-- Common, "The People," Finding Forever
Whether or not he is aware of it, Barack Obama is the first hip-hop presidential candidate.
Like hip-hop, Obama rose from long-shot hopeful to fierce contender. But it is more than just his political style that is rooted within hip-hop culture. Forget the money-cash-hoes bacchanal showing in an endless loop on MTV and BET. Ignore the thousand and one variations on "Superman" floating around YouTube. Hip-hop culture is a unifying force, a potent combination of entrepreneurship, community activism, creativity, and innovation that appeals to youth across the globe. Barack Obama is the hip-hop candidate, not because of his racial identity or his oratory skills, but because his policies and approach to politics demonstrate that he understands the needs and desires of the hip-hop community.
In the late 1980s Chuck D famously identified hip-hop as "the black CNN." Back then, hip-hop was all about language and wordplay, and the best rappers carried around a rhyming dictionary in preparation for the inevitable freestyle battle. But words were just the beginning -- hip-hop was first and foremost about community. Community started on the streets, wherever teenagers congregated to spend the days of their youth. It spread to the block parties, which allowed everyone with a few dollars a chance to showcase their best dance moves, and expanded to the record studio, where a successful track was the result of intense collaborations between lyricists and producers. In the 2003 film, Brown Sugar, Saana Lathan plays an intrepid magazine editor whose signature question cuts right to the core of every person she interviews: When did you fall in love with hip-hop? More than music, more than graffiti, more than turntables, hip-hop was a cohesive bond that served to unite the disaffected post-civil-rights generation. Hip-hop isn’t just music -- it is a way of life.
As time went on, hip-hop became a global social movement. From Cuba to Kenya, Puerto Rico to Palestine, hip-hop is the soundtrack for those looking to change the status quo. Activism has always been a key component of hip-hop culture. One of hip-hop’s founding fathers, Afrika Bambaataa, used his hip-hop cred to unite warring gangs and to discourage the use of angel dust among revelers at his parties. Early 1980s tracks like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" and Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" exhorted listeners to engage in the community. "Self-Destruction" was a seminal track featuring hip-hop artists of the day railing against the cultural factors (like violence and drug use) that imperiled the black community. KRS-One, who appeared on the track, spearheaded the Stop the Violence movement. Dozens of other hip-hoppers started their own coalitions with causes ranging from children’s programs to rehabilitating the hood.
Hip-hop activism has tackled civic engagement as well. The Rock the Vote campaign in 2004 succeeded registering 800,000 new voters and in getting record numbers of hip-hoppers to the polls.
Scarcely a generation old, hip-hop culture is also learning the value of shared wealth, with big names like Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Sean John (last known as Diddy), Ludacris, and 50 Cent providing funds for everything from children's health initiatives to relief for the Gulf coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Obama's campaign incorporates all of these hallmarks of hip-hop. Obama has positioned himself as the straight-talking community organizer who wants to rise above politics and accomplish real change in the way this country operates. Is it any wonder that hip-hoppers like Common and Talib Kweli have come out in full force for him?
Soulstice, the critically acclaimed underground emcee and college radio sensation, believes Obama embodies hip-hop because "he's a self-made American who happens to be black. Not only is [being self-made] an ideal in hip-hop, it gets at the core of the American Dream."
"In terms of black youth, especially black males, I think his draw is strengthened by the fact that Obama not only represents the ideals of hip-hop but openly embraces the fact that hip-hop has tremendous potential to make a positive impact," says Soulstice.
Obama's opponents allege that he puts forth "more style than substance," a critique that echoes one of the long-standing criticisms of hip-hop as a flashy trend or passing fad. And like Obama, hip-hoppers consider the idea of "waiting your turn" to be the kiss of death. Generation hip-hop wants what we want when we want it, and we will pursue it to the end -- be it landing a record deal, starting a clothing line, forming an independent label, or having the guts to walk away from a bad situation and forge a new path. The hip-hop generation is not willing to wait for someone else to give it permission to succeed.
When former congressman and first African American ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young said Obama should be president "in 2016," Obama ignored the comment. Now he's won the endorsements of Caroline Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Kennedy, and John Kerry. Refusing to genuflect to the old guard has garnered Obama quite a few snippy comments, most focusing on his "lack of experience." Still, Obama manages to keep his original goal of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in sight.
After all, if there is one thing hip-hop does well, it's shaking off the haters.
Still, hip-hop experts disagree about Obama's relationship to the movement.
"Obama is not the first candidate to embrace the hip-hop generation," says Jeff Chang author of the phenomenal hip-hop history Can't Stop, Won't Stop. Chang notes that previous presidential hopefuls Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton Jr. both tipped their hats to the growing influence of hip-hop culture. However, Chang says that while Kucinich's interest seemed more academic and Sharpton often positions himself as a paternal figure to youth, "Obama doesn't insult our generation's intelligence." He continued, "I think many of us welcome that candor."
Others welcome Obama's lack of a moralizing tone. James Dickerson -- who prefers to be referred to by his online moniker, The Humanity Critic, writes and blogs for Vibe.com. His blog, The Nappy Diatribe has dedicated a lot of Web space to the presidential campaign, with a particular focus on the perception of Barack Obama. When asked if he would describe Barack Obama as a hip-hop candidate, he said, "Personally, I would. So many African American politicians have historically played the 'black cop' role when it comes to hip-hop -- going out of their way to rail against the art form as a whole simply to ease the fears of future white voters. Barack has yet [to do this] and, as far as I can tell, will never do this."
And Humanity Critic lauded Obama's on-the-record statements about being a fan of "the art of hip-hop."
"The cultural significance is huge," he says. "[Obama] breaks the cycle of black leaders, many of them who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement, who just have had a disconnect with the hip-hop community."
But inspiring the hip-hop generation is about more than just music and lyrics. According to Chang, the biggest concerns of the hip-hop generation are "ending the war, expanding access to higher education while reducing indebtedness, establishing health care for the poor, and rolling back the laws that criminalize and disproportionately incarcerate them."
Obama's campaign addresses these issues directly. He has positioned himself as the candidate who was opposed to the Iraq War from the start -- and proposed legislation to end it, supported the timetable for troop withdrawal, and has outlined a plan to remove all combat brigades from Iraq over the course of 16 months if elected. The proposed American Opportunity Tax Credit will help make most community and state colleges affordable at any income level. Obama has also called for simplifying the financial-aid filing process, which will help lower-income students who want access to higher education but are intimidated by the process or impeded by a parent’s inaccurate record keeping.
Obama's plan tackling poverty and inequality across America would invest over a billion dollars into transitional jobs and career-pathway programs that directly benefit those who did not follow a traditional educational path, or who need assistance entering society after being incarcerated. And while Obama's health-care plan has been criticized for its lack of a universal mandate, it does guarantee coverage for the most vulnerable members of our society: children.
And, even after taking a little media-driven political heat for his comments, Obama still supports eliminating the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine, reforming the mandatory minimum provisions, expanding drug courts and improving the quality of public defenders for those in need of legal counsel -- all issues that disproportionately impact communities of color.
The last time we had a candidate who inspired such dramatic change, the time was the 1960s and the soundtrack was rock. Here we sit, in 2008, on the eve of a historic election. The time for change has come -- and this time, the soundtrack will be hip-hop.