SECOND RESPONSE

Barack Obama has never openly sought the approval of hip_hop producers and consumers any more than he has sought that of a general youth constituency. He has never directly subscribed to any “hip_hop agenda” or billed himself as a “hip_hop candidate,” intelligently so. This is ironic though, considering the number of Obama-laden rap tracks composed by everyone from Nas to Ghostface Killah over the past couple of years. Obama has received enough of these public endorsements—ranging from shoutouts and namedrops to full-on odes—to assemble an entire rap soundtrack to his presidential campaign. (There must be a mixtape floating around by now.) He has even had the luxury of saying “thanks but no thanks” when he felt that Ludacris, presumably on Obama’s behalf, crossed the line in criticizing Hillary Clinton and John McCain. These ostensibly unsolicited praise songs keep being sung much to the ire of members of the Republican opposition and of the Civil Rights-era black leadership establishment (opposition) who have been alternately attacking and pandering to the hip_hop set for decades and who already perceive Obama as having received some sort of free pass to popularity. (God forbid the United States should have a president who is too well-liked the world over.)

___And no doubt these accusations of unwarranted celebrity have won Obama the sympathy of even more entertainers inside and outside the hip_hop bracket. However, he is not the first or only. Russell Simmons was early in the game when he supported Hillary’s run for her New York senate seat in 2000, but he put her down in favor of Barack for president. 50 Cent, who had previously defended George Bush following the Katrina catastrophe, seemed like an oddball in his support of Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary race, but he would flip-flop to Obama and back before ultimately deciding to endorse no one. On the red side, country-style rapper Cowboy Troy was spotted stumping for the McCain-Palin ticket at this year’s Republican National Convention where he was the visibly uncomfortable hype man to a mediocre rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Read: racial ploy). Still, none of these people have gone as far as recording songs in honor of their candidates the way that other heads have for Obama. And, again, the senator has not exactly searched them out; rather, they have come to him bearing gifts of hope and adoration to which he has responded with expressions of appreciation tempered with delicate critique.

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What are we to make of Jesse Jackson’s weird fascination with Obama’s genitalia? Obama Girl and Emmy winner will.i.am have each also entertained fantastic thoughts of Michelle’s husband’s testicles, but they have done so with a decidedly different intention. Obama's campaign has been a virtual booby trap of mishaps, missteps, and misrepresentations for the boys’ club (including some women) of black American leadership. This particular rendition of the “black president” phenomenon has actually functioned to discredit the usual stalwarts and past contenders (or, rather, to allow them to discredit themselves) in some hypocritically embarrassing ways. The Reverend Jackson, caught talking straight junk in a private-public conversation, applies the language of American lynch culture (a crude predecessor of American soundbite culture) to Barack’s family values. In a conveniently smuggled clip, the Civil Rights champion appropriates the very sort of vice-grip banter historically directed at those “articulate and bright and clean” black gentlemen who have aspired to upward mobility and possible greatness, especially in the gallant South from whence Jesse hails. Meanwhile, observe his wise counterpart seated at the Fox news desk quite hiply, silently grinning and bearing it.

___What, pray tell, should cutting off Obama’s nuts have to do with his supposedly “talking down to black people”? Condescension seems a strange allegation considering the huge number of black folk of all shapes and sizes, clear to Africa and back, who have felt inspired by a politician’s finally speaking a language that they think they understand. See, those of us who have come of age in the era of hip_hop’s globalization understand a few things about representation and how it works. We have seen enough bad reality television episodes and twenty-four-seven news feeds to know that the camera is never not rolling and that the microphone is always already on. And we have indulged enough rapper-actors and soundbooth gangbangers to recognize a marketable performance of half-authenticated culture and identity when it ricochets across our flatscreens. Obama exemplifies a newer brand of black American leadership. That is, he actually aims to get elected. And most of his black supporters know the deal, or at least they hope that the deal is what they believe it to be—textbook strategy taken from the New Negro survival guide.

