In America's ongoing culture wars, once the race card gets played, it's only a matter of time before hip-hop comes under fire. Last year, shock jock Don Imus' comments about the Rutgers' women's basketball team somehow morphed into a sensationalistic national debate over rap lyrics. This year, the controversy over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright has led, perhaps inevitably, to a right-wing hissy fit over presidential candidate Barack Obama's hip-hop constituency.
In a recent article for right-wing web site HumanEvents.com, entitled "Obama's Other Jeremiah Wrights," former New York Post staffer Evan Gahr reported that high-profile rappers like Jay-Z, Ludacris, Q-Tip, and Will.I.Am are "gaga" over Obama. Gahr called the Democratic front-runner "an apologist for their 'music'" — downplaying the fact that Obama has expressed concern about the lyrical content of mainstream rap in the past, while hinting at the genre's underlying social issues.
A self-described "liberal-basher," Gahr is peeved that Obama's links to hip-hop artists have gone "entirely unnoticed" by media attack dogs who have made Reverend Wright a defining issue in the 2008 election. Gahr's main criticism seems to be rap's questionable language: "Where else but rap do people talk so openly about n-----, b-----, and hoes? What other industry makes millions of dollars from these words?" Gahr blustered, like a Bill O'Reilly wanna-be.
Yet while Gahr accuses Obama of "moral hypocrisy" for being down with hip-hop, his beliefs don't seem to apply to himself. In a 2004 interview on LukeFord.net, Gahr repeatedly used the phrase "dumb cunt" to describe his former co-worker Mona Charen, whom he also described as a "bigger bitch than Lillian Hellman." If that's not moral hypocrisy, what is?
Curiously, Gahr overlooks the important fact that Obama's support in the hip-hop community hasn't just come from mainstream artists. Dozens, if not hundreds, of underground rappers from all over the country have strongly resonated with the candidate's message.
The Bay Area hip-hop community in particular has been solidly behind Barack, as evidenced by the popular "Obizzle Fa Shizzle" T-shirts seen around town. Artists such as Zion-I, Blackalicious, Martin Luther, D'Wayne Wiggins, and Goapele have all been featured performers at "Barack the Vote" rallies, while Kev Choice and D Labrie have gone a step further by recording songs inspired by Obama's historic candidacy.
Despite being featured during CNN's Super Tuesday coverage, Labrie's "Vote for Barack" apparently escaped Gahr's rap radar. The song — which jacks both the beat and cadence from Mims' "This Is Why I'm Hot" — offers lyrics which build on what Obama has called "the audacity of hope": Vote for Barack/Not because he's black or a Democrat/But because he kicks the facts/'Bout reaching the youth, ending the war/We really need a change in the US for sure.
Initially, Labrie says, he was skeptical of Obama's sincerity, due to what he calls the "Condoleeza Rice factor." But "when [Obama] reached out to the hip-hop community, it felt like a validation," he says. "I felt no one had reached out to the inner city. Because he reached out so hard to the hip-hop community, I just decided to put my name on the line and just do it."
The rapper posted "Vote for Barack" on MySpace and blasted it via e-mail to fellow members of the Hip Hop Congress organization. "The song just took on a life of its own," he says. He's been in contact with Obama campaign staffers, but "the craziest thing to me was how the 'hood cats was feelin' it," he adds.
Choice's "Obama Song" is also a far cry from the ignorant rapper stereotype hip-hop critics have stubbornly clung to. Updating Sam Cooke's civil rights anthem "Change Gonna Come" with a sped-up vocal sample (à la Kanye West), Choice explains why Obama is his pick for president: He's the only candidate I feel really represents/A new direction, a fresh perspective/These politics is full of so much deception/I listen to his message/His views on the issues/He stands firm trying to make it better for the people.
Choice also posted his song on MySpace, and got an immediate response. "I got more hits than I've ever had. People were loving it. They started posting it on their pages ... They can really relate to it. It kinda keeps them motivated," he says.
Neither Choice nor Labrie are surprised that race has become such a prominent issue in the 2008 campaign. "As the election gets closer and closer, the attacks are getting harsher," Choice says. "They're bringing up the Jeremiah Wright thing and the black church every day. That's like the main issue."
Labrie says Obama is being "demonized" over Jeremiah Wright and hip-hop, adding, "there are historical issues that do need to be addressed. It scares people that someone that's black has that platform to speak on it. With things like the Sean Bell [acquittal] happening, [race] comes back out."
Choice feels "it's a good thing anytime someone from the hip-hop generation gets involved in the political process. A lot of people in that age group don't really care who's the president," he explains, adding that he recently attended a Jay-Z concert at Oakland's Oracle Arena where the rap superstar put Obama's face on a big screen TV as 13,000 people cheered.
Last year, when the issue of hip-hop lyrics came up amidst the Imus controversy, Labrie noted Obama's disapproving yet not entirely unsympathetic response. "I get that same talk from my aunties," he says, adding that most mainstream discussions involving hip-hop lack proper context.
Indeed, blasting hip-hop for glorifying stereotypes while exploiting those same stereotypes is nothing new for conservatives. However, using hip-hop as a vehicle for social change is a marked improvement on apolitical, morally dubious sentiments, just as Obama's candidacy represents a shift from the same ol' politics that got us into this mess in the first place. That's why folks like Gahr should check themselves before they wreck themselves. After all, if you're going to play the race card, play with a full deck.
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