Monday, January 21, 2013

What Became of the Hip-Hop President?


It all seems so far away now. In 2008, “hip-hop president” was floating somewhere right behind “hope,” “change,” and other buzzwords ushered in by the Presidential candidacy of one Barack Hussein Obama.

Not in 2012. The outpouring of energy and celebration upon Obama’s reelection wasn’t one of celebration so much as what hip-hop journalist Davey D calls “cheers of relief.” The relief was certainly warranted; after all, the alternative believed that 47 percent of the American population are scum and wanted to open windows on airplanes.

This was drastically different, though, from the huge spontaneous rallies that flooded Chicago’s Grant Park and campuses across America in 2008. The youthful elation, the feeling of real and genuine hope, the feeling of “this world is ours,” was completely absent. Never mind the rhetoric of a hip-hop president’s ascendancy. Four years of reality has certainly washed away much of the hope and optimism of having a community organizer, an African American, at the helm of a country built on slavery and wracked by recession.

Likewise, the timbre of the 2013 inauguration is notably different from that of January ‘09. Half a million attendees is nothing to sneeze at, but the gap in enthusiasm has meant that Obama’s oath of office is far from being one of the most watched moments in television history, as it was four years ago. Nor has there been the outpouring of singles and mixtapes celebrating the prez like there was last time.

In fact, the closest hip-hop and the presidency came to colliding this time around was the night before, when Lupe Fiasco was kicked off the stage at a Washington, DC event celebrating the inauguration. The concert organizers -- who evidently were oblivious to Lupe’s long-standing and pointed criticisms of the Obama administration -- were apparently shocked when the rapper launched into a 30 minute version of “Words I Never Said,” where he repeated his famed line “Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit!”

And all of this coming to light on Martin Luther King Day, a day when we are encouraged to remember that the Civil Rights leader had “a dream,” but not that he once called the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” At his inauguration Obama -- the man whose greatest gift to foreign policy has been the expanded use of the unmanned drone -- took his oath of office on a bible that once belonged to Dr. King, a man who preached non-violence. I would laugh, but irony this biting it likely to rip off my tongue.

Thinking back to election 2008, it’s easy to understand the allure and excitement that surrounded Obama. Here, after all, was a candidate who drummed up imagery of the struggle against slavery and the Civil Rights movement on the campaign trail. His rhetoric pointed to an end to the Iraq war and shutting down the torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay. When his pastor was attacked for invoking the very real racism the built America, Obama jumped to the front and insisted that yes, this was is a country with a very real and ugly past that had yet to be reckoned with.

What’s more, as if to prove just how with it he was, he was the first mainstream Presidential candidate who didn’t treat hip-hop culture like a skin rash. Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” was seized upon by the campaign and played on the jumbotron at campaign rallies. And of course, who can forget the fist bumps (infamously labeled the “terrorist fist-jab” by Bill O’Reilly)? What about admitting to having Jay-Z on his iPod, or his admiration for hip-hop’s "entrepreneurial spirit?”

Compare this to, say, Bill Clinton’s treatment of hip-hop. Fifteen years before Obama’s star began to rise, then-Governor Clinton made a stop at the NAACP to compare Sister Souljah’s comments about the Los Angeles riots ( "If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?") to those of white supremacist David Duke.

Given the high degree of scapegoating and surveillance that hip-hop was under from the likes of everyone from Tipper Gore to the FBI, Clinton’s comparison made for easy political point-scoring. The soon-to-be president’s shewd maneuver not only gave “the Sister Souljah moment” to American punditry, it innovated the way that politicians targeted hip-hop culture: using it as a straw man for some supposed “excess” on the part of African America rather than recognize it as a reflection of very real racism and inequity. This, from the man who Toni Morrison called “the first Black president.”

Contrasted with this, the first actual Black president’s relative ease with hip-hop culture seemed a massive shift, a huge breath of fresh air. It certainly didn’t hurt that people like Russell Simmons were saying these kinds of things about him:

He's gracious, and he's humble... I think in his heart, he believes we should take care of the people who are struggling in this country. As you get, you give... I'm very excited about having a president who can promote good will around the world rather than fear and anger.