___Obama has avoided one of the more obvious routes to black prominence-cum-heroism, and the gatekeepers of this industrial complex hardly know what to do with him. The first strike against the upstart is that his leadership credentials are disconnected from the pulpit. The prior generation came to maturity during a time when the church was still the cornerstone of black political activity and when a clerical foundation was a common launch pad to a career in public service. By extension, Obama’s second big mistake is that he never marched with King. This is an obviously moot criticism levied connotatively and occasionally, ridiculously, aloud by the sort of individuals whose positions as variously appointed spokespeople for the race are largely predicated upon their respective proximity to the body of MLK. What the detractors are struggling to figure out is how to locate and contain Obama’s unorthodox style of black masculinity and what to make of an alternative pedigree that, in their view, amounts to a spotty resumé.

___The Jackson crew has not immediately embraced Obama as a viable presidential candidate, and perhaps they never will fully, genuinely. At their silly worst they are known to engage in Smiley-style smear tactics, the inanity of which has baffled most progressive potential voters (as when Andy Young suggests, in polite company, that Bill Clinton has slept with more black women than Obama has). Obama befuddles the Civil Rights camp because he is perfectly respectful of their past sacrifices but not beholden to the men and women who made them, which is what those men and women mean when they say that they do not know him well enough. Having aired his own dirty laundry in print several years before his presidential bid, he manages to wriggle in between and underneath and back alongside those very staid notions of how politics must be run and of how blackness must be played. Old-style blacks and old-style whites who imply that Obama has not properly paid his dues are expressing their aggravation over his not having gotten tangled in the same dissolute (worldwide) web as they, which is some of what those men and women mean when they say that he might not be black enough. Whether driven by avarice or guilt or a sense of their own receding social relevance, the oldheads’ failure to endorse an unbossed Obama often spirals into off-color commentary. They hate (on) him for his freedom.

___Yet when Obama is being crucified via video loop for his past membership at Trinity United and for his close association with Jeremiah Wright, none of his moralizing critics are on hand to defend the candidate or to defend his pastor or to defend the institution of black liberationist theology. This leaves Obama, a man who never pretended to be deeply religious—just an average churchgoer, really—to publicly explicate his own Christianity when he should not have had to do so. And this leaves Wright to prance and signify in his own defense when his doing so was not in the best interest of his friend Obama’s clinching the Democratic nomination. The candidate is later criticized for neglecting to utter King’s name enough during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Committee. Young Barry has been openly molested by a group of more experienced men and women who ought to have been mentoring his ascendancy. Then the elders wonder why the hip_hop kids are wildin out. Victims of negligence, this younger population takes its cultural cues from elsewhere; they are freaks of the industry. Obama has never claimed to be a King (though Lil Wayne does, basically), and he is not a preacher proper. And King never aspired to be an Obama, which is to say that he never ran for senator or president. They are two different, extremely charismatic individuals being syndicated to practically discrete audiences.

___Much fuss has been made over the importance of newer technology to the momentum of the Obama campaign (discounting the fumbled text-message announcement of the Democratic VP candidate), and this digital underground is arguably the technology of youth. These are youth who are exceptionally self-aware in terms of their own commodification a nd who are more astute about the overwhelmingly mismanaged equation of hip_hop and blackness. They are steeped in the details of packaging and delivery because they are themselves both the product and the fickle consumer base. Likewise, Obama does not have to play the race card because he is the race card, and he is apparently well aware of this. He injects race into the equation merely by showing up. And he invokes Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, too, every time he steps into the room. Otherwise intelligent public figures, battling chronic necrophilia, just don’t seem to get it when it comes to negotiating (post)modern politics. Though they are in many respects a self-taught body, students of the hip_hop moment are evidently better trained at negotiating the finer distinctions between what happens on and off the record. And they are banking on Obama’s having been similarly educated. They are praying that their candidate will be strategically accessible and stylishly aggressive enough to hold up his end of this particular faith-based initiative without being voted off the show—and with his privates intact and possibly in hand. That’s what all the bootleg T-shirts mean.

OTHER PARTICIPATING RESPONDENTS:

Natalie Moore

Mark Anthony Neal

Adam Bradley

 

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