Q-Tip stood silently for a few seconds to embrace the overall significance of the moment. Standing behind a podium in the East Room of the White House, Q-Tip never imagined that his mastery of rap lyrics and music would take him this far. But here he was, a legend who had risen from Linden Boulevard in Queens, New York, now a special guest to the First Lady of the United States of America.
“I know the arts saved my life,” Q-Tip told an audience at the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards event at the White House. “I was born in 1970 in New York city. It was a forgotten city. Growing up in New York at that time, it was despair, it was on edge, it was depression and no hope. Art saved me. I grew up in Queens and the neighborhood was war torn. I’m a living example of how the arts can change your life and help you find a voice.”
The Obamas appreciation for the art of rap was unprecedented. It’s hard to imagine that Q-Tip would have gotten the opportunity to speak in the East Room of the White House under any other U.S. President.
Eazy-E was the first rapper to enter the White House in 1991, but that occurred on a technicality. He wasn’t personally invited by President George H. W. Bush and only made it inside after he paid over $2,000 to attend a Republican fundraising event. In 2004, Sean “Diddy” Combs was given a tour of the White House by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, but Diddy never got the chance to speak at or attend an official event at the White House while Bush was president.
However, the Obamas led the first presidential administration to fully embrace hip-hop and its cultural significance. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama understood the power of hip-hop and found ways to utilize to teach and inspire.
Rap served as an important tool for Mrs. Obama’s fight to end childhood obesity. With her Let’s Move! initiative, she appeared with Doug E. Fresh for the “Everybody” music video. The song was featured on the Songs for a Healthier America album.
But the Obamas’ acceptance of hip-hop initially came with controversy. When Common was invited to recite a poem at “An Evening of Poetry” at the White House in 2011, it was met with backlash by Republicans who were opposed to his 2007 poem, “A Letter to the Law.” Right-wing pundits made an issue over Common’s lyrics regarding police, the Iraq invasion and President George W. Bush. The Obamas shunned the controversy and allowed Common to be the first rapper to perform poetry at the White House.
During President Obama’s second term in office, a multitude of hip-hop artists were welcomed to the White House with open arms. Queen Latifah performed at A Tribute to Memphis Soul in 2013; Big Sean attended the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2014; Killer Mike attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2015; Wale served as a guest speaker at Michelle Obama’s Beating the Odds Summit in 2015 and became the first rapper to open the State of The Union Address in 2016; Kendrick Lamar performed at the White House’s Fourth of July barbecue in 2016; Common performed a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR during the White House’s South by South Lawn festival and BET’s Love and Happiness: A Musical Experience at the White House featured performances by De La Soul and The Roots to name a few.
In April of 2016, President Obama decided to invite Chance the Rapper, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, J. Cole, Wale, Ludacris, Pusha T, DJ Khaled and Busta Rhymes to be a part of a larger discussion on criminal justice reform and the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. It was a meeting where laughs were shared after Rick Ross’ ankle monitor reportedly went off and caught the attention of the President.
Rap music also served as a motivating factor for Obama during his time in office. His playlists featured songs such as “So Ambitious” by Jay Z; “How Much a Dollar Cost” by Kendrick Lamar and “As We Enter” by Nas and Damian Marley. He gave credence to the art of freestyle rap by assisting “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda during a performance at the White House Rose Garden. And he even listed his top five rappers during an interview with “Sway in the Morning.”
For the past eight years, the Obamas gave rap and Black music a place to call home. It was a significant change for the White House considering that it was built by slaves and often neglected Black guests. By embracing a music genre that, at times, serves as a voice for the youth, the Obamas inspired hope for a generation who may have felt detached from mainstream society.
After Q-Tip spoke on the significance of poetry and read his poem to the audience at the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, Michelle Obama returned to the podium for a final word. “If you can make it to the White House, you can make it anywhere,” the First Lady expressed.
Similar to the words of the great rap poet The Notorious B.I.G., some people “Never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.” But it obviously did.
A.R. Shaw is an author, filmmaker and journalist who is documenting a culture one story at a time. Follow him on Twitter @arshaw