Simmons endorsed Obama enthusiastically, as did Jay-Z, Will.i.am and other big-wigs like Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Common and Kanye West. Before long, the term had actually become something of a cultural marker, and the young senator from Illinois milked it for all it was worth.

Sure enough, Obama is still doing things like name-dropping Young Jeezy at the White House Correspondents Dinner, but everyone’s grandma also taught them that actions speak louder than words. Obama’s administration has done little to alleviate the fallout of the Great Recession in America; the people who were struggling in this country four years ago are still struggling. In fact, they’re worse off now than they were then.

And where, once again, is the hip-hop president in all of this? Jasiri X has a take on it: “To put it in musical terms, I guess you could say he ‘went pop.’” Jasiri is an MC whose profile among heads has grown the past five or so years. Taking Chuck D’s quip about rap being “CNN for Black people” literally, he’s recorded and released songs about current events and struggles online -- sometimes literally as they’re happening. One of his first songs to reach a national audience was “Oscar Grant,” released mere days after the twenty-two-year-old was shot dead by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in Oakland.

When you’re talking about hip-hop you’re talking about music that came out of an urban environment -- poor Black and brown communities. And when you look at Obama’s track record on poor Black and brown communities, it’s pretty bad. Black unemployment has gone up, he’s deported more undocumented people than any other president. I look at him and think "wow."

And to be sure, there are lots of young people thinking “wow” as Obama racks up his betrayals. Still, there are lessons here. And for those who have heard in hip-hop a reflection of our own struggles and fights against degradation and inequality would do well remind ourselves of them.

The roots of hip-hop and the rise of neoliberalism

There’s a great amount of symbolic symmetry in hip-hop’s current status. All the talk of “hip-hop president” came at a time when the mortgage bubble had popped and the American economy was descending into a tailspin, and setting in motion what we now know the worst worldwide economic crisis since the Great Depression. It’s a reality that continues to be very real and utterly un-ignorable.

Jobs lost, homes snatched from their owners, the desperation and anger at being forgotten--none of this was nothing really new to hip-hop. One might even say that hip-hop knows these conditions better than any other culture. Jeff Chang traces the conditions of the mid ‘70s South Bronx in his essential Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop:

Here was the new math: the South Bronx had lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs; 40 percent of the sector disappeared. By the mid-seventies, average per capita income dropped to $2,430, just half of the New York City average and 40 percent of the nationwide average. The official youth unemployment rate hit 60 percent. Youth advocates said that in some neighborhoods the true number was closer to 80 percent. If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work.

This was what a bust looked like then, as the sustained economic boom after World War II came grinding to spectacular halt. Whole cities were going broke, including the Big Apple. When in 1975 Mayor Abraham Beame went hat in hand to President Gerald Ford requesting emergency federal assistance, he was rebuffed outright, provoking the now-infamous New York Daily News headline “Ford To City: Drop Dead.”

The insistence that this necessarily makes hip-hop, or any style for that matter, “inherently political” is a bit glib. What DJ Kool Herc did on the turntables may have been aesthetically revolutionary, but a political radical he’s never been. Others, of course (Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D) have proven to be just that. For the bulk, however, their musical exploration had to be navigated in a treacherous socio-political reality. The Civil Rights movement had faded, the Black Panthers had been crushed. What few jobs and community centers the ghettos had had were now replaced by condemned apartment buildings, riots and a growing dope epidemic. Ford, then later Carter and Reagan, weren’t just turning a blind eye to the gains of the ‘60s, they were seeking to roll those gains back any way they could.

Stepping back and taking in the story of hip-hop’s first fifteen or so years, the patterns and movements within the genre all seem to indelibly line up with America’s steady abuse of its Black community -- and the resistance it provoked. The New York Police Department’s murder of young graffiti artist Michael Stewart in 1983 came at the tail end of hip-hop’s emergence from the Bronx into the vibrant downtown art scene. Spike Lee’s modern classic Do The Right Thing made a direct reference to Stewart’s death with the police beating of Radio Rahim, and the inclusion of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was one of the things that helped propel that song up the charts in 1989.

In 1988, as the nation’s police militarized themselves in the name of the “war on drugs,” the outrage against the systematic violence against communities of color had mutated into the gangsta rap of the west coast, most notoriously in N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police.” If the powers-that-be would have paid attention to this or any other song (rather than try to censor them), they would have seen that all the cultural markers were there for Black America to explode like a powderkeg.

