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Erik Nielson Headshot

How Obama Played the Hip Hop Community

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Just weeks after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, Jay Z let his euphoria pour out onto his remix of Young Jeezy's pro-Obama anthem, "My President." Acknowledging the decades of black struggle that culminated in this historic moment, he rapped, "Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk. / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run. / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly." Far from a trendsetter, J-Hova was articulating the hope and optimism that scores of rappers had been expressing in albums, mix tapes, videos and interviews for over a year -- a hope that with the election of a "hip hop president," the man dubbed B-Rock by Vibe, America would finally enter a new era of freedom and opportunity where "all the children could fly."

There was something remarkable about seeing rappers pledge their support to a mainstream presidential candidate, especially given the history of antipathy between national politicians and hip hop. And, of course, there was something equally remarkable about watching a future president embrace hip hop culture. Indeed, whereas politicians on both sides of the aisle had made a political tradition out of demonizing hip hop, Obama was shoulder brushing and fist bumping during campaign events, making appearances with a number of rappers, and even suggesting that hip hop would have a place and a voice in the White House. There were some early voices of skepticism -- Rosa Clemente, insisting that Obama should not be considered a "hip hop president," argued forcefully that the president was merely using the movement to get himself into office. But voices of dissent like Clemente's were easily drowned out by the well-known rappers who assured us Barack was our man. In his 2008 "Open Letter to Barack Obama," for example, Talib Kweli said, "this man deserves our support." Nas vouched for Obama, too, saying, "I'm thinking I can trust this brother" on his track "Black President."

By now, it's obvious that this trust was badly misplaced and that Obama's hip-hop-infused campaign of 2008 was a slick marketing hustle that a lot of artists fell for. As I have written before, Obama beat a hasty retreat from hip hop right after 2008 -- a trajectory that Michelle Obama appears to be following even now if her recent disparaging remarks about ballers and rappers are any indication. But what's more disappointing is the number of ways that Obama has betrayed the hip hop community through his policy decisions.

Just before the 2012 election, Fredrick Harris wrote that "the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality," contending that Obama has systematically ignored racial discrimination, economic injustice, and the mass incarceration of black men -- all issues, incidentally, that hip hop artists and activists regularly cite as needing urgent political reform. Echoing Harris's point, Cornel West has argued that Obama's first term has amounted to a kind of racial betrayal, at one point provocatively calling the president a "Rockefeller Republican in blackface."

While the rhetoric may be overcharged, it's hard to disagree that Obama's first four and a half years have been abysmal, especially for a self-proclaimed progressive. He's done next to nothing to address the ongoing war on drugs, the exploding incarceration rate in the U.S., or the astounding growth of for-profit prisons, all fueled in large part by the systematic criminalization of people of color. For four straight years, his administration has set records for the number of people it has deported. He has made jokes about his unprecedented use of extra-judicial drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists, has supported the indefinite detention of Americans without trial and has left Guantanamo Bay open despite promises to close it. Under Obama's watch, black unemployment is stuck at surprisingly high rates, even as white unemployment is dropping, and he appears to be doing nothing about it. He has been frustratingly silent about the country's pathological attachment to guns and the suffering it causes, especially among black youth in cities across the country. And in decidedly un-hip-hop fashion, his administration has even gone after 2Pac's godmother, former Black Panther Assata Shakur, making her the first woman ever to appear on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists List.

And then, of course, are the recent revelations that the Obama administration has been expanding Bush-era surveillance practices to allow the U.S. intelligence apparatus to create a world crawling with police, one reminiscent of the paranoid Goodie Mob track "Cell Therapy." While it appears that the Obama surveillance state has cast its net around all U.S. citizens, anyone with a hip hop sensibility -- or even a passing knowledge of American history -- knows that these institutional strategies of containment and control will likely fall heaviest on people of color. Hip hop artists in particular should beware; there are already COINTELPRO-style police task forces around the country that monitor rappers, but thanks to Obama's appalling disregard for civil liberties (and ruthless pursuit of people who blow the whistle on his administration), one has to wonder what other tools might be brought to bear on America's centuries-long war against black dissent.

Some artists have been sounding alarms. Radical group Dead Prez warned early on that Obama would not represent change, but a continuation of the dominant power structure, arguing, "it's the same system just changed form." A number of other acts, including Lupe Fiasco, Rebel Diaz, Boots Riley, Immortal Technique, Killer Mike, Blue Scholars, and Lowkey have echoed this criticism, particularly after seeing the first years of an Obama presidency. Pittsburg rapper and activist Jasiri X told me that his attitude towards Obama has definitely changed. Whereas he was "all-in" with Obama during 2008, now he looks at conditions in places like Chicago, and he sees nothing like the change Obama promised. "You could argue that it got worse," he said.

So how is it that Jay-Z, Diddy, Jeezy, Kendrick Lamar, Common, Will.i.am, 2Chainz, Big Sean, Jadakiss, Snoop Dogg/Lion, Ice Cube, and other well-known artists have continued to support Obama publicly, even after the benefit of four years of hindsight? Perhaps, having constructed narratives of themselves as street-savvy entertainers, they are reluctant to admit they've been hustled by a Harvard-educated law professor who's got better game than they do. Or perhaps, coming from a mainstream music industry that traffics in black suffering, they are content to watch from the sidelines as their political leaders do the same. Whatever the reason, they need to set things straight now, before history mistakenly records Barack Obama as America's first "hip hop president."