Friday, August 1, 2008

Obama's hiphop tango: Consequences of a courtship

“You always hurt the one you love.” The song’s been in the American songbook for generations. The Mills Brothers covered it during World War II; the pop evergreen has been covered by everyone from Spike Jones to Peggy Lee. But probably as many people embrace the title’s wise irony as know the song itself. Sen. Barack Obama is one of them.

For almost two years now, the Illinois senator has been the beneficiary of the support of Christopher (Ludacris) Bridges, the Grammy-winning hip-hop artist, producer and emerging actor whose forthright street style and topical broadsides have garnered sales in the multimillions. In 2006, in the runup to his presidential campaign, and as a bid for some needed street cred, Obama met with Ludacris to talk over strategies for empowering younger voters.

Their relationship, already expedient, just got more complicated. On Wednesday, Ludacris released a video of his latest song, “Politics,” on YouTube. By all accounts, it’s straight-up Luda firing on all cylinders, with shots at Sen. Hillary Clinton, President Bush and Sen. John McCain, Obama’s presidential challenger. In a corrosive two minutes and change, Ludacris calls Clinton an “irrelevant [bitch],” posits McCain in a wheelchair, calls Bush “mentally handicapped … You’re the worst of 43 presidents,” and summons America to “paint the White House black” with the election of Obama in November.

The Obama campaign, adept at fast damage control, launched countermeasures quickly. Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton told The Politico, "As Barack Obama has said many, many times in the past, rap lyrics today too often perpetuate misogyny, materialism and degrading images that he doesn't want his daughters or any children exposed to. This song is not only outrageously offensive to Senator Clinton, 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."

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Less easily resolved is the issue of generational reach; Obama needs the support of the millions of voters, black and white alike, for whom Ludacris is a simpatico social and political voice. The 45 million registered voters between 25 and 44 — a cohort that’s almost certainly right in Luda’s demographic sweet spot for sales — are vital to Obama’s chances to attain the presidency. This latest diss of Luda’s world view can’t help Obama’s relationship with younger voters for whom hip-hop matters, deeply.

The Obama-Ludacris situation reveals one of the ironies of the Obama presidential campaign and its bid for broad appeal: that his speaking truth to power would go up against that of one of his most ardent — and necessary — supporters. Luda will of course say that he and Obama are in lockstep on one truth basic to politics and business: You never forget your loyal constituents. You never turn your back on your base.

But there’s the challenge for Obama: figuring how to appeal to a younger, culturally adventurous and frighteningly intelligent segment of the American electorate without scaring off the wider range of voters — many of whom are still terrified of and confused by hip-hop culture and its drive-by velocity into the mainstream of American life. The conservatives have been only too ready to exploit that fear.

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That wider range of voters forms the base of Obama’s support; and it seems that a d├ętente is possible between Obama and the Luda demographic. Hiphop impresario Russell Simmons endorsed Obama in March. And in the June 12 edition of The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly, writer Charles Mudede interviewed a group of Seattle rap artists, and found a consensus that could be true of hiphop artists in general: Even though some were late getting on the Obama train, they’re very much on board now.

Thig, half of the Seattle hiphop duo the Physics, told Mudede: “As a person of color, I think it’s just plain crazy that someone can transcend race in this country. But that’s what just happened and it surprised the hell out of me that [white] people could look beyond color …

“When I went to my caucus, there was like two black people there. And the white people were hella pumped — Obama hats, Obama buttons, Obama this, Obama that. It’s like we are on the brink of going beyond race … I know America will not change overnight, but it’s still damn impressive.”

And Jace, of Seattle’s Silent Lambs Project, observed that Obama’s campaign means “change is now on a higher level … It’s not just: I can change the way I dress, I can change my ideology. It’s: Look at this brother who’s about to be president of the United States, with a beautiful wife and children, and he hasn’t changed. And he’s the most celebrated individual in this country. So what he’s showing brothers is: There is another way to do this. You can still be cool, still have your street cred, still have a beautiful woman, still make money — all that shit that you envy, you can do it now in a way that is right.”

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How the controversy over Luda’s “Politics” changes things, or even if it does, remains to be seen. Some are already saying it’s no big damn deal. “Hip-hoppers and black folks understand the game,” Jeff Johnson, an activist and host of an upcoming BET news and public affairs show, told The Associated Press. “They're thinking, ‘An Obama who knows how to play the game is still better for me than a McCain.’”

“There are a ton of people who clearly are looking for [Obama] to denounce this in order to continue to view him as credible,” Johnson said. “He, for political purposes, has to separate himself from anything controversially black.”

And John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute — a conservative think tank — told The AP that "I'm not aware of hip-hop music affecting any election so far, and I don't think that this is going to be one, either," McWhorter is a supporter of Obama.

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Ironically enough, there’s thinking that hiphop, so famously ahead of the curve — if not defining what the curve is — was caught off guard by the ascendancy of Obama. The Stranger’s Mudede observed that “hiphop, at a mainstream level, did not see Obama coming, and this might be a sign of its age or its loss of relevance. From 50 Cent to RZA, support famously went to Hillary Clinton’s run at the office. Hiphop missed the future.”

Hiphop and Team Obama appear to be narrowing their differences fast, the better to thwart the possibility of yet another intraracial divide: Obama’s allegiance to Hiphop Nation is every bit as much a generational issue as Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For Obama, both raise questions over how best to wade in the mainstream — how best not to be portrayed as “controversially black.”

No small thing when (as hiphop has made clear for a generation, and American race relations has made clear forever) to be black in the United States is to be born controversial.
Image credits: Ludacris: PA2 Anastasia Burns, U.S. Coast Guard (public domain). The Stranger cover: © 2008 The Stranger.

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