As history would have it, none of them were paying attention, and explode Black America certainly did in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Sure enough, this urban rebellion against the flagrant racist violence of the cops and the complicity of the system in acquitting those responsible showed up in the lyrics of countless hip-hop songs for years to come.

The progression of the 1990s, and the endless Clintonian drone about a booming economy that still seemed to leave poor people of color out of the loop, may have been one of the factors in hip-hop splitting into several different branches and sub-genres during that decade -- particularly after the death of Tupac Shakur in ‘96. The differentiation between mainstream and underground became pronounced, as it did in much of rock music. Hip-hop was as rebellious as ever in some ways, but it was also becoming a multi-billion dollar business.

Perhaps it was simply tough to keep the marker of rebellion going amidst the ubiquitous refrain of prosperity -- however empty that refrain may have been. The latter half of the ‘90s were a time when the music industry’s consolidation began to reach absurd levels, and music whose sound and content reflected the reality for most people was -- save a few exceptions -- narrow. Hip-hop became a multi-million dollar business, with many a mogul rising up, but it also included creative independent voices like Lauryn Hill, Nas, Talib Kweli and the Roots. These were the artists willing willing to talk about the police slaying of Amadou Diallo or the fight to free former Black Panther and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. In the context of a growing low-wage economy and the specter of corporate globalization, hip-hop was one of the few rays of hope.

He’s got ninety-nine problems, but the prez ain’t one

Lots has changed in thirty years. A lot has stayed the same too. Now, presidents of both parties are happy dole out financial bailouts -- to banks though; not cities. What has remained the same are the solutions for crisis: attack any and all gains that working people might still enjoy, especially those enjoyed by people of color.

Hip-hop has certainly evolved too. From Bronx phenomenon to downtown New York fad to global culture, from an artform considered at best novel by the mainstream to an industry raking in billions every year.

It seems worth noting that those who harped the hardest on the “hip-hop president” tropes were those who benefited the most from the great boom in hip-hop and rap over the past two decades. Though Russell Simmons, P. Diddy and Jay-Z were far from the only ones touting Obama, but they were definitely among the most vocal. These figures, to put it bluntly, are among those who have benefited the most from hip-hop’s emergence not just as a music genre but as a brand. They’re not exactly the kind of hard-scrabble folks forced to pirate electricity from a streetlight to power their decks.

Simmons, as one of the founders of Def Jam Recordings, has been an estimated net worth of $500 million. His successor at Def Jam Jay-Z has a net worth of $475 million. Combs, as the founder of Bad Boy Entertainment, is also worth around $500 million.

None of this is to say that these artists haven’t made some incredibly important contributions to the style. Jay-Z’s skills on the microphone are undeniable; Diddy, for as much as this writer can’t stand him, signed Biggie back in the day, which is worthy of some serious respect. Same with Simmons. The question is actually about the material position of these artists and whether their interests are actually the same as the artists and fans who have made them millionaires. Does this mean that we need to chuck every album produced by them out our window? Hardly. But it does mean we should start calling them what they are, how hip-hop activist Rosa Clemente refers to them: hip-hop capitalists.

This divergence of interest between hip-hop’s elite and the masses of heads at its base was rather clearly displayed during the height of the Occupy movement. Simmons was vocal in his support of the occupation of Zuccotti Park and the first mass movement against American inequality in almost two generations. Diddy didn’t have much to say about it.

Jay-Z, on the other hand, had plenty to say. So much in fact that he put it on a shirt. The “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts that dropped in October in 2011 -- which featured the W on “Wall Street” scratched out and an S added -- were naturally assumed by many activists to be in solidarity with the new and insurgent movement. When Jay clarified that not one red cent would be donated back to the movement, however, feelings soured quite quickly.

Every penny made off the Occupy All Streets tees went back to Jay’s own Rocawear clothing company. Though there was a short-lived belief that Jay-Z had pulled the shirts after the controversy, it was eventually discovered that the shirts had merely sold out, many of them no doubt bought by hip-hoppers wanting to show some love for the movement. Many Rocawear garments, by the way, are assembled in Honduran sweatshops.

