By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Young Jeezy's prophetic "My President" hit websites on August 20, slightly more than two months after Hillary Clinton gave way to Barack Obama as her party's nominee and five days before Denver's 2008 Democratic National Convention made it official. (A Jeezy ad-lib suggested the song itself was recorded much earlier, when Hillary was still something like a viable candidate—"June 3rd, 2:08 a.m.," the morning of the day Obama finally closed her out.) In July and August, John McCain, whom Jeezy had previously appeared to endorse in the pages of Vibe ("No disrespect to Barack, but I fuck with John McCain"), had risen in the polls—a lift that would culminate, with Sarah Palin's ascension, in a short-lived Republican lead. By November 4, though, this would all be ancient history, and Obama's win would prompt, among other things, a late-night e-mail to "MTV News" from the rapper repeating an assertion he'd already been making for months: "My president is black!"
Indeed, the early-to-bed Democratic victory brought a flood of news stories the next day touting the youth vote and the African-American vote and that fuzzier demographic (as per a Hip-Hop Summit Action Network press release), "18- to 35-year-olds who are brand-loyal to Hip-Hop culture," a group in turn credited as the "largest constituency contributing to Senator Obama's victory." And while certain rappers were all too happy to agree ("I felt like my vote was the vote that put him into office," Diddy told the AP), at first the assertion felt wildly implausible. Could hip-hop have actually contributed to an Obama win?
Notwithstanding November 5 declarations that "My President" was the new national anthem and had been for months, rap took a while to get situated in the race. An oblivious DMX set the tone in March: "What the fuck is a Barack?" The Obama campaign had been forced in July to disown Ludacris's paralyzed-McCain fantasy, "Politics as Usual," while Jay-Z's mercifully unnoticed early contribution had been an "A Milli" remix in which he offered to buy the whole hood guns if Obama lost. But as the reality of the thing dawned, rap got organized. The Hip Hop Caucus launched an 18-city swing-state-targeted tour featuring T.I., T-Pain, Jay-Z, Jeezy, and Keyshia Cole. YouTube videos began appearing, in which rappers explained the minutiae of voting in Texas (Redman), Virginia (Nas), and Michigan (Jay). T.I. and Jeezy waited patiently to vote early in Georgia; the latter spent his pre-election weekend making calls to undecided voters. Soulja Boy, Juelz Santana, Maino, and Busta Rhymes all claimed to have registered for the first time. On November 3, Jay-Z stood on a north Philadelphia stage—flanked by Diddy, Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter—and told a crowd of 10,000: "Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama's running so we all can fly." The next day, the rapper voted in New York at 6 a.m.; he was the fourth person in line.
In early returns, the African-American vote was up two percent and was five points more Democratic than it had been in 2004; the youth vote was up five percent and, crucially, swung 25 points more Democratic. By some math, these demographic shifts added up to 73 electoral votes—an enormous chunk of Obama's final margin. With the caveat that these numbers don't reflect the exact tally of Jay-Z fans who took to the polls, they are decent proxies—especially in rapper-rich places like Georgia, where in certain counties, voter turnout increased by as much as 15 to 20 percent.
But rap's 2008 ground game had a larger context. Hip-hop was a small activist subsection of one of the most precisely organized campaigns in the history of American politics (one could as easily credit the rural Pennsylvanians in the Alabama part of that state, or Howard Dean). And anyone who cared about these musicians as artists surely also cared about the often unlistenable songs they were making in between campaign stops. Presumably, there were those out there who, if presented with the choice between four more years of will.i.am's risible "Yes We Can" and a McCain victory, would have at least had to think about it.
Now that Obama is safely in the White House, music fans might ask the inverse question: Did our new president repay hip-hop its favor? Throw out the didactic shit and the outright propaganda—"You Can Vote However You Like," Nas's Calvin Coolidge–checking "Black President," and so on. Acknowledge, as Jemele Hill did in a mid-November ESPN.com column about black athletes, that hip-hop in the post–Bad Boy era was just as much in thrall to what Hill called " 'the Republicans buy shoes, too' era ushered in by Michael Jordan, who gave black athletes the blueprint for how to stay apolitical for commercial reasons." In this climate, it was positively radical when the LOX's Jadakiss followed Harlem's resident misogynist Juelz Santana ("Everybody else get unraveled, tangled, mangled, totally disabled/Hung from a roof, watch him dangle/Then I make your wife feel the pain too: anal") in a summer BET freestyle with a line that explicitly connected rap's prospects to Obama's: "Yo, I'll tell you this once, hip-hop is not dead/Change gon' come, just like Barack said."
For Jay-Z's part, four short months after his "A Milli" provocation, the rapper appeared on an entirely different sort of track with M.I.A. (a remix of her "Boyz"), engaging in what was essentially constructive political activism. M.I.A.: "How many billions does it take before the troops are home? How many banks gotta collapse till you know what you're doing is wrong?" Jay-Z: "We gotta get Bush out the chair! Give Obama the floor!" The track was a noticeable improvement on August's T.I. posse debacle "Swagger Like Us," which featured rap royalty (Jay, Kanye, and Lil Wayne) on a hook courtesy of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," and which was perhaps 2008's best proof that top-shelf commercial hip-hop was running desperately low on ideas.
Still, the very fact that Jay-Z (one of the last remaining stars in a dying industry) and M.I.A. (an indie fashion plate whose 2007 album Kala remains the most successfully radical record of the decade) were even on two tracks together in '08 was in itself a tribute to Obama. The candidate's evident, surprising traction with such a huge swath of the electorate had its own major implications for hip-hop, and for Jay-Z in particular, a rapper who'd been visibly tormented since his un-retirement by an inability to locate any real demographic to which he wanted to speak. M.I.A., whose music has always been explicitly targeted at the global-change contingent, was an obvious role model, once Pineapple Express and Kanye West helped a guy like Jay-Z figure out exactly who she was.
And so, while rap helped prepare the ground for an Obama win, it may well have been that, as in seemingly many an interaction with America's 44th president, it was also hip-hop that emerged revitalized and with the better end of the deal. Obama gave rap a sense of relevance at the exact moment that its most venerable artists were searching for one. "See, I motivate the thugs, right?" said Young Jeezy at the end of "My President," speaking explicitly to the man he hoped would win in November. "You motivate us."