Jay-Z On His iPod

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There is little doubt that President Barack Obama has brought a new style—a new panache, if you will—to the White House and the US Presidency. But what are the sources of this new style and approach in his handling of everything from international relations to his cabinet choices, and from his cool demeanor dealing with one of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression to taking Michele out on a date night in a trendy DC restaurant? Besides his obvious intelligence and political savvy, Barack Obama has swagger! Barack Obama is hip! Barack Obama is cool! This style that he has brought to the highest office of the land is grounded in what black popular culture scholar Mark Anthony Neal calls the “post-soul generation”—the hip-hop generation. 

Case in point: 27-year old Jon Favreau , the valedictorian for the class of 2003 at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, is Obama’s chief speech-writer, the second youngest to ever hold that position. The young Favreau was responsible for Obama’s now famous inaugural speech that arguably rivals some of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, which was exactly the intention. Favreau is said to carry around a copy of Dreams from My Father, Obama’s first autobiography, as his holy grail, and Obama, himself has said that he thinks Favreau “reads his mind.” The point is that Obama has tapped into a youth current that was partially responsible for electing him as the 44th President of the U.S., and this youth-factor is constituent of his style that appeals to the current hip-hop generation. As LA Times journalist Sam Fulwood III analyzes, “Young is to hip as old is to fogey . . . Obama has modern instincts and attitudes that appeal to younger people, and more than any other president in recent memory, that makes him a role model. He is green, open, athletic, tech-savvy, healthy. And his hip image certainly isn’t hurt by his wife,” Michele Obama, who has captured the world’s imagination in her own right.  

Even the statistics show how sophisticated his presidential campaign was. According to Gwen Ifill, PBS-TV moderator, managing editor of Washington Week, and senior correspondent of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “In the general election, Obama improved on 2004 nominee John Kerry’s performance with voters under thirty by 12 percent,” and there was “a little over thirteen million new voters jumping into the process,” . . . and among those new voters Barack Obama won close to 70 % of them. Part of his strategy from the beginning was [to] change the face of the electorate.” Changing of the face of the electorate is the primary factor that won him the election; this change had a lot to do with the number of youths who got engaged in electoral politics for the first time.  

As a great communicator, known for his oratory, President Obama is also a cultural code switcher—one who can use language, mannerism, and symbols to communication with various audiences—a black audience, a youth audience, and a hip-hop audience. He is very aware of his popularity with the hip-hop generation and has directly addressed his penchant for some rap music and artists.  

This youth factor responsible for electing President Obama is not simply lodged in the positive aspects of generational politics, but has also generated negative aspects that challenged the old-guard black leaders of the Civil Rights Generation, preceding the post-soul generation or the contemporary hip-hop generation born in the 1980 and 90s. As Ifill accurately opines in her The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, “Obama did not argue that he was not a black candidate, but the generational split did in some ways transcend race,” with many seasoned white politicians being brought into the Obama camp by pressure from their own children. At the same time, to the old-guard civil rights activists like Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, all of whom endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Obama represented a black upstart candidate who had not come through their dues-paying ranks. 

Yet a few of the old guard did make the generational transition: Roger Wilkins, assistant attorney general under Lyndon Johnson, has said, “I love this transition, because my generation has done its work. Whatever one thinks of the result of that work, it was consequential work, and it did help change the nation. But now we’re old. And there are people whose path we made possible who see the country very, very differently than we did.” Though Obama is steeped in this different vision, he is definitely grounded in the past efforts of the Civil Rights generation. This was evident in his November 4th acceptance speech when he called the nation’s attention to the 106-year old African American Mrs. Ann Cooper, who voted for him in Atlanta. However, he created breakthrough politics with his ability to change the face of the electorate in a way that previous black leaders had not been able to accomplish. The generational divide worked in Obama’s favor, along with his intelligence, emphasis on transparency in government, and most of all his “cool pose” that appealed to the younger generation. 

This generational meaning of Obama has shown itself also in the plethora of pop iconic images that proliferate magazine covers, street posters, and, of course, the Internet. During the campaign the famous red, white, and blue “HOPE” print created by street artist Shepard Fairey emerged as a veritable sign that signifies Obama the Man. This iconic image later got Fairey arrested for graffiti (a direct attack on hip-hop as a suspect subculture) for papering the now famous poster throughout the city of Boston. In cyberspace, there is even a “Obamaicon.Me.com” website where you can now upload your own photo, choose your own message, and they will make you a similar “Hope” poster for your own 20-minutes of fame in this era of reality television and the cult of personality. As the Obamaicon website says, “Here’s your chance to sound off.” Barack Obama has inspired various pop culture cottage industries that were initially meant to commercialize his image, but have now generated numerous spin-offs that are stretching our definition of democracy and the place of the populist everyman/everywoman’s voice (and now image) in the process.  

This youthful Obama design rage has infinite ramifications. Journalist art designer Don Button reveals the effect of Obama’s original use of design and the internet in his campaign: “Never before had a presidential candidate utilized design aesthetics and brand-image marketing in such a comprehensive and effective way—and the designers around the world took notice immediately.” Since Obama first started campaigning and developing his tech-savvy and design–savvy branding, like Spike Lee’s Joint, it became a “Barack Obama Joint” that “Did the Right Thing” to get elected, including having a seasoned older generation politician as his running mate in Joe Biden. All of this showed political know-how, capturing the younger generation that changed the electorate in the 2008 presidential election.  

But none of these unprecedented generational socio-cultural dynamics around Obama can be understood without the lens of hip-hop. One of the main tenets of this in-your-face rebellious youth sub-culture is “flippin’ the script,” a cultural directive that is responsible for the best of rap music as a counter-narrative to mainstream ideologies. As Neal has accurately analyzed, rap music is often the initial reply to topical news stories affecting black people. “Whether it’s Katrina four years ago, the LA riots in 1993, or Jesse Jackson’s run for President in 1984 . . ., hip-hop was seen as black American’s first response.” This statement becomes an addendum to Chuck D’s famous adage: “Rap is black people’s CNN.” So it is no wonder that many famous and infamous rap stars got on the Obama campaign bandwagon: Young Jeezy’s “My President” was an early anthem during the campaign, Nas released “Election Night” the day before the November 4 election, and it got major Internet play the day of the election; Brother Ali released “Mr. President (You’re the Man)”, and Lil Wayne reworked his previous song “A Mili” renaming it “Obama Obama.” And not only did they rap about Obama as a new hope for young, struggling black people, but they all voted for the first time. Young Jeezy represented for all first-time voting rappers with: “ Yeah, Yeah, I got to vote. It felt like I went and bought my first car without a co-sign; it felt good.” Because of Obama’s new voice, his new message, young Black America stood on its own for the first time in the electoral process because they had hope.  

Neal assesses that Candidate Obama had to walk a thin line between accepting these young rappers’ endorsements while maintaining the dignity of his legitimate candidacy with the socio-political mainstream, both black and white. Neal articulates the proverbial special constituency vs. mainstream quagmire when he gives voice to Obama’s strategy regarding his hip-hop supporters: “[He was saying] I really can’t acknowledge you in the mainstream, but understand that I’m hearing what your critique is, I’m hearing what your concerns are, and you now have a wide-open space in the so-called underground . . .to talk about why my candidacy is important.” However, now that he is President, he has become bolder in hinting that he may utilize hip-hop in his administration. When asked by a Vibe magazine journalist about “a place in your administration” to explore the use of hip-hop’s potential to deal with “young people that you have to deal with around education and incarceration,” Obama became emphatically clear: 

Absolutely, I don’t think there can be any doubt that it can be. And I have met with Jay-Z, with Kanye, and with other artists to see how potentially to bridge that gap. It’s incredible— the potential for them to deliver a message to get people thinking. The thing about hip-hop today is it’s smart. It’s insightful. The way that they can communicate a complex message in a very short space is remarkable. A lot of these kids are not going to be reading The New York Times. That’s not how they’re getting their information. So the question then is what’s the content? What’s the message? And I always say hip-hop is not only a reflection of what is; but it should be a reflection of what can be. 