Since Obama’s election, Jay-Z hasn’t commented quite so much on politics. When he has it’s been somewhat equivocal. During the 2012 election season he held several political fundraisers for Obama, but also told MTV something that flies in the face of what one would expect from a Democrat: “I think we need less government."

Simmons, for his own part, after Occupy began to hit more than its share of snags and confusion, and after it began to recede in the background, snapped back into a place of rather uncritical support for Obama. His participation in the “90 Days, 90 Reasons” project (as in “reasons to vote for the President”) was in the form of a statement as impassioned as it was misguided:

When [Chicago high-schooler] Derrion Albert was killed on September 24, 2009, our nation witnessed, through a cell phone video camera, the horrors of a young man beaten to death. It not only awoke the nation, but it was also the catalyst for a new initiative started by President Obama, [Education] Secretary Duncan, and Attorney General Holder. The National Forum for Youth Violence Prevention was started in six cities soon after the death of Derrion. Its task is to examine old models and implement new ones to be used by local cities to combat violence in their communities.

Simmons’ use of the Derrion Albert tragedy was prescient. After his gruesome killing went viral, several pundits both within and outside of the hip-hop community were quick to ponder whether their culture had contributed to his death. Almost nobody stepped forth to demand better schools and smaller class sizes, more resources poured into the communities that have been sucked dry since the days of Reagan. Few pointed out that the strangling and privatization of schools pushed in Obama and Duncan’s “Race To the Top” education policy would likely result in more Derrion Alberts, not fewer. Much like the well-worn discussions over hip-hop’s supposed violence, Simmons’ stumping for the prez played the role of red herring par excellence.

Why I ain’t vote for him, next one neither

This isn’t to say that hip-hop’s high status in American culture guarantees its acceptance by all sectors of the establishment. From the more staunchly right (and white) wing of the political spectrum we’ve seen the same kind of gutter scapegoating of rappers that we’ve come to expect. When in 2011 the President invited Common to perform at a White House event, Sarah Palin added her two cents -- even though nobody really asked: "The White House's judgment on inviting someone who would glorify cop killing during Police Memorial Week, of all times, you know, the judgment, it's just so lacking of class and decency."

Palin didn’t seem to realize that Common’s lyrics are probably among hip-hop’s most tame, and that he’s never actually penned a song that promoted cop killing. She unsurprisingly was never asked to cite any lyrics, so we were supposed to just trust her as she essentially assumed that a Black man wants to go around indiscriminately killing people. If America was now “post-racial,” then it appears that Palin didn’t get the memo.

But neither, for that matter, did Obama. Around two months before the 2012 elections, several stories were published reporting that the state of Black America had actually worsened compared to whites over the past four years. When Obama was inaugurated in 2009, white unemployment was 7.1 percent, with unemployment among African Americans at 12.7. Two months before Obama’s reelection, the white unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, and 14.1 percent for African Americans; almost twice that of their white counterparts. More than half of all Black Americans under the age of 25 lack a full-time job.

Nowhere is this more true than among people of color. In fact, the structural makings of what law professor Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow have assured that the aspirations of a large amount of people of color will go unfulfilled. Systematic racial profiling, “stop-and-frisk” laws, the shamefully disproportionate numbers of young black men railroaded to jail for non-violent offenses, the endless repercussions of criminal records when applied to people of color, all assure that the deck remains fixed in “post-racial America.”

It’s these basic, seemingly unshakable inequalities that have actually had the hip-hop community much more divided over Obama than many of us may have believed. Nobody in the mainstream of radio and MTV has been more firmly ensconced in the sceptics camp than Lupe Fiasco. In fact, the hubbub the night before the inauguration isn’t the first time he’s been in trouble over his opposition to to the president. Still, the virulent opposition he often provokes from other rappers defending Obama makes him seem rather isolated.

But underneath the rather hegemonic image promoted by the music industry, the hip-hop community’s relationship with Obama has always been much more complicated, even divisive at times. Well respected and influential acts like dead prez, who have always been known for their far-left and revolutionary stances, performed at the Democratic National Convention in Denver during the 2008 elections, where they pilloried the party’s nominee. Some others, like Nas, enthusiastically endorsed Obama but raised some very real concerns about the soon-to-be president’s ability to actually effect the change to which he spoke so eloquently.

