The recent uproar over the Ludacris pro-Obama rap song revealed once again that we are a nation willing to consume and enjoy hip-hop music, even as we refuse to understand hip-hop culture. The question “where does hip-hop end and Black culture begin?” would be a great start. Until we get there, what may be a speed bump for the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee today, poses an even bigger obstacle for hip-hop activists attempting to leverage hip-hop’s popularity into political influence this election season and beyond.
Senator Obama’s challenge is obvious. In the political mainstream hip-hop equals sex, violence, misogyny and criminal behavior. And no matter how fiercely it’s defended, this message doesn’t get explained away. Obama’s opponents (Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham leading the pack) are eager to link Obama with Ludacris. To do so, they imagine, is to associate Obama with hip-hop and thus tarnish his image.
If hip-hop is the problem with American moral values, the logic goes, then a vote for Obama is to vote against family values.
To be sure, those advancing an Obama-Ludacris connection as a political scandal hope to siphon votes from Obama –either from those on the fence or from hip-hop generationers who feel he doesn’t have their back.
Like many seemingly harmless issues that evolved into huge media obsessions this year, the Ludacris backlash is driven by traditional political elites, banking on old racial fears. Most can’t get past Ludacris’ “paint the White House black” lyrics, which pundits translate to this: if the president is Black quality of life will increase for Black Americans, but only at the expense of whites.
This push echoes the vetting of Black presidential candidates, and of Barack Obama specifically–denounce this, denounce that. He’s denounced Farrakhan, his former minister Jeremiah Wright, his former Church, a Catholic priest who spoke at his former church and now Ludacris. The object of his disaffection is increasingly becoming more tangential, but the impetus is always the same – since Obama is Black, he must prove that he won’t use the presidency as a bully pulpit for Black political interest.
Obama will likely weather this storm even easier than the previous ones. But what the Ludacris controversy reveals for the hip-hop activist community is much more profound: the baggage presented by hip-hop’s public image compromises the hip-hop activist community’s attempts to place its issues on the national agenda.
Hip-hop’s critics, like Manhattan Institute senior fellow John McWhorter, use mainstream hip-hop music’s association with criminality and sex to dismiss three things:
• the political analysis offered by some hip-hop lyrics,
• the important political work of activists on the ground from The Ella Baker Center and The League of Young Voters to Industryears.com and Hip-Hop Against Police Brutality,
• and hip-hop activists’ legitimate concerns about the state of American youth.
Thus, issues like the need for affordable and effective education, housing and childcare, the inherent racial injustices of policing and prisons, and the lack of living wage jobs don’t receive serious consideration. Neither do the solutions that hip-hop organizers are proposing for them.
Such issues were raised last week at the annual conference of the Hip-Hop Congress, an 80 chapter strong national organization of independent hip-hop artists and grassroots activists that has been functioning for the last decade. They will be raised again this weekend at the third National Hip-Hop Political Convention, gathering in Las Vegas August 1-3. Reverend Lennox Yearwood, who heads the The Hip-Hop Caucus that recently partnered with rapper T.I. to kick-off a voter registration effort targeting youth, is also raising similar questions.
All three organizations, should do themselves and their movement a favor by articulating loudly and clearly hip-hop’s moral center: that hip-hop political organizers are concerned about the negative representations of women, that criminal lifestyles aren’t something youth should emulate, and that young Black, Brown and poor people are concerned about the future of their families and are committed to placing the interest of children first.
To do so will align this emerging voting bloc with Black political movements before them and win allies in the process. But perhaps more important, it will go a long way in helping distance their noble cause from the profit motive of the music industry. It will also distinguish them from the few individuals willing to peddle hyper sexual and violent imagery at the expense of those fighting for an America where young people have a bright future.