The evening of November 4, 2008, was one of celebration in the Hip-Hop community. For a culture that has been inherently political since its inception, everything it represented culminated with the first African American to be become president of the United States as Barack Obama defeated John McCain.
In some ways, we acted as if the war was over. Instead, it was just beginning. Obama’s election energized a dormant community of white supremacists who swapped their white sheets for a MAGA cap.
Twelve years later, the political landscape has changed drastically as businessman and television personality Donald Trump has ascended to the Oval Office and sits in the driver’s seat for re-election despite a term filled with controversy, racism, xenophobia, and outright lies.
As the country gears up for the 2020 presidential election between incumbent Trump and Obama’s vice president Joe Biden, the question remains: What role will the Hip-Hop community play and, perhaps more important, are we going to be just as active to get someone out of office as we were to get someone in?
“We wanted to be a part of history, and we supported the first Black president to the fullest,” says Chuck Creekmur, CEO of news website AllHipHop. “What we did not do was hold America accountable to continue our upward trajectory at that time. I will never stop reminding people that Black people lost ground for the first time since slavery under Obama.”
Historically, rap music has always been laced with political commentary and emanated from a community that yearned for the day when someone who looked like one of us was in the Oval Office. The problem was that once we got what we wanted, we didn’t know exactly what to do with it.
“The Hip-Hop community has to develop an agenda and fight for it,” says political-digital consultant and Render founder Rob “Biko” Baker. “What do we want? It can’t just be a couple of dollars to help get out the vote or to speak on a panel now and then.”
It can certainly be argued that the Hip-Hop community became content once Obama was elected. While not perfect, Obama’s presidential term saw a man who the community could identify with. It’s difficult to “Fight the Power” when “the Power” is one of us.
However, a vicious jolt of reality came in 2016 when Trump defeated Hilary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. And now that content has become contempt as Trump is the spokesperson for every negative “ism” imaginable.
How will Hip-Hop fight back?
Whether it’s Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” and Joey Bada$$’ “Land of the Free,” rap music has always been recognized as Black America’s CNN because of its first-person perspective on the issues that plague the community and are often ignored by politicians.
Hip-Hop forced the world to pay attention. Public Enemy told the world that 9/11 was a joke while Eminem turned the mirror on the country’s issues with white privilege in “White America.”
That hasn’t changed much as we enter this election year. However, instead of a celebration, rap music has shifted back to protest anthems addressing the ills of the world.
The year 2008 saw MCs rally behind Obama with songs such as Jeezy’s “My President,” Nas’ “Black President,” and Joell Ortiz’s “Letter to Obama.” In sharp contrast, the Trump era has seen more blistering lyrical assaults with songs such as YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT,” DJ Shadow and Run the Jewels’ “Nobody Speak,” and Eminem’s “Campaign Speech.”
But as election day approaches, will rappers provide a soundtrack to push Trump out of office and lead campaigns such as “Rock the Vote” to mobilize the community?
“I think influencers and Hip-Hop artists will continue to inspire voters to get out and vote on Election Day,” says Baker. “Young people are more socially aware than ever. We’ve seen that with the rise of Black Lives Matter and other social causes.”
As much as what Baker says is true, there may be a shift in political allegiance bubbling beneath the surface as some rappers, such as Kanye West, are staunch Trump supporters.
“There are lots of rich people in Hip-Hop or people who aspire to be rich,” Baker says of West’s controversial support of Trump. “I think that has made it to where people get confused on the difference between politics, policies, and economics.”
What this may also mean is that the Democrats can no longer depend on the Hip-Hop community’s vote in the election. As Diddy recently suggested in an appearance on Naomi Campbell’s web series No Filter With Naomi, the “Black vote is not going to be free” and has gone so far as to say that it will be held hostage until Biden adopts an agenda that directly addresses the issues of the community.
Although Diddy caught fire for his remarks, is his suggestion completely out of bounds?
“Diddy isn’t wrong for wondering out loud if the Biden campaign is going to address Black issues,” Baker says. “I think we need a nuanced discussion about the role the Democratic Party plays in our lives.”
As November 3 approaches, there is an expectation that the Hip-Hop community will once again mobilize. However, instead of being on the offense to get America’s first African American president in office, much of the Hip-Hop community will be on the defense, looking to get a perceived enemy of the people out of the White House.
With the attention of the new generation of voters spread thin, the community must get creative in their approach to educate and ultimately mobilize voters. While it may look like the same ol’ same ol’ as two white men jockey for the presidency, it doesn’t mean that the community can’t let their voices be heard. After all, Hip-Hop has always been anti-establishment. Why wait on someone to save us when we can save ourselves?
“If we are waiting for the president of either party to change our communities, it’s never going to happen,” says Baker. “We have to get in the trenches and demand action by actors at all levels of politics.”
*HEADER CREDIT: Killer Mike introduces Democratic party White House hopeful Bernie Sanders at a rally in Columbia, SC, on February 28, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)