Hip-Hop’s Finest Duo: Barack Obama and Jay-Z
The rapper does the president a solid, and the surprising prescience of 'Watch the Throne'
A French presidential candidate — now president — using a viral political advertisement featuring a song from Watch the Throne, Jay-Z co-signing president Barack Obama’s pro-same-sex marriage sentiments, and the president shouting out Young Jeezy and slow jamming the news, are all reasons to rejoice in the cultural and political exchange that hip-hop has enabled.
Back in April, then socialist party candidate Francois Hollande embraced an ad that celebrated/enforced his cross-cultural appeal using Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas In Paris.” Given its title and the ad’s message (a celebration of minority voting power in France), “Niggas In Paris” is literally the worst rap song that could be chosen, but it seems like it was there for its zeitgeist — as the rap song of 2011 — more than any literal meaning. Despite that lunkheaded insensitivity, it’s worthy of celebration. As people who actually know things about French politics have observed, the real story of the French election was the baffling percentage of people, who, in the first round, supported the far right-leaning National Front. In that sense, the use of “Niggas In Paris” was a brash affront.
The ad, even with its official unofficial context (not created by Hollande’s campaign, but tacitly accepted), could never happen in America. It probably shouldn’t even be able to happen here. Even a well-meaning candidate better not be throwing around a rap song, however huge, called “Niggas In Paris.” But take it as a simple example of rap penetrating the political culture and it is very significant. Rap is probably the only music that could conceivably soundtrack people of different colors and cultures, all gathered together enthusiastically brandishing their voting cards.
On Tuesday, just a few days after President Obama spoke up in support of his personal belief in same-sex marriage as a right, Jay-Z, as he talked up the Made In America concert, applauded the president’s decision. He called a refusal to allow gay couples to marry “discrimination,” and framed Obama’s announcement in moral terms: “It’s the right thing to do, as a human being.” And it establishes a top-down continuum of tolerance that is important, particularly in hip-hop, which is casually homophobic — that’s to say, homophobic the way most of the country is. Obama and Jay-Z have now transcended our mediocre moral center. That’s progress.
Jay-Z’s support is almost necessary for the president. Clinton Yates of The Root, writing for The Washington Post, suggested Jay-Z’s statement is more important than the President’s and I mostly agree. Though Yates’ assertion that, “Jay-Z has absolutely zero vested interest at this point in delving into political matters,” seems incorrect (so does his portrayal of hip-hop as impossibly homophobic, rather than just being a work-a-day closed-minded like most of the country). Jay is a canny pop culture icon and business man who has, over the years, explicitly placed himself at the vanguard of the mainstream. That means he makes sure his beats change with the times, he sometimes diplomatically speaks on pressing political matters, and well, started wearing those weird leather jean thingies that Kanye’s been wearing lately because that’s cool now.
This is Jay-Z doing the president a solid. The myth of African-American voters fleeing the Democratic party after his announcement is absurd, but Jay-Z taking the same stand is nice safety net. Plus, the president surely deserves that support. Not only for his decision, but because Obama has made himself out to be our first hip-hop-friendly president. Just a few days after that Hollande ad went viral, Obama, at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner joked, that in his second term, he wouldn’t be singing Al Green (a reference to a January speech at the Apollo where he crooned “Let’s Stay Together”) but Young Jeezy.
That passing Jeezy reference is a nice nod to hip-hop fans and one step further into rap than Jay-Z, who is well-loved and respected, but thoroughly pop. For so long, the implicit agreement between rappers and political figures is that their support would be welcome, though rarely acknowledged. Rap fans just assumed a reference to Jeezy and his 2008 song “My President” wouldn’t happen. And don’t forget Obama’s deadpan performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where the president “slow-jammed the news”: The comedy and authenticity of the skit were certainly heightened by the Roots’ involvement.
Cynics left unimpressed by the president’s hedged gay marriage stance might see these acknowledgments of hip-hop culture as a manipulation of a voting population mostly ignored, or taken for granted. Perhaps, it is that simple: Obama once again needs young people — the hip-hop generation? — so he’s pandering. I don’t think so, though I don’t care if it is canny voter-grabbing. Similar to Hollande’s embrace of the Jay and Kanye-soundtracked ad, there is at least a give-and-take between hip-hop and the political figure “using” it. Courting the hip-hop generation alienates plenty of people.
I’m going to guess I am not alone here, but the only time democracy and capitalism ever feel like they kind of work is when I’m listening to rap music. There’s a knowing thrill I get buying into the lived-in sentiments of the Throne’s “Made In America,” and there’s a touch of that in a hopeful speech from the president that wearily though never cynically acknowledges the country’s history of discrimination. Watch The Throne is an album that somehow tapped into the sneering money-burning of the one percent, invigorated itself as rap’s only event last year (and yet still, the end of something), and functioned as a convergence point for the nationwide tension between wanting to be mindful and wanting to buy a bunch of stuff.
Looming behind its crude celebrating, and despite a very Bain Capital-like boast from Jay (“The Nets could 0-82 and I look at you like that shit gravy”), “Niggas In Paris” remains a cathartic expression of making it against devastating odds: “I’m shocked too / I’m supposed to be locked up too!” The album and song, and rap music as a whole, which our president has embraced, is a tangled celebration of democracy at a time when, democracy feels pretty iffy.