My President And Rap: Lupe Fiasco, Jay-Z, and Obama’s Relationship With Hip-Hop

Over at The New Republic, Erik Nielson has a somewhat strange piece up about President Obama’s relationship to what he projects as a monolithic hip-hop community:

Although he said in a 2008 interview that he saw a place for hip-hop in the national dialogue, his engagement with it has largely consisted of slips and quips — calling Kanye West a “jackass” for interrupting Taylor Swift at the Grammy’s, joking at the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner that he sings Young Jeezy to Michelle, revisiting the Kanye remark, and so forth. Yes, he has maintained a close relationship with Jay-Z, self-proclaimed hip-hop royalty, but perhaps more telling was his 29-song campaign playlist for 2012: It didn’t have a single rap song on it. This year’s inaugural playlist is revealing as well; while it does have songs by Nick Cannon and the Far East Movement that would qualify as rap, these aren’t exactly the names you’d expect from the man who claimed to “love” hip hop…

Other rappers have been far more ambivalent in their support. Speech, of Arrested Development, supported Obama in 2008, but came out for Ron Paul in 2011, saying he’d become disillusioned with Obama. But then, as the election approached, Speech hopped back on the bandwagon, taking to social media in support of the president and encouraging others to vote for him. Killer Mike came out in support of Obama in 2008, but on R.A.P. Music, one of the best albums of 2012, he went on the attack. On the song “Reagan,” he characterizes Obama as “just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters” and goes on to compare his foreign policy to the Gipper’s. Yet, even as that song was raising eyebrows across the country, Mike was insisting in interviews that he wanted Obama to win reelection, going so far as to claim that black voters would sell out their race if they didn’t support him in 2012: “If you don’t vote for Obama this time you’re a fuckin’ race traitor,” he said.

Nielson seems to assume that there’s such a thing as a coherent hip-hop community that determines both what does and doesn’t count as rap — even though MCing is a vocal style that’s thoroughly penetrated (and to a certain extent, been assimilated by) pop music — and that sets out a coherent political agenda that rappers collectively endorse. One of the things that’s been musically and politically fascinating about hip-hop in recent years has been its fragmentation, rather than its coherence. The East Coast-West Coast polarity is a thing of the past. Jay-Z made the transition to respectable mogul. Kanye West exemplifies the path of middle-class MCs. The internet’s made it easier than ever before for aspiring rappers to make tracks go viral — it’s a lot easier to email or tweet a link to a YouTube video or a SoundCloud playlist than to pass cassettes hand-to-hand. Hip-hop’s status as a giant business means that the antipathy for government Nielson talks about can mean a distaste for paying taxes as much as rage against the police. Credibility fights flare up all the time, but it’s not as if Nicki Minaj isn’t going to sign a giant American Idol judging contract because a Council of Hip-Hop Elders might look askance at her for it.

And ultimately, it’s totally possible for rappers, like the rest of us, to weigh disparate elements of a presidential candidate’s agenda and record and decide that, in a two-party system, a guy with, say a foreign policy record you find deplorable might be worth voting for anyway because of his domestic agenda. It makes total sense that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (who by Nielson’s standards might only “qualify as rap”) might be more excited about President Obama’s evolution on marriage equality than the kinds of guys who toss around “no homo” disclaimers, that Jay-Z might be paying more attention to the economy given his work in moving the Nets to rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn while Lupe Fiasco prioritizes the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes in the war on terror.

Saying hip-hop has a part in the national dialogue is an acknowledgement of what’s already happening musically, and a useful if overdue declaration that rappers aren’t pariah artists, excluded from the political conversation by virtue of their art form’s origins. But an openness to listening to new voices isn’t a commitment to a dialogue or a musical style. And Lord forbid hip-hop codify itself musically or politically as the price of getting to be heard politically.