How Hip-Hop Lost Faith in Obama: A Lesson in Lyrics
A few months before the 2008 election, the Queens-bred rapper Nas released his song “Black President,” hip-hop’s most direct ode supporting Barack Obama. The song invokes the famous campaign slogan “Yes We Can” and samples the title line from an early nineties 2Pac recording. Halfway through the track, Nas encapsulates what Obama means to him: “I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds / Of all races and colors to erase the hate / And try and love one another, so many political snakes / We in need of a break.”
Three years later, that hope has turned into disillusionment. MCs are still rhyming words with “Obama,” and their young fans aren’t likely to lend their support to the GOP anytime soon, but the fervor of 2008 has dimmed virtually every place you look. Obama’s nods in rap songs are no exception.
“The way he was interspersed with the hip hop industry and popular sentiment [was] very unique and in the moment,” says Bakari Kitwana, the former editor of The Source magazine. “It was Obama speaking a truth to power that hip-hop fully embraced. That sense of hope has since passed.”
For evidence, some rap musicologists have looked no further than rap songs themselves. Thomas Chatterton Williams, a commentator on hip-hop culture, says simply, “I don't hear as many references to him in lyrics.”
A search of RapGenius.com, which tracks and explains the lyrics to thousands of hip-hop songs, finds 184 songs mentioning “Obama,” 55 mentioning “Barack” and 24 with the exact phrase “black president.” Meanwhile, any combination of “George” and “Bush” show up only 75 times.
The president usually surfaces in one of three ways: as a symbol of hope, mostly in songs produced before and immediately after the 2008 race; as a rhyme for words like "rock" and "holla"; and in a handful of songs criticizing the economics and politics following Obama’s election. While some artists, like Lupe Fiasco, address the president directly, most lyrics in the third category mourn how, in the Obama era, the change his voters once hoped for has eluded them.
In the song "Please, No Pictures" released earlier this year, the political rap group Bin Laden Blowin Up, or BBU, takes on a gamut of political issues that occurred under Obama’s watch and that disproportionately affected minorities and the poor, from the BP oil spill to the passage of strict anti-illegal immigration bills in Arizona. Looking back on expectations in 2008, the rappers remark, “Guess after the Obama shit you woulda had enough.”
Jasson Perez, a member of BBU, says the group doesn't give the president any special treatment. “As a rap artist I feel like it’s my job to call out and hold Obama to account [for] what he says he going to do,” Perez said. “It's the place of hip hop just as if it was any president. Just 'cause he is Obama it don't make it different, he is just a president and he will only be as good as we as people who hold him accountable. “
Other rap songs this year have subtly hinted at Obama’s lost luster as well, including Wu-Tang Clan’s "Never Feel This Pain" which includes the following string of lyrics: “I ain't waiting for Obama, never doubted him. / He real, he spend a couple million on the housing / and seeing is believing, my vision is blurred.” Kanye West and Jay-Z, both Obama supporters, didn’t directly namedrop the president on their opulent opus “Watch the Throne” after doing so on their previous individual albums. But the album has been interpreted as being inspired by Obama, held up as a symbol of the black elite who's nevertheless fallen short in bringing the change he promised.
Some rappers still tentatively have the president’s back, even if they’re willing to take him to task. “I don't cheerlead for Obama, but I don't hate on him for the sake of it,” says Perez. Though Jay-Z offered Obama his campaign support in September, saying the incumbent was still “the best man for the job,” the rapper also called out the president for not improving the economy. "Numbers don't lie,” Jay-Z told GQ in July. “Unemployment is pretty high. It's fucked up, but he's trying not to be the angry black man."
Whether Jay-Z and lesser-known rappers support Obama may matter come November 2012. If hip-hop fully loses its faith in the president, it will be hard to capture the turnout of the hip hop generation in 2008. Kitwana says that during the 2008 election, turnout rates among black voters age 18-29 outpaced that of all races in the same age group, including whites. Nowadays, recent polls show that even Millennials—Obama’s strongest supporters—are thinking twice about lending their support.
Williams, for one, is skeptical about the unity of the younger generation. ”Identity and symbolism is important,” he says. “But we are learning now it is not as important as governing.”