Hip-hop and American politics have never been happy bedfellows, and the flap over Ludacris’s new pro-Obama song proves it. “Politics (Obama is Here)” is a single-verse mix-tape track of agit-prop rhymes recorded with two goals. First, to make explicit Ludacris’s support of the Junior Senator from Illinois’s campaign for the presidency. Second, to encourage Black Americans to vote for Obama this November. “Get off your ass Black people, it’s time to get out and vote,”raps Ludacris. The track is a call for more political participation. Despite its overall pro-Obama message, however, “Politics (Obama is Here)” has been chastised for its offensive language. Medium (hip-hop) and message (Obama for President) are banging heads.
The song begins with a standard boast. Ludacris asserts his superior technique (“the best is here”), his masculinity and wealth (“The Bentley Coupe paint is drippin’ wet, it got sex appeal”), and his popularity (“With a slot in the President's iPod, Obama shouted him / Said I handled my biz and I'm one of his favorite rappers”). Next, Ludacris proceeds to cut-up a variety of political figures: Hilary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, John McCain, and, finally, George Bush (“what you talking I hear nothing even relevant / And you the worst of all 43 presidents”). The insults aren’t especially witty, but their intent is nonetheless clear, vigorous, and effective: to suggest the inadequacy of such political figures and, therefore, position Obama as the viable alternative.
But Ludacris also successfully riffs on the White House, and how Obama’s rise dares to upset its aesthetic and ethical purity. “Paint the White House Black and I'm sure that's got ’em terrified.”Obama, in other words, represents more than just a Black presidency; he represents a wildstyle "tagging" of a white symbol of power and racist policy. Ultimately, Obama’s Blackness makes change necessary and change makes Obama’s Blackness necessary— that’s Ludacris’s point.
Let’s take another look at the Obama camp’sofficial response, though:
“This song is not only outrageously offensive to Senator Clinton, Reverend Jackson, Senator McCain and President Bush, it is offensive to all of us who are trying to raise our children with the values we hold dear. While Ludacris is a talented individual, he should be ashamed of these lyrics.”
The language here pushes Ludacris’s “outrageously offensive” lyrics away from any racialized rubric and into the realm of Universal family values. Obama can’t afford to have his own values questioned. At the same time, he can’t afford to curb the excited mobilization of an energized hip-hop voting bloc. So he indulges in some politically useful equivocating: Ludacris is talented, sure, but his talent, in this particular case, is misguided. Obama, as presidential candidate, thus implicitly figures himself as a powerful moral force able to guide Ludacris— a synecdoche for hip-hop and metonym for Black youth—back on to the right path (Obama, we assume, prefers Ludacris the concerned public speaker, who, in 2006, lectured to Northwestern University students about safe-sex practices and AIDS awareness).
But there’s something else going on here. Remember that hip-hop is a Black form within the American psyche, as Imani Perry reminds us. That’s not to say it isn’t a polycultural phenomenon in practice. Indeed, from the early works of Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and Fav 5 Freddy onwards, hip-hop has embraced the mix. It’s always “in the break.” But hip-hop’s predominantly Black associations persist, especially in the wake of the “moral panic” engendered by Gangsta rap in the late 1980s. Likewise, Obama is seen as a Black candidate despite his own mixed heritage. Thus, as a Black figure responding to a Black form, Obama is in a fix. To dismiss hip-hop opens him up to questions regarding affiliation with his own racial self as well as his dedication to the Black community. Any outright rejection of hip-hop by Obama may be readily interpreted as a self-hating rejection of his Blackness; such a rejection would situate Obama in a race-based turncoat narrative, with moral implications (i.e. white is good and right). So, his hand is forced: he equivocates.
The irony is that both Obama and hip-hop (as opposed to rap) are in a double bind. Both should be fighting dangerously essentialized definitions of Blackness out of sync with the actual heterogeneous lived experiences and aesthetic tastes of Black Americans. And, as it happens, hip hop’s originary polycultural imperative is something of which Obama is keenly aware: as he states in his telling Rolling Stone interview, “I think the genius of the art form [hip-hop] has shifted the [American] culture and helped to desegregate music. Music was very segregated back in the Seventies and Eighties.”
If Obama’s tastes lean more toward Dylan and Springsteen, so be it. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, Obama’s desegregated musical sensibility—which celebrates Dylan and Springsteen alongside Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z—is the very epitome of an original hip-hop head philosophy. We need to get beyond using hip-hop as a means of identifying and qualifying Blackness, and vice versa. Unfortunately, that’s the very stereotype being strengthened by the “family values” political talk distorting Ludacris’s lyrics.
Also by Alessandro Porco: