Dirt Off His Shoulder: President Obama and Hip Hop

by Jason Lee Oakes


In 2008, Barack Obama garnered overwhelming support from hip hop artists and many of their fans. A fixture in song lyrics, on magazine covers, and in hip hop blogs leading up the election, Obama was actively supported by top stars like Jay-Z, Nas, Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne, and Ludacris. As a candidate, he even busted out Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” move in response to Hillary Clinton’s attacks in the 2008 primaries. With the highest turnout by young people in over 30 years, Obama was able to win the election.

But soon after came criticism of Young Jeezy’s “My President Is Black,” Jeezy and Jay-Z’s statements at an inauguration concert, “gangsta rap” on the president’s iPod, Common’s “controversial” invitation to the White House, and the jujitsu of Don Imus blaming rappers for his “nappy-headed hos” comment. In each case, President Obama seemed to do his best to remain above the fray.

Now it’s 2012 and Young Jeezy feels “a little played,” Sean Combs has called for the president to “do better,” and Jay-Z has called criticism of Obama “fair.” On Killer Mike’s “Reagan”—the most discussed track on the critically-lauded R.A.P. Music—Obama is lumped in with past presidents as “just another taking head telling lies on teleprompters.” (there is perhaps no lower blow in hip hop than being compared to Ronald Reagan)

Enter damage control. On Monday morning, President Obama was interviewed by Obie and Lil Shawn on Orlando hip hop radio station Power 95.3. Asked about Nicki Minaj’s recent Romney-endorsing verse—“I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney / You lazy bitches is fuckin’ up the economy”—Obama deftly noted that “she likes to play different characters,” an interpretation that was verified by Minaj herself later in the day on her Twitter account.

Political campaigning, of course, has a lot to do with “playing different characters.” Having shored up his base in North Carolina and gained a bounce in the polls, Obama is now off to the swing states. Instead of kissing babies or praising the height of trees, he spent the day giving commentary on a Lil Wayne remix and letting a pizza store owner hoist him in the air. Perhaps more than any candidate up to this point, Obama seems to grasp the contours the 21st-century political campaign—combining CNN-ready big statements with smaller “personal” appeals and idiosyncratic moments custom made for the viral-videosphere (and for fundraising emails).

Likewise, the Musical Obama is being constructed through fine-grained analytics. While the DNC featured zero rap music at the convention—the parts of the convention broadcast on the networks and the news cable outlets—rap artists including the Roots, Will.i.am, Common, Far East Movement, and Flo Rida performed at untelevised parties before and after the convention’s official business. Probably no one expected rap music at the DNC, but given the support he’s received from the hip hop community, and his own interest in at least some rap music, it’s remarkable that Obama’s highly-publicized Spotify playlist didn’t include a single hip hop track. Apparently, the president has learned from the Fox-inflamed media firestorms that were set off every time he reached out to hip hop in the past, as well as the wider appeal of the Prez N The Hood narrative (the video below has over 8 million views and counting).

Still, Obama did go on the Florida radio show, and he recently made an appearance at Jay-Z’s Made In America festival in Philadelphia. As seen in the clip below, the first night’s headline set began with a taped intro by the president singing the praises of Jay-Hova (“a truly great artist…who is constantly on my iPod”).

Whether appearing on a radio show or a videotaped intro for a Jay-Z concert, President Obama is keeping it in the family—narrowcasting rather than broadcasting his links to rap music and hip hop culture. Much like the mixtapes at the epicenter of 21st-century hip hop, Obama is reaching out to the Hip Hop Generation through word-of-mouth networks and social media while remaining largely under the radar of the mainstream media. This has the dual advantage of lending the prez a bit of “underground” cred and avoiding haters everywhere.