Why Rep. Trey Radel’s Embrace Of Hip-Hop Misses The Point On Rap’s Politics


Credit: Naples News

Credit: Naples News

Rep. Trey Radel, a Republican from Florida, made headlines yesterday for tweeting his impressions of Jay-Z’s latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. And today, he continued to extend his time in the news cycle by writing a piece for BuzzFeed about how hip-hop influenced him as a young man growing up in the suburbs. In doing so, he’s following a relatively familiar path trod by Sen. Marco Rubio before him: hip-hop has become conservatives cultural weapon of choice for attempting to demonstrate that they’re as hip and with it (and of course, as racially conscious) as Democrats.

But it’s decades too late for middle-aged white dudes to claim some sort of cultural prescience simply because they listen to hip-hop now, or even because they listened to it in their now-distant youths (Radel is 37). Hip-hop’s so throughly captured mainstream American music–not to mention the presence it’s claimed for itself in movies, high fashion, and television–that it’s almost more square to suggest that listening to hip-hop makes you cool than it is to cite country as your favorite musical genre.

And the most illustrative thing about conservatives who come out as hip-hop fans is often not their attempts to garner racial or cultural credibility, but what they claim to take out of the music. “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,” my colleague Alan Pyke wrote in February of Marco Rubio’s citation of Eminem as the only rapper speaking in depth about the impact of addiction and the lack of a fatherly presence in a man’s life.

In Radel’s case, he’s arguing that hip-hop makes the case for a small-government libertarianism:

Of course, as a young, rebellious kid, I felt a thrill listening to this music. Immediately, the hip-hop artists did what artists have been doing for centuries – they opened my eyes up to a whole new world. NWA was doing what blues, folk and rock stars have been doing for generations- they were describing hardship and pain. They described their experience as young, black men coming of age during the crack epidemic, gang wars and violence in every direction. Where else could a sheltered suburban kid hear or learn about these issues in such a graphic way? Not the local library.

My love of hip hop never ceased and included the aforementioned Chuck D of Public Enemy. Chuck said it best, “our freedom of speech is freedom or death.” This is a message we can all get behind, Republican or Democrat. I find a conservative message in “Fight the Power” because I believe when government expands it becomes a political tool meant to oppress. We see it when Chuck D addresses oppression and the Civil Rights movement or references the Black Panthers. We see it when NWA, or even old-school artists like Paris, address harassment from law enforcement. Targeting and oppression is happening today, from the IRS going after political groups to the government spying on journalists and everyday American citizens.

There is an argument to be made that African-Americans could find a political home in libertarianism. But the good version of it isn’t to suggest that police harassment and racial profiling are the same thing as NSA surveillance, or the Internal Revenue Service auditing political groups. Instead, there’s a case to be made, one that my friend Jonathan Blanks is one of the most effective proponents of, that, given their historical experience in the United States, African-Americans have racially specific reasons to be suspicious of state power. One of the better responses to that case, which Radel’s piece doesn’t even touch on, is that historically oppressed groups like African-Americans, who collectively experience poverty, under-education, housing discrimination, and over-incarceration that are the result of deliberate public policy choices, have a particular interest in state action to redress those past wrongs. The kind of music Radel listened to as a kid acknowledges both of those realities, arguing both for self-reliance and self-improvement, but also for changes to policies that produced the outcomes that made self-reliance necessary in the first place. It’s difficult to argue that your love of hip-hop proves your racial bonafides if you aren’t comfortable or able to talk about the racial realities and nuances of the music you’re embracing.

Conservatives’ attempts to claim hip-hop as a genre for their own don’t seem likely to end any time soon. The genre’s cultural capital is too significant to resist, even when your attempt is a stretch. But if conservative politicians and organizations like AEI, which released a ludicrous list of the best conservative rap songs in May, are going to keep making the effort to argue that hip-hop is an inherently conservative genre, or that it inspired their conservative politics, they’re going to have to find better examples, or start acknowledging that there’s some daylight between the music that fired them up, and the directions in which they took that energy.