enjoy too many of teh spoils to take any serious action that means they have to give up anything at all of any substance, por make any kind of true sacrifioce. Wilhelm reich’s treatise on THe MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF FASCISM thus rings more true then ever.

    https://www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/02/holding-barack-obama-accountable/

  8. Michael Hureaux said on February 19th, 2008 at 8:24am #

    I notice Barack has been cited as saying that Castro’s decision to step away from power marks the end of a “dark period” in Cuban history.

    Makes me wonder how much else of Cuban history and Latin American history he actually knows.

  9. DJ Able - The Elefaders said on February 19th, 2008 at 9:00am #

    Cosign! This article breaks it down. The winds of change are blowing but its really up to us. I’m not to worried though, because the is ‘The Hip Hop Generation’ and Hip Hop is about participation. What ever element works for you, you have to find something and do it to say you are truly a member of this worldwide social movement. If the government that leads us begins to look more like the Universal Zulu Nation Anniversary Event in Seattle I just attended last weekend (http://206zulu.com.anniversary), then I belive there really is hope for humanity!

  10. Kristi said on February 19th, 2008 at 1:47pm #

    The only thing missing from the most excellent article was some glossy photos I could clip and paste to my walls and school notebook. Oh, and maybe next time, Alex Billet could tell us Barack’s favorite colors and what kind of girl he’s looking for? I really love the Teen People quality of this article. :D

  11. Chris Crass said on February 19th, 2008 at 1:47pm #

    “But the evidence suggests that he could not have been sealed off from the dynamic beats sweeping the city.”
    This sentence is amazing. Good job.

  12. Binh said on February 20th, 2008 at 5:07pm #

    How can anyone (Mike McNiven, Kristi) think this is a ringing endorsement of Obama given the 2nd to last paragraph?

  13. Mike McNiven said on February 21st, 2008 at 3:45am #

    the latest on the situation:

    http://www.counterpunch.org/fiyouzat02192008.html

  14. yojimbot said on September 27th, 2008 at 5:22pm #

    How is Obama not an imperialist? He’s talked about going into Pakistan and going after Bin Laden! But for me was the thing was when he said McCain wants to tax health benefits. Is this true?

  15. Deadbeat said on September 27th, 2008 at 11:44pm #

    Max says…

    Deadbeat and what pray tell are you going to do to facilitate this dialog now that Obama has opened up the space?

    Engage the throngs who are willing to vote for Obama as the only alternative. This is more than the left has done to embrace Nader’s run. Remember Max it was the Left that disengaged the anti-war movement primarily because the Left failed to confront Zionism. Also The Left abandoned Nader in 2004 leaving him in a weaker position for 2008.

    The Left can talk to itself or it can engage the people from where they are.