Last night, hip-hop journalist and activist Davey D spoke at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) as part of the Black Student Union’s Black History Month activities. Davey D–who traced his involvement in hip-hop back to the Bronx in the late 1970s–explained that hip-hop came out of the experience or in reaction to social oppression, both in the Bronx and with the COINTELPRO repression that destroyed the Civil Rights movement.
However, the big question for hip-hop in 2009 is about President Barack Obama and his relationship to hip-hop. Davey D explained that he attended the inauguration and had a journalist ask him if Barack Obama was the “hip-hop president.”
Hip-Hop Turns Out for Obama
Davey D argued that he could see why people might say Obama was the “hip-hop president.” There were over two hundred songs recorded about Barack Obama during the campaign from artists such as Common, Young Jeezy, and Nelly. At the same time, hip-hop artists were registering people to vote, were campaigning for Obama, and even attending the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Even artists who had not previously had much to say about politics–for example Bow Wow–were talking about Obama and encouraging fans to turn out the vote. Southern rap–known primarily for its bling–also was speaking in support of Obama.
Aside from the more popular artists who supported Obama, there were also efforts aimed at doing other work in the campaign. The Hip-Hop Caucus conducted voter registration tours. Several hip-hop activists also got involved in a campaign to move Texas from being a “Red State” to a “Blue State” by campaigning aggressively to get out the vote.
Fans also turned out in great numbers to campaign for and vote for Obama.
More than Just Jay-Z: Obama Campaign Built on Existing Political Hip-Hop Infrastructure
However, this wasn’t just about celebrity–nor was it just about Obama. Davey D explained that the hip-hop community had been conducting important political work for years and that Obama’s election built on existing networks.
He explained that events like the National Hip-Hop Political Conventions had been organizing to make specific demands of candidates, recognizing for example that people of color were facing a recession before the current economic crisis. There was Russell Simmons holding meetings in 2004 to talk about politics, and Didddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign. There was also the League of Pissed Off Voters that distributed pamphlets across the country in 2004 with candidates’ voting records and stances.
Going back further, Davey D cited Ja Rule’s efforts in the 1990s to get people of color to run for office and 2Pac’s efforts to form a political party that could disrupt the electoral process.
The infrastructure that exists to support hip-hop–especially artists such as Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, and others not actively promoted by labels–also played a part in Obama’s win. Those artists have had to develop alternative ways of distributing their music and touring, as the music industry didn’t want to support music that might empower black people. They also spoke frequently about politics. Similarly, hip-hop broke down the color barrier and made it easier for folks to accept the idea of a black president.
Beyond Concerts: A Focus on Issues Important to the Hip-Hop Community?
Davey D explained that it is only with hip-hop that people ask if Obama is a “hip-hop president.” Nobody asks if he is the “union president,” or the “actors’ president” despite those group’s support. Davey D followed the campaign closely and said that much of the media just wants to ask this about Obama without looking at the deeper stories behind hip-hop’s involvement in the campaign.
D said that there is certainly a reason to celebrate Obama’s victory, but there is also reason to be skeptical.
He said that it remains to be seen where Obama will stand on important issues such as police brutality, which is important to the hip-hop community. He also wonders whether the stimulus package will meet the needs of the hip-hop community, especially after money for schools and art was cut. Money for police was of course kept.
With the political activity of the hip-hop community over the years (going back to at least the Clinton campaign), Davey D said that hip-hop deserves more than simply having Jay-Z perform at the inauguration. Instead, he said that the hip-hop community has demonstrated its power and it deserves a seat at the table in the new administration. He said that hip-hop should remember that it helped Obama get elected and it should not be afraid to make demands on the new president.