If Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, it’s a pretty safe assumption that he’s going to have overwhelming support from the hip-hop community.
Vibe magazine crystallized his status as an icon in the rap community, remixing his first name into the hipper “B-Rock,” and shortly before the crucial primary and caucus in Ohio on March 4, Jay-Z recorded a robo-call saying that “it’s time for Barack Obama.” The Chicago-based rapper Common told CNN that there’s simply “a love for Obama” among fans and practitioners of the genre.
The question is, will Barack Obama return the embrace if and when he becomes the nominee?
Yes, the tidal wave of hip-hop support feeds into the notion that the Obama campaign really is a new and unprecedented movement. Previously unengaged surrogates rousing the young people surely must be a good thing. And it’s hard to resist the help of megastars who come attached to legions of fans and free media.
On the other hand, the Obama campaign would probably not be in terribly great danger, in a general election, of losing the hip-hop vote to John McCain. In fact, the temptation will doubtless be there at some point for them to appeal to socially-conservative-leaning white voters by visibly distancing the candidate from some of his less politically correct admirers.
Take Mos Def.
The critically acclaimed rapper and actor told an audience at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan last week that he supports Mr. Obama for president, explaining, “You have this extraordinarily engaging, charming, very well-spoken, passionate yet somehow very subdued, above-the-fray type of character politics hasn’t really seen.” He added, “The best-looking guy for the job, at this point, is a black guy. I’m cool with that.”
Mos Def (born Dante Terrell Smith) is also a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. A song that has popularized the notion that America was behind the attacks features a chorus in which he says, “Bin Laden didn’t blow up the projects,” and another rapper, Jadakiss, says, “Bush knocked down the towers.”
During his appearance at the 92nd Street Y, at which he spoke with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, the rapper said in response to an audience question about 9/11, “I live in a different America. I’m from a different America, where conspiracy is real. Where people have conspired to murder good people.”
And here’s how he explained his doubts about the official explanation of who was behind the attacks: “I’m highly skeptical. Especially given the fact that there was a whole dialogue going on between Afghanistan and the states during that time when the government was calling for ‘you got to give us Osama,’ and Afghanistan was saying, ‘O.K., but we’re not just going to give him to your government. There has to be a mediating country. There has to be a government to mediate this.’ From my recollection, Osama was saying ‘Fine. If you’re saying I did this, I’ll come and defend myself against these charges. But I’m not just going to surrender myself to your government.’ And these different diplomatic measures that were taken around this issue were rejected by the U.S. It was like, ‘Either you’re going to do exactly what we say, or game is off.’”
While the conspiracy explanation drew sustained applause that night, it’s hardly the kind of thing a candidate—especially one whose national security credentials have been challenged—is likely to get too close to.
Of course, Mr. Obama’s hip-hop support is broad and diverse, and much of it has already been an unqualified boon.
Rapper-producer Will.I.am extolled the virtues of Mr. Obama on not one but two videos that instantly became viral on YouTube. Less notable rappers, like underground sensation Nocando, lent his support to Mr. Obama, saying in a pro-Obama video, “So, you heard about the man with the 16-month plan/pull everybody out of Iraq and not war with Iran.” Queens-based rapper Jin released a song titled “Open Letter 2 Obama,” which was catchy enough that the campaign now features it as a ring tone on its official Web site.
This week, Mr. Obama was endorsed by Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur. Mr. Simmons has long ago crossed over into politics—endorsing Andrew Cuomo for office in 2002 and 2006, plus making trips to Albany during the George Pataki years to reform the Rockefeller drug sentencing laws.