'Vibe' Puts Politics Front and Center

Vibe magazine cover featuring Sen. Barack Obama

Vibe magazine cover featuring Sen. Barack Obama Courtesy Vibe Magazine hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Vibe Magazine

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is on the cover of Vibe magazine's September issue, the first time a politician has appeared there. Vibe Editor-in-Chief Danyel Smith speaks with Farai Chideya about the honor bestowed upon the senator from Illinois.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Dry and boring. That's one stereotype about politics. But some music in youth-oriented magazines are trying to change the game. Take Vibe magazine who put Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois senator, Barack Obama, front and center. It's the first time a politician has got in the cover of the hip-hop magazine. The article covers his political views, sure, but it also takes an intimate look at his extended family and Hawaii.

For more, we've got Danyel Smith, editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine. Danyel, welcome back.

Ms. DANYEL SMITH (Editor-in-Chief, Vibe): Thank you so much. How are you, Farai?

CHIDEYA: I am doing great. So let's talk about this cover shot that you've got. You've got Senator Obama dressed in a white, buttoned-down shirt, white tie, black slacks, one hand in his pocket. He's looking at the other hand, at his watch. And the caption reads, "It's Obama time."

Ms. SMITH: Don't you love it?

CHIDEYA: It's very, very, very snappy. What was your aim in terms of doing this kind of a cover and doing this kind of a coverage?

Ms. SMITH: Well, the thing is we've been receiving a lot of mails since I came back to Vibe about 12 months ago. A lot of mail from our readers who say, we love the coverage of music. We love the coverage of hip-hop. We love the coverage of, you know, the entertainment world. But we want to know what's going on in the big world. We want to know what's going on in our world. We want to know more than just about what is the hot new dance, the hot new pair of jeans, the hot new single. We want to know what's going on.

And we just felt like Obama. Everybody asks about him. Our readers always write in, even before we ever had anything about Obama in the issue. They wanted to know about him. So we said, let's find a great photographer. Let's find a great writer and let's put Obama on the cover.

CHIDEYA: Well, the great writer is Jeff Chang, who we've also had on the air, and have a lot of respect for. How did he get the plum assignment?

Ms. SMITH: You know, it's hard not to think of Jeff when you think of something like this. He's such a great writer. He's such a good thinker. And most importantly, for me and for our audiences, that Jeff loves rap music. He looks at it with a critical eye. He knows our audience. I knew he would ask questions of the senator that were pertinent to our audience so - and not for nothing. Jeff is also from Hawaii and he went to Obama's rival high school. And so it was like, what more could we ask for in a writer for this cover story. It's historic for us.

CHIDEYA: So when you talk about the layout of this - first time that you have a political figure on the cover, but inside the layout, you've got all these graphics and pullouts. You have Talib Kweli…

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

CHIDEYA: …doing a little riff on the perfect candidate. You have columnist and Pulitzer winner Cynthia Tucker.

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

CHIDEYA: You have Minister Farrakhan.

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

CHIDEYA: You know, you have all these different…

Ms. SMITH: Bill Gates, we have. We have the mayor of Los Angeles in there. We have many - we worked so hard, Farai.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: I know what it's like having been in a magazine game.

Ms. SMITH: Yes. Yes. We worked hard.

CHIDEYA: But do you think that in some ways the layout that you have, which has graphics, pictures, pullouts - it's very interactive. Is that something that keeps your audience from saying - slumping over the pages and saying, oh, my gosh, I can't read five pages of this?

Ms. SMITH: We - I mean, you know, we have to keep it snappy for our audience. Really - I mean, we gave Obama 10 pages, and there are little snatches, little pullouts, little graphics. We want to keep people interested. It's like if you - maybe you don't want to read all, you know, 4,000 words of the Obama piece, maybe you want to hear what Talib Kweli has to say about the perfect candidate, maybe you want to hear what, you know, just 40 words on what Bill Gates says about the importance of education in this election.

So we try to give you a lot, but what we really want is to grab people by the deck, as we call it. There's the headline, which is "Ladies and Gentlemen, is This the Next President of the United States?" - is the headline of the Obama piece. But the deck, as we call it, which is a little summary that runs right underneath that. There's a line in there that says, Will Senator Obama be the First President to Rock Air Force Ones on Air Force One?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: You know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: And Air Force Ones, for those who don't know, it's a particular kind of very hot in the hip-hop community - basketball shoe, casual shoe, the best kind of the icy white ones. They call them uptowns. And we just felt like Air Force Ones, Air Force One. This was something that would pull our audience in. And already the response we're getting from the blogs, the response that we're getting that vibe.com, it has been incredible.

CHIDEYA: So what was he like in person?

Ms. SMITH: I mean, what can you say about him? He's a very charismatic individual. He's very in shape. He's taller than you think. Maybe he's about 6'1" or 6'2". He's very busy, very rushed, very unapologetic about all of that. He's got a very sort of sarcastic sense of humor. I would go so far as to say he's maybe a little bossy. He's very in charge of himself, very self-possessed. I was very impressed by him.

CHIDEYA: When you think about how this issue unfolded - one, how are you going to cover the presidential race here forward? And, two, anyone else, you think, would ever make the cover?

Ms. SMITH: I think definitely. I think based on even the beginnings of the kind of response that we're getting for putting the senator on our cover says to me let's do it again. Kids want to know. Young people want to know. They want to know more about their world. They want to know who's going to be leading them in their neighborhoods, in their cities, in their states, and their country. So, hi, Hillary Clinton. How are you doing? Call us up. You'll never know.

CHIDEYA: Before we let you go, there was a lot of attention last election season to hip-hop politics. You have Russell Simmons Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. You also had P. Diddy's Vote Or Die campaign, which died.

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

CHIDEYA: It just disappeared. It's not around anymore. Is there really a credible hip-hop political movement?

Ms. SMITH: There was a time when hip-hop itself was a political movement. Is there one that is sort of been made up? Is there a grassroots political movement going on? I think in some cities across the country, yes, there are small movements. I don't think it's terribly well organized. I do think it is vibrant. I think what is going to count is a magazine like Vibe for us to get behind, not just the glamorous candidates like a Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani or a Senator Obama but to get behind the leaders on, you know, the neighborhood level, the community level, the state level, and to really talk about what's going on this country. And I think that is going to have kids, have young people just get excited about going to the polls. And more than going to the polls, shoot signing up and doing something, representing, going to a march, volunteering. This is a kind of thing that lives in the hip-hop community and is just waiting for us, frankly. I think Vibe magazines - and magazines like Vibe to inspire that in them.

CHIDEYA: Danyel, thanks again.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you so much for having me, Farai. Always a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Danyel Smith is editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine. Their September issue with Senator Barack Obama on the cover hits stands next week.

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