In early 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama sat down for an interview with Black Entertainment Television. The friendly dialogue provided Obama, then mired in a closely contested primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, a chance to touch on a range of political and cultural topics.
Asked if he liked hip-hop music, Obama responded, “Of course,” adding, “I’ve got to admit, lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Jay-Z. This new ‘American Gangster’ album is tight.”
It wasn’t the first time Obama publicly discussed hip-hop, and it wouldn’t be the last. At a campaign stop in 2008, he mimicked dusting off his shoulder, an allusion to a hit Jay-Z song. He has gone on to describe himself as a fan of Nas, Lil Wayne and Kanye West.
Obama’s promotion of the genre — unprecedented for a viable national political candidate — helped launch a new era in which political figures of both parties can embrace the once politically toxic music, though they do so with some degree of caution.
Although hip-hop can be traced back to the 1970s, it became a cultural force in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan references have been a mainstay ever since Ice-T criticized the 40th president over the Iran-contra scandal: “We buy weapons to keep us strong/ Reagan sends guns where they don’t belong.”
In 1991, N.W.A. rapper Eazy-E donated $2,490 to the Republican Party and attended a luncheon attended by President George H.W. Bush and 1,400 mostly white Republicans. The rapper’s spokesman explained blithely that he was a “Bush fan.” White House officials, evidently embarrassed that a rapper whose lyrics glorified violence against police been invited to the event, declined comment.
Trying to position himself as a centrist in his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton famously rebuked the rapper Sister Souljah for saying that blacks should kill whites instead of each other. Clinton’s comments posited him as a moderate and suggested that hip-hop and national politics were incompatible — at least then. Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, the genre appeared as a footnote, and sometimes an ugly one, as when Kanye West accused Bush of being a racist during a Hurricane Katrina fundraising telethon.
Was it a footnote? I certainly remember another radical chic limousine leftist would-be Democrat president in 2004 who attempted to embrace the genre with embarrassing gusto. Or as Mark Steyn memorably wrote in a classic April of 2004 column, “The flip-flopper hip-hopper: John Kerry gets down — and not just his poll numbers:”
The time: last month; the place: MTV. The interviewer asks: ”Well, we know that you were into rock ‘n’ roll when you were in high school, and we know that you play the guitar now. Are there any trends out there in music, or even in popular culture in general, that have piqued your interest?”
”Oh sure. I follow and I’m interested,” says John Kerry. ”I’m fascinated by rap and by hip-hop. I think there’s a lot of poetry in it. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of social energy in it. And I think you’d better listen to it pretty carefully, ’cause it’s important . . . I’m still listening because I know that it’s a reflection of the street and it’s a reflection of life.”
Really? You’re ”fascinated” by rap and ”listening” to hip-hop? You’re America’s first flip-flopper hip-hopper?
The best riposte to Kerry came from an encounter a few years ago between his predecessor Al Gore and Courtney Love, lead singer of the popular beat combo Hole, when they chanced to run into each other at a Democratic party night in Hollywood.
”I’m a really big fan,” gushed the vice president.
”Yeah, right. Name a song,” scoffed Courtney. The panicked vice panderer floundered helplessly. Fortunately, his Secret Service guys moved in before he wound up completely riddled by Hole. As wise old campaign consultants always say, the politician’s First Rule of Holes is: When you’re in one, stop digging. Al introduced us to a Second Rule: When you’re with one, stop pretending to dig her.
If only that MTV guy had said to Kerry, ”Yeah, right. Name a song.” Think Kerry could’ve? Reckon if you bust into his pad and riffled through his and Teresa’s CD collection you’d find a single rap album? Of course, you wouldn’t find any in George and Laura’s CD collection either. The difference is that President Bush doesn’t feel the need to pretend.
On the other hand, President Bush wasn’t pretending in his reaction to Kanye West, when the man who was then-recently dubbed “The Smartest Man in Pop Music” on the cover of Time magazine smeared him as a misanthropic racist in 2005 — the former president dubbed it the worst moment of his presidency:
“He called me a racist,” Bush tells Lauer. “And I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘This man’s a racist.’ I resent it, it’s not true.”
Lauer quotes from Bush’s new book: “Five years later I can barely write those words without feeling disgust.” Lauer adds, “You go on: ‘I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.’
President Bush responds: “Yeah. I still feel that way as you read those words. I felt ‘em when I heard ‘em, felt ‘em when I wrote ‘em, and I felt ‘em when I’m listening to ‘em.
Lauer: “You say you told Laura at the time it was the worst moment of your presidency?”
Bush: “Yes. My record was strong, I felt, when it came to race relations and giving people a chance. And it was a disgusting moment.”
Lauer: “I wonder if some people are going to read that, now that you’ve written it, and they might give you some heat for that. And the reason is this — “
Bush [interrupting]: “Don’t care.”
Lauer: “Well, here’s the reason. You’re not saying that the worst moment in your presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana. You’re saying it was when someone insulted you because of that.”
Bush: “No, and I also make it clear that the misery in Louisiana affected me deeply as well. There’s a lot of tough moments in the book. And it was a disgusting moment, pure and simple.”
Indeed it was. Of course, history has a way of working out — earlier this year, DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile noted in CNN, “Bush came through on Katrina.” The “smartest man in pop music?” He was last seen being charged with battery and attempted grand theft according to the L.A. Times, after being videotaped assaulting a photographer at LAX, and selling Confederate Flag T-Shirts at his concerts according to the leftwing Huffington Post, so he’s got that going for him, at least.