The hip-hop president

FOR once, a major event has happened in American culture and the music world isn't waiting to hear what Bruce Springsteen thinks about it. Barack Obama hasn't just changed the face of US politics, he's changed its soundtrack too.

Hip-hop has been cheerleading for Obama since he was far from the favourite for the presidency. Rappers Common and Talib Kweli both namechecked him in songs as far back as mid-2007. In August last year the candidate, a more appropriate cover star for Time or Newsweek, appeared on the front of hip-hop magazine Vibe. They called him "B-Rock".

But the adoration hasn't stopped now that the former underdog is victorious. Premier league rappers seem to be racing each other to put out musical love notes to the 44th president. Election Night by Nas was posted online the day the country went to the polls. "America surprise us/And let a black man guide us," he urged. Black Eyed Peas frontman put the video for It's a New Day, his third pro-Obama song after Yes We Can and We Are the Ones, on YouTube last Friday. "The dreams that I've been dreaming/Have finally come true," he whoops over relentlessly upbeat guitar licks. Jay-Z's We Made History appeared on the blog of its producer Kanye West on Sunday. "Now that all the smoke is gone/And the battle's finally won/Victory is ours," gushes the chorus.

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Even over here, Obama's rap connections are considered relevant enough for Dizzee Rascal to be deemed a suitable interviewee for Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. It makes a big change from Kanye West saying "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on live television in 2005.

Yet the rap world hasn't simply adopted Obama because he is black, or a looker, or even because his name rhymes nicely. ("His name is a nugget of lyrical gold. It sounds like a gunshot going off," Kweli has said.) He also embodies some of the foundations of hip-hop culture as a self-made man who didn't wait for the big prize but grabbed it at the first chance he got.

Almost no rapper just wants to rap. They want their own record company, clothing line and Hollywood career. It is this go-getting spirit that Obama has said he admires. "What I've appreciated, watching this hip-hop generation, is how entrepreneurial they've been," he said. "In the past, musicians were often commodities – I think they're a lot more sophisticated than in the past, and that is a wonderful thing."

Despite hip-hop's long history of political rapping, from Grandmaster Flash's The Message to Public Enemy's Fight the Power, this is possibly the first time rappers have not been seen as the enemy by a politician – as foul-mouthed, murderous women-haters responsible for society's ills. Obama listens to Jay-Z on his iPod and included a Kanye West track on a fundraising compilation album.

Nevertheless, the hip-hop president isn't afraid to criticise his new bedfellows where necessary. He gave short shrift to a recent Ludacris song, Politics (Obama Is Here), which called Hillary Clinton a "bitch". He has also complained of rap with a "message that's sometimes degrading to women, uses the 'f' word a little too frequently. But also something that I'm really concerned about is (they're] always talking about material things, about how I can get something; more money, more cars."

So, if it wants to stay on the president-elect's good side, hip-hop will have to change. The culture's relationship with Obama is likely to be far more fractious in the future than it is this week. But thanks to him, its proponents now have something far more interesting to aspire to in verse than a better set of wheels.


THE son of a Black Panther activist, West has never been one to shy away from speaking out about politics. He has attacked homophobia in the hip-hop world, accused Ronald Reagan of intentionally placing crack cocaine in US ghettos in a bid to kill off Black Panther leaders, and in 2005 he deviated from the script during a telethon to benefit Hurricane Katrina survivors to say on live TV that "George Bush doesn't care about black people".

Shortly before this year's presidential election, West teamed up with Jay-Z to work on a song called We Made History which references Obama's campaign. After Obama's triumph, he posted a photo of the president-elect on his blog with the headline: "HI MOM, OBAMA WON!" (West's mother, Donda, died last November.)


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THE Black Eyed Peas' frontman has written several pro-Obama songs, but his stripped-back Yes We Can, intercut with black-and-white clips of Obama giving his landmark Yes We Can speech, is the shivers-down-the-spine stand-out of the bunch.

His latest Obama-inspired number, It's a New Day, isn't bad either, however. "I woke up this morning / Feeling brand new / Cos the dreams that I've been dreaming / Have finally come true," he chirps over a perky guitar refrain.

OK, so he looks a bit silly playing air guitar on the video, but you can forgive him that minor aberration – in a field often dominated by gangsta miserablists, it's always refreshing to see a happy rapper.


YOU have to admire Nas's honesty on Election Night, which he posted online the day the United States went to the polls. "I'm a first time voter / how can I front? / But now I been campaigning for like 21 months," he raps over apocalyptic drum'n'bass backing. And how many people were stung into voting by the line: "Now we standing in line / When we normally don't / People pray black people too lazy to vote"?

Nas was the first major hip-hop artist to record a pro-Obama song, Black President, and here too his goal seems to have been to shame the black community into the polling booth: "These coloured folks and negroes hate to see one of their own succeeding / America: surprise us, and let a black man guide us."


ONE of the highlights Barack Obama's presidential campaign – for hip-hop fans, anyway – was the sight of the presidential hopeful using Jay-Z's trademark "brush-off" dance move during one of his speeches. Following a barrage of stinging attacks from Hillary Clinton, Obama told supporters at a rally "I understand it (the attacks]. When you're running for the presidency, then you gotta expect it. And you just gotta, y'know, just kinda let it …" at which point he gave his right shoulder a good dust

Jay-Z recently returned the favour on his Obama-inspired track We Made History, which was produced by Kanye West (see below). "Now that all the smoke is gone / And the battle's finally won / Victory is ours," crows the defiant chorus.


IT MAY not have been the most eloquent response to John McCain's decision to appoint Sarah Palin as his presidential running mate, but what the heck – P Diddy's video blog on the subject was certainly one of the funniest: "John, you are bugging the f*** out," he splutters. "I don't even understand what planet you're on now. This is the job to be the leader of the free world. No disrespect, I love ya, I want you to live to 110, but what if, God forbid, (your running mate becomes] President?

"Alaska? … Come on, man. I don't even know if there are any black people in Alaska. … Sarah Palin, you ain't ready to be vice president..."