No only does Obama understand how rap music has been used as a vehicle for information delivery, but he is thinking about its potential for the kinds of messages that he wants to convey to the young people of urban America. 

Neal further reveals that mainstream cross-over emcees, like Queen Latifah who has hosted the Academy Awards Ceremony, and Snoop Dogg who appeared on the Larry King Show to talk about the Obama candidacy, utilize similar strategies in negotiating their own mainstream celebrity with their underground hip-hop cult following. These are ostensibly what I call “power moves” in The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves. I contend that there has been a virtual “cultural shift in power induced by hip-hop’s privileged place in the marketplace,” even as there continues to be what Keith Negus calls “regimes of containment” that limit young black hip-hop males. This dynamic of containment of black males in US society has existed historically and continues even in this era of the ghetto as a central trope regarding how youth of all races identify themselves through hip hop. Linda Tucker explores this dynamic in her recent book Lockstep and Dance: Images of Black Men in Popular Culture. She analyzes: 

Black men function within a prison writ large structured by various technologies of containment ranging from actual prisons to representational practices. Black men are subject to techniques of containment that criminalize their images and render them silent, depending on the context, either threatening or comic, hypervisible or invisible. Despite their heterogeneity and pervasive presence, however, such technologies do not function absolutely, as they are constantly subjected to equally heterogeneous and pervasive responses, reversals, and forms of resistance enacted by black men.

These reversals, or flippin’ the script, have been a part of the Africanist aesthetic in our rhetorical, musical, and dance traditions for centuries, and they show themselves in unique ways in hip-hop that has captured the imagination of today’s generation. It is this cultural shift, created by hip-hop’s cultural, economic, and now political, power moves that have aided Obama in the era of 21st century late capitalist politics.  

There is no doubt that we are in the era of the Hip-Hop Generation when the President of the United States has admitted to having arguably the most influential rapper, Jay-Z, on his iPod. Furthermore, during his North Carolina come-back speech, after the April 16, 2008 debate between Candidate Obama and his opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama showed his acuity with hip-hop style by executing Jay-Z’s brush the dirt off your shoulders, creating a wild audience reaction with a standing ovation. Hip-hop semiotics, such as the Dirt-off-my Shoulder move, are significations that communicate to a large number of young U.S. citizens, and can be successful exploited to win in electoral politics. As Teresa Wiltz says in a Washington Post article on Obama’s North Carolina hip-hop gesture, “Talk about a major Jay-Z move. People, we’re talking about a seminal movement in the campaign, the merging of politics and pop culture: in which a presidential candidate—a self-confessed hip-hop head and Jay-Z fan–references a rap hit and a dance move.” The gesture is a direct quotation from the rap and video “Dirt off Your Shoulder” on Jay-Z’s 2003 Black Album. The meaning is clear: Obama is the proverbial duck, from whose back water just rolls right off. In politics one must brush off the negative jabs that one’s opponents (“playa haters”) might inflict. Obama had to frequently do just that during the Democratic Primary Campaign with Clinton in order to debate the real issues facing the U.S. 

Of course these challenges have only intensified for Obama as President. He will have to continue to navigate his course between mainstream America and the hip-hop generation in increasingly savvy ways that keep all constituencies in his boat. One huge task is the creation of a living wage for young black men, when some black communities are reeling from 31% unemployment. As hip-hop activist and 2008 vice- presidential candidate for the Green Party, Rosa Clemente said, “just because you brush off your shoulders, fist bump the First Lady, or play a mean game of street ball, doesn’t make you Hip Hop.” Youth who live hip-hop want him to “keep it real” in terms of their needs on the street, and to do this he has his job cut out for him. He has to somehow blend his youthful coolness with the dignity and seriousness that the office demands, while making real changes happen in people’s lives economically. But if he follows the age-old pervasive adage that has permeated the African American community for generations—“You can’t be just as good; you have to be twice as good to get ahead in this world”—he’ll do just fine.