For many, the answer to this question might be an enthusiastic "yes." In recent weeks I have spoken on a radio show on "the hip-hop effect on the Obama campaign." I’ve talked to politically active MCs who are beyond stoked that Obama is ahead in the primaries. I’ve been sent e-vites to online groups called "Hip-hop for Obama." The phenomenon is striking. It seems lately that there is no paucity of those inspired by the righteous message of hip-hop who now feel they finally have a voice through Barack Obama. Indeed, a friend of mine who observed an Obama rally recently told me that "it was like a rock concert." Footage from other rallies seem to back that up. Large crowds, overwhelmingly young and multi-racial, absolutely ecstatic at the thought of an Obama presidency.
At that same rally a clip was played that has become among the most viral of videos online. The "Yes We Can" video, produced by Black Eyed Peas front-man and producer will.i.am, is something unlike anything I have seen from a mainstream presidential candidate. Various figures from film, television and music, speaking or singing lines from Obama’s speeches. It has to be said; there is something inspiring about seeing people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Common saying that "it was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom: ‘yes we can.’"
The precedent is notable: when was the last time that a mainstream presidential candidate openly embraced the work of a hip-hop artist? John Kerry kept Sean Combs’ "Vote or Die" campaign at arms’ length. I have no recollection of Al Gore dancing to Lauryn Hill (thank god!). And Bill Clinton made it a point to denounce hip-hop artists during his 1992 campaign. As for the Republican side, it goes without saying that they can’t even begin to understand a music genre about the Black experience in America, let alone embrace it.
And yet, in a certain sense, it is fitting for a man with Obama’s past. It’s worth noting that, if elected, Obama would be not only the first Black president, but the first to be a teenager at the dawn of the 1980s. Before he was the polished, silver-tongued, self-appointed harbinger of hope, he was a student transferring to Columbia University in a New York City smack in the middle of a hip-hop explosion. Rap had busted out of the Bronx and was sinking its roots into the culture of NYC. Even for the ambitiously studious Obama, it would have been impossible to escape the phenomenon. One can only speculate if he spent nights in his dorm room digging to Zulu Nation, or bobbing his head to the sounds of Fantastic Freaks.
Far fetched? Perhaps. But the evidence suggests that he could not have been sealed off from the dynamic beats sweeping the city. In his autobiography he speaks of his involvement in campus activism against apartheid in South Africa and in favor of affirmative action. This was no mean feat in the Reagan ’80s, and yet similar movements could be found on campuses across the country. Furthermore, being open anti-racist struggles, they had a profound effect on the development of hip-hop’s politics. As the ’80s progressed, Afrocentrism continued to be a theme in the rhymes of many an MC. South Africa’s segregation would feature prominently in the music of the most politically outspoken hip-hop artists.
Today, Obama treats his activist years with a dismissive attitude we’ve come to expect from politicians. Yet he cannot deny them. Indeed, he seems to have tapped into the experiences of those days in recent weeks. He has invoked the history of the movements against slavery, past union struggles and the women’s movement. He has spoken in favor of immigrant and gay rights, and denounced the priorities of prisons before schools. His words against the war have hardened. And he has actually been telling attendees at his rallies that "this is what change from the bottom up looks like." While most candidates prattle on about how change comes from "great men," this is certainly a breath of fresh air.
Have the past months re-ignited Obama’s days as a campus activist? Might this, coupled with his own relative youth, provide him with an understanding of music’s power in inspiring and mobilizing? Or is it that he has simply read, better than the other nominees, the writing on the wall of a nation that is itself changing? The past few months have seen a sharp swing to the left among the population on a wide array of issues. Most Americans hate the war in Iraq, they want decent healthcare that won’t empty their pocketbooks, they want the government to intervene in creating jobs and are angry at the banks foreclosing on their houses.
This hits home even more for the youth of this country, the first-time voters who have known nothing but Bush and Clinton, and know very well what each president’s policies have done to themselves and their families. This is a generation who have come of age during a war to which they will be the first sent. They are staring in the face a job market that has little to offer in the way of security. And they have grown up around the biggest diversity of cultures and racial backgrounds that this country has ever seen. They have also grown up during hip-hop’s reign as a global phenomenon. Their hunger for change is widespread, and very, very real.
But just like any song, flashy production cannot make up for flimsy substance. The harsh reality is that Obama is part of a Democratic Party that has always put the interests of business before those of ordinary people. Like all other candidates in this race, the vast majority of his campaign money comes courtesy of Corporate America. Maybe this is why he has yet to mention taking on the insurance companies when talking about healthcare. When asked how he would end the war, he states that it would be important to keep some presence in Iraq long-term. And as long as his ideas on hip-hop are on the table, it is worth mentioning that he towed much of the mainstream line on rap in the post-Imus backlash.
In short, the kind of inspiring change talked and sung about in "Yes We Can" is something that Obama himself cannot bring. The shift in his campaign, though, has opened a door. By openly talking about the history of struggle in this country, Obama has created space to talk about what that struggle might look like today. The question is what will happen to the excitement he has tapped into after the primaries, after November, and beyond. It is up to ordinary people to maintain that excitement, and fight for the kind of change that both they, and hip-hop itself, have craved.
Only then will there be some hype worth believin’.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washingon, DC. He is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice, Znet, and Slepton.com. He is currently working on his first book, The Sounds of Liberation: Music and Social Change in the 21st Century.