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A different kind of campaign

By Danielle Gewurz

Section: Arts

October 31, 2008

By the time you read this, election day will be only 4 days away. As it approaches, I’m becoming both more excited and far more nervous. My absentee ballot has, of course, been mailed long ago, and I’ve been looking back over the campaigns. One of the things I find most interesting about the Obama campaign is the tremendous response of the art world. There’s the ubiquitous “HOPE” poster designed by Shepard Fairey, which features a stylized image of Obama in white, red, and blue. But this election season has also marked the rebirth of the political campaign song.

Almost a year ago on Lil’ Wayne’s Da Drought 3 mixtape, Juelz Santana stumped, “young Barack Obama, I’m all for it” on “Black Republicans.” And just two days ago, M.I.A.’s How Many Votes Fix EP included Jay-Z’s remix of “Boyz.” Jay implores, in a staccato voice over that “Boyz” tribal beat, “Gotta get Bush out of the chair/Give Obama the floor” and instructing us, “politicians don’t give a s***/The hustler getting ignored.” Most potently, Jay pleads, “American dream don’t last through the night/American pie, can I get a bite?” Even Jay, “the hood’s Barack,” with “A Billi” echoes the nation’s anxiety in the wake of this economic crisis.

Nas strikes a different note for Obama in the track “Black President.” The chorus samples Tupac Shakur’s “Changes”; “And though it seems heaven-sent/We ain’t ready to have a black president” and follows it with John Legend echoing the Obama campaign’s message: “Yes we can/Change the world.” Nas addresses the concerns of an assassination of a black president and a surge in white supremacist activity, as well as the issues of economic strife in black urban communities. But then Nas continues, “I think Obama provides hope/And challenges minds or all races and colours/To erase hate, and try to love one another/So many political snakes/We in need of a break/I’m thinking I can trust this brother.” The song begins with an excerpt from Obama’s speech and concludes, “It is my distinct honor and privilege to introduce to you the next president of the United States, Barack Obama.”

Nas’s circumspect endorsement is so powerful precisely because it artfully flips that Tupac sample. “Changes” addresses the sometimes hopeless situation faced by underprivileged urban minorities, including racism and drug use. Tupac pleads, “We got to make a change,” but concludes, “That’s just the way it is…some things never change” and while Nas sounds similar notes of realism, he also introduces a cautious optimism. Barack Obama’s presidency, Nas argues, could be an opportunity for improvement in the poorest and most violent sectors of the United States. More importantly, though, Nas is not viewing Obama himself as the sole source for change. Rather, it is the idea of energizing youth to be politically active with the Obama presidency that will also provoke change on a local level: “We ain’t got no governors coming through to help/Anything we need, we gotta do for self.”

The most controversial hip-hop mention of Obama’s candidacy has of course been by Ludacris, whose track “Obama Is Here” was quickly seized by commentators as an example of vulgar and offensive rap lyrics. Ludacris takes a swipe at various politicians: “McCain don’t belong in any chair unless he’s paralyzed/Yeah I said it, because Bush is mentally handicapped.” The swift response of media attention led Obama, who stated that he did have some Ludacris songs on his iPod, to repudiate the lyrics and publicly disassociate himself from the track.

In spite of that controversy, though, Barack Obama did not come off the same way Bill Clinton did in denouncing Sister Souljah in 1992. Clinton and his advisors saw drastic losses of moderate votes due to his association with her, leading him to sharply distance himself from her. While Obama did take action with Reverend Wright, he has not repudiated rappers in a forceful way, instead reaching out to both Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Nor is the outpouring of support based exclusively on race. Jay-Z and Nas invoke the idea of the “other” as those ignored and shunted off to the side though in greatest need of help, most notably in Nas’s reference to “Changes.” Obama appeals to that viewpoint, in my mind, in two distinct ways. First, Obama himself, as not only the first black candidate for president on a major party ticket, but as “the skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too” appeals to the same sense of “otherness.”

Second, on an ideological basis Obama has made a point of trying to overcome divisions between discrete groups in the electorate. The campaign has been reaching out to groups historically underrepresented, and this year, looks to have record numbers of black and first time voters. That’s why this year’s flurry of songs have been so encouraging. In a year where voter turnout may actually top this nation’s record high from 1960, it is hard to believe that is not in part due to political involvement from those who have not spoken out nearly as much, if at all, in previous years.

And if “Black President” turns out to be YouTube’s answer to “Tippecanoe, and Tyler Too,” well, if it works as well as it did for Harrison, then that would be just fine with me.

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