‘Reagan gave us something to rap about’: how hip-hop has interacted with US politics

Estimated read time 6 min read

At the 1985 presidential inauguration ball, a made-for-TV black-tie affair that was something in between a concert and a roast, an expectant Ronald Reagan looked on from the dais for Jimmy Stewart to bring up the next act. “And now,” a grizzled George Bailey intoned, “to present the excitement of youth, the sights and the sounds of a big city, here are [the] New York City Breakers.”

More than validation for an emerging medium, it was the moment Reagan assumed his final form as America’s god emcee, the cult figure who not only inspired a political movement but also its muscular, musical adversary. “That’s really where it all began,” says Jesse Washington, the writer-director behind the documentary Hip-Hop and the White House. “Daddy-O said it very plainly: ‘Reagan gave us something to rap about.’”

Hip-Hop and the White House examines how the most pervasive American cultural movement of the past 50 years came to be so closely intertwined with the most powerful office in the land, working from the 70s-era policy decisions that put hip-hop’s Black and brown pioneers on the back foot all the way to plutocrat emcees like Kanye and Jay-Z playing kingmaker in the present day. Through archival footage, much of it long forgotten, Washington’s doc recalls how hip-hop wasn’t really respected as more than rebel entertainment, personified by acts like the New York City Breakers.

Before Bill Clinton played the sax on Arsenio, Eazy-E popped up at a $1,250-a-plate members’ only luncheon for George HW Bush after condemning law and order on NWA’s Fuck Tha Police and grabbed headlines. Soon thereafter the political ruling class realized that hip-hop was a useful tool, one that could be used to scare up white votes, through formal protest and policies targeting explicit artists and lyrics and firebrand activists like Sister Soulja, and stir up the scores of young voters who connected with the music. There was more in the doc about hip-hop rallying the youth voter via P Diddy’s popular Vote or Die mass-registration campaign, but recent events would force the production team to reduce the hip-hop impresario to a passing figure in this history.

That’s not all that makes this hourlong project such an interesting choice for Disney, which produced the documentary via Andscape – ESPN’s race and culture platform. For years, the network made a great show of keeping politics out of its journalism, cracking down on select personalities who crossed the line off air. But with changing times has come new management that appears to be perfectly fine giving itself over to political fodder, and no view would appear to be too extreme. In a world where top personality Stephen A Smith goes on Hannity to say Black Americans could relate to Donald Trump “being discriminated against”, a straight political documentary from the self-styled worldwide leader in sports isn’t as far-fetched an idea as it would’ve been even four years ago.

Hip-Hop in the White House doesn’t push one particular party as much as it shows the ongoing effort to turn partying into policy and the obstacles that inevitably arise. Young Jeezy, the legendary Atlanta rapper who is an executive producer and narrator on the film, had such belief in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run that he made a song about him and added it to an album that shipped out some five months before the election. After Obama won and My President became a victory anthem, Jeezy assumed Obama would invite him to the White House to personally thank him for galvanizing support. But Jeezy – who, like Eazy, was a former narcotics dealer — failed the drug test that would’ve given him an audience with the first Black president. Instead, Jay-Z became Obama’s top emcee, even though his past is about as checkered. “I think there’s definitely some selective prosecutions here,” Washington says. “Jay-Z was the bigger star.”

Obama didn’t officially acknowledge Jeezy until the end of his second term, shouting him out at the 2012 correspondents dinner. The two men wouldn’t meet face-to-face for another 10 years. “Obama was very strategic about saying, ‘I can’t be out here just reppin for Black people, and it caused a lot of angst among Black folks,” says Washington, the national writer for race and ethnicity at the Associated Press before helping to launch Andscape (née The Undefeated) in 2016. “I really commend Jeezy though. That’s a hard thing for a superstar to take. For him not only to go through that but to be willing to be vulnerable about it, that’s not something a lot of rappers would do. A lot of rappers would play it off. I think it really sets a powerful example for us as hip-hop, for us as Black men, for how to be honest with ourselves and move forward.”

Kanye West meets Donald TrumpView image in fullscreen

The many experts Washington parades through his film – the Newark mayor Ras Baraka, rap legend KRS-One (who slams Reagan as “the father of crack cocaine”), the aforementioned Daddy-O, a sampling pioneer – appreciate that hip-hop has reached the executive branch, and that it could also do a lot more to effect change in their audiences’ daily lives. No talking head is more cynical than Wocka Flocka Flame, an Atlanta rapper who not only came out for Trump in 2020, but said he was better than Obama. The enraged reaction that greeted his announcement has since given way to young Black men shifting support to Trump because they feel like Obama – ostensibly, the hip-hop president – let them down.

“His interview represents the exit polls that showed 20% of Black men had voted for Trump,” Washington says. (In fact, Trump won 12% of the Black male vote in 2020, down from 14% in 2016.) Pivoting to Obama’s underappreciated accomplishments, Washington adds: “He did a lot with drug sentencing. He granted a lot of people clemency and pardons for a lot of misguided drug prosecutions, some of which were brought about by Clinton. The analogy I like to make is Michael Jordan couldn’t be out here reppin for Black people super hard because the world wasn’t ready for that yet. They had to take that step in order for the next generation to go hard body.”

As for where this political influence goes from here, Congresswoman Maxine Waters makes clear that hip-hop has yet to draw on its full power. And with the music industry being more decentralized than ever, artists have unprecedented latitude to make demands and make certain they don’t just trickle down. “Hip-hop doesn’t depend on this corporate white power structure any more,” Washington says. “It can do what it wants to do. What it’s been challenged to do is to effectively organize and partner with people who are experienced in politics and understand how the levers of power work. If you couple that expertise with the vision and the voice of a Jeezy or a Jay-Z or a Roxanne Shanté, then that is the opportunity that hip-hop has.”

  • Hip-Hop and the White House is now available on Hulu in the US with a UK date to be announced

Source: theguardian.com

You May Also Like

More From Author