THE BLOG
02/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Changes The Rap Game

When the possibility of a President Barack Obama became realistic, the hip-hop community -- traditionally wary of American government -- showed him overwhelming support.

When he won the election in November, hip-hop changed forever.
"We can't say we're completely outsiders anymore," said Brother Ali, a successful rapper on the independent circuit. "We're not outcasts anymore."

Ali, a white Muslim with two mix-race children, often criticizes America's history and political institutions in his music.

"Welcome to the United Snakes
Land of the thief, home of the slave
Grand imperial guard where the dollar is sacred..." Ali sings on the song "Uncle Sam Goddamn," which was released Jan. 2007.

"Imported and tortured the work force/
They never healed the wounds or shook the curse off/
Now the grown up Goliath nation/
Holding open auditions for the part of David, can you feel?"

Ali and many other politically active independent rappers who supported Obama during the election are still wary of him and the institution.

"(America) has the potential to be the greatest country there's ever been," Ali said in an interview. "But it needs to be more open and honest with itself."

Still, he says, today is a huge step forward. And two years later, the lyrics to his political songs have changed quite a bit.

"The first time in my generation/

This nation has had this real race conversation/

And then I saw Obama's fundraising/
Groundbreaking and found out where it came from/
Not corporations but real folks donating/
I'm mean I seen thugs reading newspapers..." Ali, a Muslim, sings on the song "Mr. President (you're the man)."

Ali says he wrote the song on Election Day and recorded it that night while the results were coming in. He is heard on the song yelling for his eight-year-old son to come in the room and watch the TV.

"My son looks like Barack Obama," he says. "To put (a poster of) Barack Obama on his wall and be like 'That's me. I could be that,'" is a big deal.

But still Ali and other rappers are wary of both Obama and political institutions.
"Just because one person is able to break through, it doesn't mean the struggle is over," he says.

While Obama comes from a modest background and has an in-depth understanding of inner city issues, "he does represent a nation that has plans for global domination," says Mr. Lif, another successful independent rapper. "I realize Obama represents them too."

Today, Mr. Lif, a black musician, released a song titled "Obama," that he described as a "cautious optimism."

"I'd like to be more optimistic/
But the world is twisted/
A new America?/
Oh sh*t, I think I missed it."

Mr. Lif, like Ali and other rappers interviewed, recognize the huge symbolism of Obama's election and strongly favored him to John McCain. But none are ready to fully embrace mainstream political views just yet.

"Since the campaign was hope and change/
I feel it's open range/
For us to think critically/
And then explode the game.

Hip-hop music has always acted as a sort of watchdog for political movement. Lyrics from different artist range from anti-American to revolutionary to more sobering ideas that encourage listeners to simply stay aware and involved. When asked if hip-hop will give Obama a free pass from being criticized, Mr. Lif said:

"I want my critique, I want my analysis on what he is doing, to remain at the same caliber as any other president that I would comment on."

"Everything sounds good now," he said. "Once he kind of gets more entwined in the muck of Washington ... is he still going to be able to see as clearly ... and really remain on our side?"

Sage Francis, a white rappers known for speaking out about political issues before they are popular -- as shown by his song "Makeshift Patriot" that he released one month after 9/11/2001 -- supported Obama heavily during his campaign, but is also wary.

Artists, journalists, and citizens should stay on guard and make sure our leaders do what they are supposed to do," says Francis, a former journalism student and co-founder of the corporate watchdog website knowmore.org. "Our leaders are supposed to hear and represent us -- We, the people. I don't believe Obama has ever gotten a free pass."

Sage, Brother Ali and other rappers say they received a lot of criticism from part of their fan base for openly supporting Obama.

"And I lost a number of fans because of that," Francis said in an email. "I am OK with that."

Francis' lyrics have always been extreme.

"Makeshift Patriot/
The flag shop is out of stock/
I hang myself at half-mast/
...The less we know/
The more they fabricate/
The easier it is to sell souls/
...There's a desperate need for blood/
For what's been uncovered under the rubble/
Some of them dug for answers in the mess/
But the rest went looking for trouble/
...Don't wave your rights with your flags."

In his music, Francis is more critical of current political issues and "fly-by-night activists who pretend to be involved with actual change until the media attention and parties die out."

A song he wrote before the 2004 selection called "Slow Down Gandhi" begins:

"There once was a song called 'Arrest the President'
Contemporary music, a hit with the kids, it was a top ten
I wasn't pop then so I missed the bus a bit/
But politics was on everybody's hot-this-summer lists/
The cool kids were all rocking votes/
I sh*t you not, I was pistol whipping cops for hip-hop."

His song "Conspiracy to Riot," released before the 2008 election, is almost as radical.

"Peep the game, dummy/
You can't keep the reign from me/
It's us who put in the over time, they who make the money/ 

Snickering at trickle down economy/

We got nickled and dimed/
It's more like highway robbery/
Drive in the fast lane, eyes on the gas gauge/

Listen to neo-cons cry about black rage."

Cries of journalists and citizens being arrested at the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions can be heard in the background of the song.

Tree Woodz, a less-known black rapper from Chicago now living in Reno, Nev.,
described the symbolism of Obama's election as a huge event for hip-hop.

"As a black man, he has brought more music to the scene," Woodz said. "People have made all types of music. Not even just hip-hop ... people feel that they can conquer anything."

"I think a lot of people miss the point just because he's an African-American," Woodz said. "No one can talk about being an outcast anymore."

To find music referenced in this story, visit the following websites:
Myspace.com/Sagefrancis
www.conspiracytoriot.com
Myspace.com/brotherali
Myspace.com/Mrlif
Myspace.com/treewoodsmusic