One of 2012’s most controversial tracks -- especially given that it was released right in the midst of election season -- was Atlanta-based Killer Mike’s “Reagan,” in which the MC went so far as to compare Obama with the darling president of American conservatism. In particular, Mike took issue with the president’s spearheading of the invasion of Libya:

Ronald Reagan was a actor, not at all a factor
Just an employee of the country’s real masters 
Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama 
Just another talking-head telling lies on teleprompters 
If you don’t believe the theory, then argue with this logic: 
Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Gaddafi?

Nonetheless, Mike (who identifies as a Pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist) reluctantly supported Obama’s reelection for a fact that many other progressives found familiar: it appeared that there was no alternative. Whether this means that Killer Mike’s rhymes will somehow cease to take on the worst failings and crimes of the administration isn’t clear, but it’s also rather doubtful.

Among those who refused to endorse Obama either time around are Bronx-via-Chicago group Rebel Diaz, who have built a solid reputation over the years not just as excellent performers and artists but committed organizers around immigrant rights, police brutality and international solidarity. In 2008, they released their “Open Letter to Barack Obama,” which starts out by acknowledging the real palpable excitement at his election but displays real reservations from the outset:

Man we can’t even deny the inspiration that you’ve given to the hood
Everybody’s talkin’ about you,
Everybody’s wearin’ your t-shirts,
Hip-hop is getting politicized
But what are we really sayin’ man? What are we really voting for?
You know what I mean? What’s really goin’ on?
What are you goin’ to do for the hood?
What change is really gonna come for our community?

As the song progresses, the reservations evolve into full-on condemnations of Obama’s silence on the hood’s suffering, and his outright complicity:

Mr. Barack, Mr. Barack I’m sayin Obama
Mr. corporate sell-out to the imperialist dollar.
What about Sean Bell what did you say after the verdict?
I know it had to touch you that a black man was murdered.
You talk about family, Sean Bell had a wife [sic]
But you ain’t say nothing when her justice was denied.

This great variance of ideas reflects the same among what many pundits are referring to as “the new electorate” in the wake of the 2012 elections. Broadly speaking, this is the most multiracial generation of young people that America has ever seen, and are without a doubt the key reason that Obama was both elected and reelected. The contradiction is that while most voted for him to stave off the wave of budget cuts and attacks on working people’s future, Obama’s second term will be overseeing just this kind of austerity, albeit carrying it out in a different way.

This contradiction means that America’s young working poor remains explosive as ever, and Obama’s attachment to his “business as usual” policies” means that explosions -- like Occupy, like WalMart workers organizing and striking -- are imminent. Chang, referencing the case that enraged Jasiri X and many others like him, puts it succinctly: “Could Barack Obama have stopped Oscar Grant from being shot? No, so I think hip-hop still has lots of work to do.”

Obama also couldn’t stop Trayvon Martin from being gunned down in cold blood by a racist vigilante in Sanford, Florida. Grant’s murder, a mere two weeks before Obama’s inauguration, seemed an ominous reminder of the wide gap between hope and reality. Martin’s death, right as the 2012 campaign season gained steam, seemed a bookend on how static things had remained for poor Americans and people of color.

The protests that followed George Zimmerman’s flagrant act of profiling and violence also produced much of the same solidarity from the hip-hop community that was seen around the deaths of Sean Bell and Oscar Grant. While it took a full three weeks of growing demonstrations before Obama would even mention Trayvon’s name, hip-hop artists from across the gamut were speaking out almost from day one: dead prez and Mos Def (right before he became Yasiin Bey), Immortal Technique, Young Jeezy, Mistah FAB, Jay-Z. These were rappers whose political scope ranged from moderate to radical to cultural nationalist, whose position in the industry encompases underground mainstay to mainstream success to straight up mogul.

Looking at this cross-section, it seems clear that hip-hop as whole becomes its most outspoken when a tragedy like Trayvon’s murder forces the basic racism so essential to the American setup back to the forefront. This painful reality, the daily struggle against it, and the promise of something better are all essential to hip-hop. It’s a pain that can’t be alleviated by what Mumia calls “Black faces in high places.” And it’s a promise that won’t be fulfilled until we can truly consign racism, poverty and war to history’s trash-heap.

First published at Red Wedge magazine

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