The First Hiphop President?
If Bill Clinton was the first black president, what does that make Obama? Four Seattle rappers break it down.
Will Obama be the first hiphop president? Meaning: Is Obama a part or a representative of the hiphop generation? The generation—spanning 1989 to today—that filled its ears with every kind of scratch and rap? Is Obama this type of brother? Judging from recent conversations with a few hiphop artists in Seattle, the general feeling is that Obama was mostly missed by the hiphop world. Even though the "Yes We Can" video was produced by will.i.am (a member of the L.A.-based rap crew Black Eyed Peas), you could hardly call its music or style hiphop. The video is much closer in tone and mode to the United Colors of Benetton ads of the '80s, but with none of the shock (the very black breasts feeding a very white baby, the hand of a very black man handcuffed to the hand of a very white man, and so on and so on). Precisely what was announced by the appearance and popularity of "Yes We Can" was that we now live in a post-Benetton world—from here on, racial mixing is the stuff of yawns. As for the June 4 internet release of "Black President" by the veteran New York rapper Nas: Aren't you a bit late, Nas? Indeed, the track "Black President" exposes hiphop in a situation it has not known in much of its 30-year history: catching up with the rest of American culture.
The fact is, hiphop, at a mainstream level, did not see Obama coming, and this might be a sign of its age or its loss of relevance. From 50 Cent to RZA, support famously went to Hillary Clinton's run at the office. Hiphop missed the future. This is strange because the reputation hiphop has enjoyed for three decades is being the art that's ahead of the rest, that's breaking down the old and building the new. Hiphop abandoned live instruments and embraced sampling technology; hiphop abandoned traditional art and embraced graffiti; hiphop abandoned modern dancing on the stage and embraced breaking on the streets (the very subject of the 1984 movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo); hiphop abandoned poetry and embraced jive talking. Before the L.A. riots, there was N.W.A.; before the box-office success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there was Wu-Tang Clan; before Nicolas Sarkozy (France's bling-bling president), there was Notorious B.I.G. At one moment, hiphop had an influential comedy show, In Living Color, and also the hippest talk show in history, the Arsenio Hall Show, which in 1992 pretty much made Bill Clinton an "honorary negro." The combination of Clinton's appearance on Arsenio Hall and Toni Morrison's famous declaration in the New Yorker in 1998 made Bill Clinton "the first black president."
Hiphop gave Bill Clinton the mic and he blew his white soul into it. When the sax solo was done, Bill obtained one of the most desired things in American popular culture: street cred. Obama, on the other hand, is not musical; we can't picture him playing a sexy instrument or "cutting records down to the bone" on two turntables. When I asked the local rapper Thig, of Seattle's emerging hiphop duo the Physics, about hiphop and Obama—we were at the Rendezvous, the location for his new video, "Ready 4 We"—he said: "Well, I read somewhere that on his first date with Michelle, they went to watch Do the Right Thing. How many presidents have done that?" A date with an educated lady? A film by an established American director? It's just not hiphop enough. In fact, when the movie came out in 1989, the phrase "do the right thing" became instantly popular with white lawmakers trying to push bills through congress.
For his total embodiment of American professionalism and his enormous popularity with whites, many in the black community have wondered about Obama's blackness. "As a person of color, I think it's just plain crazy that someone can transcend race in this country," said Thig. "But that's what just happened and it surprised the hell out of me that [white] people could look beyond color... When I went to my caucus, there was like two black people there. And the white people were hella pumped—Obama hats, Obama buttons, Obama this, Obama that. It's like we are on the brink of going beyond race... I know America will not change overnight, but it's still damn impressive."
This has been expressed by other rappers, too. "It's like 'Wow, white America is not that mad at us no more,' or maybe white America thinks more of black men. This is what a lot of young black men are going to see, and think," said Silas Blak, who is one half of Silent Lambs Project and one of the most intelligent hiphop heads in the city. "It's almost like you went to high school with this one dude"—an Obama—"and you never really got cool with the dude but he always seemed really studious. You know the dude, like you wouldn't even jump on the dude or you wouldn't hang with him 'cause you were the coolest cat. But you know the dude and this motherfucker is now running for the presidency. So it's like: Well, damn! He fucking made it. All that studying fucking paid off. Now everything I can use to cling to him, I will use to cling to him."
Blak, however, believes Obama's success has more to do with timing than anything else. "I still don't believe America is looking at him as a black president. I think they're looking at him as an exceptional black guy who happens to be running at a time when Bush has been holding it down and the Clintons have been holding it down. What is it, 28 years or some shit like that?"
"My thing is that Barack didn't run black, but Barack is black," stated hiphop producer and activist J. Goldenschwartze, who was sitting with us. "The thing that happened is this: Before, a lot of brothers weren't down with Barack. But when Reverend Wright sold him out, that solidified him as a brother who was sold out by one of these niggas in the community—a hater that puts people down. We blacks saw him getting attacked, and that gave him street cred, right there."
Street cred! That most coveted thing. Even MC Karl Rove wanted a taste of it. Bill Clinton had a bumper crop of it when his blowjob in the Oval Office hit the front pages in 1998—because those on the right, those on the highest of horses, fiercely attacked his character. Due to the centuries of being labeled as bad, less than human, impure, and morally inferior, the tendency with black Americans has been not to side with people (white or black) who attack others or ideas from the position of moral superiority. Stone throwers never get street cred.
For Jace, the other half of the long-living Silent Lambs Project, Obama's blackness was not fully registered by Wright's attack but on the night he claimed the nomination in St. Paul, Minnesota. "His wife came up, right? And they gave each other the pound, but when she walked away, he gave her that tap on the behind. I don't know if anybody caught that, but it gave me a lot of respect for him because what it said was: Look, this is who I am. I know how to talk to you and how to make you understand where I'm coming from, but really, this is my nature. If my wife walks out of the house, I give her a hug and when she turns around to walk away, I give her that pat on her behind to say: 'I'll see you when you get back.' That solidified him for me."
At the end of our conversation, Jace made the fine and not very hiphop statement that because of Obama, "change is now on a higher level. You see what I mean? It's not just: I can change the way I dress; I can change my ideology. It's: Look at this brother who's about to be president of the United States, with a beautiful wife and children, and he hasn't changed. And he's the most celebrated individual in this country. So what it's showing brothers is: There is another way to do this. You can still be cool, still get your street cred, still have a beautiful woman, still make money—all that shit that you envy, you can now do it in a way that is right."