Published on May 2nd, 2013 | by Lydia Brooks0
How Hip-Hop Made Its Way into the White House
American Presidents and rappers haven’t exactly had the smoothest history together. The first President to directly engage with a hip-hop artist was Bill Clinton back in 1992, and that didn’t exactly go very well. At the time, he called out rapper Sister Souljah for making an allegedly racist remark. This got Jesse Jackson on his case, which turned the issue into a huge controversy. Throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the relationship between Presidents and rappers continued to deteriorate. In 2005, it hit rock bottom when Kanye West told millions of Americans that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live TV just after hurricane Katrina.
So how did Barack Obama become America’s first “Hip-Hop President?” And how did a rapper and former street corner drug dealer like Jay-Z become close friends with the President of the United States?
By 2008, hip-hop, R&B, and even hardcore gangster rap were no longer part of a subculture that was seen as violent and scary to many middle-class Americans, but had become a widely accepted part of mainstream culture. Take Jay-Z for example. By 2008, he had gone from selling drugs on the streets of Brooklyn to becoming a multi-millionaire entrepreneur with his own record label, clothing line, and even a stake in an NBA team (Brooklyn Nets). Hip-hop culture was everywhere in America, and it played a big role in winning Obama the 2008 election. During the campaign, Jay-Z threw his full weight behind the Obama campaign, providing memorable sound bites like: “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama’s running so we all can fly.” Other rappers also came out in support of Obama. Young Jeezy‘s song “My President” was a runaway hit, and became a sort of hip-hop rallying cry for the Obama campaign. Obama, for his part, did his best to strategically play up the cool factor that came from his association with rap music in memorable moments like the classic “dirt off the shoulder” speech.
At the same time, however, the President and the rappers that supported him were aware of the damages that hip-hop endorsements have had to political candidates in the past. “I didn’t want the association with rappers and gangsta rappers to hinder anything that [Obama] was doing,” said Jay-Z in 2009. “I came when I was needed; I didn’t make any comments in the press, go too far or put my picture with Obama on MySpace, Twitter, none of that.” Still, Obama was never shy about his hip-hop leanings. In 2010, he told MTV that he enjoyed listening to rap music on his iPod. “Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated,” he said “but now I’ve got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff.”
Fast-forward to 2012, and hip-hop played almost an opposite role in the President’s re-election. When the Obama campaign released their 29-song election playlist, there was not a single rap song on it. And this time, instead of having rappers give him props in their lyrics, people like Lupe Fiasco were writing lyrics like: “Gaza Strip was getting bombed/ Obama didn’t say shit/ That’s why I ain’t vote for him.”
Fast-forward again to 2013, and it looks like hip-hop might be making its way back into the White House, although the road to get there has not exactly been smooth. Earlier this year, Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé made a splash by taking a vacation in Cuba, the only country Americans are banned from travelling to. In his song “Open Letter,” Jay-Z claimed that Obama had personally given him permission to visit the country, rapping: “I done turned Havana to Atlanta… / Boy from the hood but got White House clearance…/ Obama said ‘chill, you gonna get me impeached.’” This got the White House into a bit of trouble with the press, but Obama, playing the cool card once again, diffused the situation at the 2013 White House dinner when he told the press: “Some things are beyond my control. For example, this whole controversy about Jay-Z going to Cuba – it’s unbelievable. I’ve got 99 problems and now Jay-Z is one.”
Still, of all of the relationships with rappers that started out from the 2008 campaign, Obama’s friendship with Jay-Z has been the biggest standout. Why has this friendship become so strong? It may be because, as much as Jay-Z believes in Obama, Obama also believes in Jay-Z. During Jay-Z’s 2012 performance at his own Made in America festival, he brought along a special video message from the President himself. In it, Obama told the audience: “To me, the idea of America is that no matter who you are, what you look like or where you come from, you can make it if you try. Jay-Z did it. He didn’t come from power or privilege. He got ahead because he worked hard, learned from his mistakes and just plain refused to quit. That’s what ‘made in America’ means.”