Hip-Hop and Presidential Popularity
By Taylor Marvin
At GOOD, Tanveer Ali examines mentions of Obama in musical lyrics and concludes that hip-hop is losing faith in Obama:
“Other rap songs this year have subtly hinted at Obama’s lost luster as well, including Wu-Tang Clan’s “Never Feel This Pain” which includes the following string of lyrics: “I ain’t waiting for Obama, never doubted him. / He real, he spend a couple million on the housing / and seeing is believing, my vision is blurred.” Kanye West and Jay-Z, both Obama supporters, didn’t directly namedrop the president on their opulent opus “Watch the Throne” after doing so on their previous individual albums. But the album has been interpreted as being inspired by Obama, held up as a symbol of the black elite who’s nevertheless fallen short in bringing the change he promised.”
Really? There’s a pretty simple explanation for all of this — President Obama’s popularity has fallen among all demographic groups since his election, including those that set culture in the hip-hop industry. Barack Obama was inaugurated to over 70% approval ratings, and there’s no way that this luster could have survived the turmoil of actual governing untarnished. Obama’s declining approval ratings through his tenure roughly mirror the fall other recent presidents experienced in their first terms and if anything, President Obama’s historically high popularity entering office have made his subsequent decline more dramatic. From Gallup:
More pertinently, there isn’t any empirical reason to suspect that President Obama’s image has soured any more in the hip-hop community than among other potential voters. Nearly all of the artists Tanveer Ali names are African American, a demographic group that remains overwhelmingly supportive of the President:
Declining favorable mentions of the President in hip-hop shouldn’t be surprising, and certainly don’t justify the headline that hip-hop’s “lost faith” in Barack Obama. The election of the first African American president was a watershed event that shook pop culture and inspired countless lyrics. Governing is, obviously, less exciting and unsurprisingly has much less of place in popular music. While Lupe Fiasco may lament that Obama “didn’t say shit” in response to Israeli military action in the Gaza strip, he’s an outlier — politics remains a relatively uncommon subject in hip-hop, though hip-hop does critically engage political and social justice issues more than almost any other musical genre.
And what about recent positive mentions of the president? As Spencer Ackerman memorably noted, Pusha T’s “Trouble On My Mind” could contain good messaging advice for the Obama campaign.
“Started in a crack house, Obama went the back route,
Killed bin Laden, ‘nother four up in the Black House.”
It’s debatable whether Pusha’s expressing admiration for the Obama administration’s aggressive War on Terror policy of targeted killings or just observing, and I think that Ackerman overestimates the electoral impact of foreign policy successes, even dramatic ones. But this is as much of a data point as any that GOOD cites. Pop culture can tell us a lot about social trends, but when it comes to electoral forecasts it’s less than informative. At best lyrics are a tiny sample, and one that doesn’t necessarily correlate with voting behavior. President Obama is less popular than he was in the rarified heights of spring 2009. But perusing hip-hop lyrics for evidence of “lost faith” among a key electoral demographic is silly — there are much better proxies for presidential job approval like, I don’t know, actual polls.
Update: Ali views Obama’s conspicuous absence in Watch the Throne as a veiled critique of his status as a “black elite who’s nevertheless fallen short in bringing the change he promised”. I’m not sure if I agree. While Obama isn’t mentioned by name in the album, on the second half of “Murder to Excellence” Jay links the Obama presidency to his own personal wealth and status:
“It’s a celebration of black excellence, black tie, black Maybachs
Black excellence, opulence, decadence,
Tuxes next to the president, I’m present,
I dress in Dries and other boutique stores in Paris.”
It’s hard to see this as anything but an implicit celebration of Obama’s stature within American elite culture, if not his actual political performance. What’s particularly interesting about this description is its stridently anti-populist tone: while the Obama reelection campaign has made repeated efforts to establish the President’s populist credentials, Watch the Throne embraces Obama’s position as a very rich man using language reminiscent of Gilded Age class warfare. Of course, this characterization mirrors the album’s universal rhetoric of opulence and consumption — themes most explicitly embodied in Yeezy’s off-hand description of own his work as the “Hermès of verses” — but it’s still a very different cultural narrative of the Obama presidency than the technocratic populism the administration’s press efforts highlights.