Senator and 2016 GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio is a “hiphop connoisseur,” or so the National Journal’s social media person would have us believe. The last time Rubio cashed in some rap cred was in a November interview with GQ, and that interview appears to have a decent shelf life with the DC media. It’s the sole source for the lead section of the National Journal listicle that argues the Florida senator’s “eclectic taste in music” is a key to his appeal as the next face of a political party that’s not so much reinventing itself as taking sandpaper to its rough edges. Rubio’s hip. He’s with it. He knows the name of hiphop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. He knows Tupac was from New York. He knows Eminem is “the only guy that speaks at any sort of depth.” He– wait, what?
GQ: Your three favorite rap songs?
Marco Rubio: “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A. “Killuminati” by Tupac. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”…I’m not like an athlete. The only guy that speaks at any sort of depth is, in my mind, Eminem. He’s a guy that does music that talks about the struggles of addiction and before that violence, with growing up in a broken family, not being a good enough father. So, you know that’s what I enjoy about it. It’s harder to listen to than ever before because I have a bunch of kids and you just can’t put it on.
If you think “the only guy that speaks at any sort of depth” is Eminem, you do not listen to enough hiphop. If “Lose Yourself” is your favorite Eminem song, you don’t listen to enough Eminem. And if you’re milking hiphop for credibility while marginalizing its challenges to the kinds of policies and narratives that Republicans run on, you might need to test your listening comprehension, period.
But there’s something worse than poseur bombast afoot if you tell a national men’s magazine that Em’s the only deep or even sort of deep emcee, during a conversation predicated on how cool and rooted and atypical-Republican you are as a person. You’re counting on that magazine being so enthralled by the notion of a Republican who has a passing knowledge of rap that they don’t notice how ignorant and shallow a statement you just made. You’re trusting that your interviewer won’t come back with a question about the potential subtexts of claiming that the only current rapper with rich and abiding lyrical value is the white one. Most of all, you’re manufacturing an image of a conservative capable of communing with the youths, giving future profile writers a ready-made clickbait depiction of you as “Not Your Grandfather’s Republican.” (Those reporters will even give you credit for understanding “how early ’90s rappers in California were like journalists who reported on the conditions in their communities,” as the Journal’s Elahe Izadi did, despite the fact that Rubio doesn’t express that (accurate) notion in the GQ interview she linked.)
This second lap of the Marco Rubio, Rap Prodigy circuit says less about Rubio than about political media, but it’s still worth spending a moment on what Rubio’s actually telling us about himself in that GQ interview. He’s telling us that as a younger man, he was an active enough participant in hiphop as a culture to know Bambaataa and spend real time with Pac’s catalog. And he’s telling us that the kid who gave due attention to that culture is long gone, replaced by somebody who can’t bother listening to any of the dozens or hundreds of rappers and other prominent artists whose depth at least matches Mr. Mathers’. But he still wants credit for that departed kid, in the form of the political cachet that being the cool Republican might bring.
He’s also telling us that while he once appreciated the sense of living under constant threat from a brutal, prejudicial, racist state that energizes “Straight Outta Compton,” he’s now incapable of seeing depth in rap unless it’s about a much narrower range of social problems. The transition from appreciating N.W.A. to thinking Eminem’s turn as guidance counselor or motivational speaker on “Lose Yourself” was his greatest cultural contribution is revealing. Rubio’s not saying he’s turned on N.W.A., and he still lists “Straight Outta Compton” among his favorites. But the only stories hiphop is producing today that interest him have nothing to do with systems of repression and the cops who enforce them.
If Rubio wants to brand himself as a hiphop head, he should listen to Ka. He should listen to Ghostface. He should listen to Kendrick Lamar, and Brother Ali, and the mighty Souls of Mischief. But he probably won’t, because he’s already gotten what he came for: an eager regurgitation of his desired public image from a complacent, bemused, and apparently rap-averse political media.
My guest blogger is Alan Pyke, a writer and commentator on film, television, fiction, music, and politics, with a particular fascination for hiphop. He reviews movies and concerts for BrightestYoungThings.