Obama Hip-Hop: From Mixtapes To Mainstream This election season, hip-hop artists flocked to their mixing boards in unprecedented fashion in support of Barack Obama. Rapper Young Jeezy and professor Mark Anthony Neal discuss the effect of an African-American president-elect on hip-hop.

Obama Hip-Hop: From Mixtapes To Mainstream

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96748462/96793458" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of song "Obama, Obama")

Unidentified Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States of America, Barack...

A.P.T.: (Rapping) Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama, Obo, Obo, Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama. A.P.T...

HANSEN: Hip-hop performers and producers flocked to their mixing boards in unprecedented fashion this election season. Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Jay-Z, and Nas rallied their fans behind President-elect Barack Obama's campaign. And as their hip-hop forefathers did, the kings and queens of rap preached about social justice, the economy, and the power of democracy.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Black Popular Culture, Duke University; Visiting Scholar, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania): There's always been a sense that hip-hop historically has been part of black America's first response.

HANSEN: Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of black pop culture at Duke University and a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor NEAL: Whether it's Katrina three years ago, the L.A. riots in 1992, Jesse Jackson's run to 1984, you know, hip-hop was seen as black America's first response. But if you look at it in a more contemporary sense, now you had rank-and-file rappers, like Ludacris and Nas and Young Jeezy, who very much became committed to the process and engaged in the electoral process.

(Soundbite of song "My President")

YOUNG JEEZY & NAS: (Rapping) Yo. My president is black, my Lambo's blue.

HANSEN: Young Jeezy's new album, "The Recession," features a song about Senator Obama, "My President is Black." It's become something of an election anthem. Young Jeezy explained why he came to the senator's aid.

YOUNG JEEZY (Hip-Hop Artist): I was convinced from day one when I found out he was running. But it's kind of really rough out here for a lot of people, and I think he gave them hope. He was like a new voice. He had a new message.

HANSEN: You got to vote for the first time in this election.

YOUNG JEEZY: Yeah, yeah, I got to vote. It felt like when I went and bought my first car without a cosign. It felt good.

HANSEN: Young Jeezy and Nas had opportunities to vote in previous elections, but this was the first candidate that drew them to the polls. During the campaign, though, Senator Obama's camp was weary of taking direct public endorsements from rappers and hip-hop artists. Again, Mark Anthony Neal.

Professor NEAL: The challenge that Barack Obama had was really to be able to wink to the hip-hop community and say, I really can't acknowledge you in the mainstream, but understand that I'm hearing what your critique is, I'm hearing what your concerns are, and you now have a wide-open space in the so-called underground to talk about why my candidacy is important. And I think many of the rappers - particularly the very visible, mainstream rappers - understood that strategy because it's a strategy that they employ all the time also. There's a version of, for instance, Snoop Dogg that sells records. But that's a very different version of Snoop Dogg that's sitting with Larry King talking about the election.

HANSEN: Let's talk a little bit about Nas. He released a freestyle song with DJ Green Lantern the night before the election. And on Election Day, it was getting major Internet plays.

(Soundbite of song "Election Night")

Unidentified Singers: Change the world.

NAS: (Rapping) It's the moment of truth, election night.

Unidentified Singers: Change the world.

Professor NEAL: Suddenly, recording artists don't have to go the traditional routes to get out their messages, right. They don't have to go through the traditional label structure. And if there's something that they want to respond to in real time, they can do so via this new technology.

(Soundbite of song "Election Night")

NAS: (Rapping) I'm a first-time voter. How can I front? Barack been campaigning like 21 months. Yeah, the whole country needs answers, While he got to deal with grandma dying from cancer. No time off, no days off or nights to sleep. He ain't even got time to weep. And we're standing on line when we normally don't. People claim black people too lazy to vote...

HANSEN: But for rappers like Young Jeezy, involvement in this election represents more than a movement to the Web for a hip-hop get out the vote session. Mark Anthony Neal says songs like "My President is Black" are part of a greater interest in politics.

Professor NEAL: Jeezy's a fascinating figure in this conversation because if we think about his kind of rap persona, slinging dope on the corner, who's disaffected because the political process doesn't work because he doesn't have an investment in a traditional economy in the same kind of way. And for a figure like that to come in from the cold and go into a voter booth and decide, this is going to be the first time that I'm going to cast a vote, I think it speaks volumes to where the larger community is in terms of these kind of marginalized figures who've never been involved in the process.

(Soundbite of song "My President")

YOUNG JEEZY & NAS: (Rapping) Just 'cause you got opinions, does that make you a politician? Bush robbed all of us, would that make him a criminal? And then he cheated in Florida, would that make him a Seminole? I say and I quote, "We need a miracle."

HANSEN: Again, Young Jeezy.

YOUNG JEEZY: Anybody that listen to my music and know where I come from and know what I been through, and just to hear me take a pause from all the normal rapper stuff and just kind of sit back and go, you know what, we got a problem. Like, we got to address this. If you out here, you're a hard-working American, and you can't even put food on your table, there's a problem with your system.

HANSEN: Senator Barack Obama is not the first politician to rally support from the hip-hop community. Reverend Jesse Jackson was an icon of social hip-hop in the 1980s and '90s. A 1990 song from group Public Enemy called "Welcome to the Terrordome" was famously associated with Reverend Jackson.

(Soundbite of song "Welcome to the Terrordome")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) I got so much trouble on my mind. Refuse to lose. Here's your ticket...

HANSEN: Again, Mark Anthony Neal.

Professor NEAL: Jesse Jackson's runs in 1984 and 1988 clearly swelled the ranks of new voters, and folks got engaged in ways that they hadn't been before. But there was never really an investment - the same kind of investment in Jesse Jackson being elected because nobody really believed that there was a political will in this country to elect a black man as president. So in many ways, Public Enemy songs from that period of time are very much a critique of the electoral process and the fact that Jesse Jackson would be locked out of the Oval Office.

(Soundbite of song "You're the Man")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Talking to the people.

HANSEN: Marvin Gaye's 1972 tune, "You're the Man," about political accountability. Brother Ali used it in one of his tunes, "My President."

Professor NEAL: Yes. Marvin Gaye does this song. This was right after the success of his great protest album, "What's Going On?" And he's raising questions about this emerging black electorate, talking about how does a community hold these elected officials accountable? And I thought it was very wise for someone like Brother Ali to make that kind of connection.

(Soundbite of song "Mr. President")

BROTHER ALI: (Rapping) Stand on your feet, the new black commander in chief. You see the voice of the people can't be defeated. We got together and demanded what we needed. The masters of suffering gotta have some relief...

Professor NEAL: You really see how hip-hop now functions politically the same way soul music reflected a political consciousness of years ago.

HANSEN: Where do you think the message in the hip-hop community is going to go now?

Professor NEAL: I think it's going to be interesting to see the ways that hip-hop can be employed to help Barack Obama govern. I think for black America, we've always seen these kind of figures that we've been invested in as icons, whether it's Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson. We've never had an elected official at this high level. And so I think that a more sophisticated conversation about the governing process has to occur. And I'm really excited to see what role hip-hop plays in that process.

HANSEN: Young Jeezy says he plans to stay with Barack all the way.

YOUNG JEEZY: It was not just a one-night thing. It was not just November 4. It's from now for the next four years, so we're going to have to ride with him.

(Soundbite of song "You're the Man")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) I got to vote for you.

HANSEN: Rapper Young Jeezy. His latest album is called "The Recession." Earlier we heard from Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black pop culture at Duke University and visiting scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

(Soundbite of song "You're the Man")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Tellin' lies, not to worry, that we won't be led astray.

HANSEN: Riding with you, this is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.