On January 20, 2015, days after the Republican Party regained control of the Senate following the midterm election, Gallup reported that, in his sixth year in office, President Obama had his lowest-ever average approval rating. Some polls suggested only 38 percent of the country supported him.
On the same day, another strike against Obama came out. On Lil Wayne’s “Trap House,” off Sorry 4 The Wait 2, Tunechi rapped: “Black president ain’t do nothing / We need a real nigga up in that office.”
It’s the sort of dig at Obama that had been coming from members of the hip-hop community during the first half of 2015 and, in a less forthright way, the American people. The former purveyor of “hope and change” politics was being rejected on almost all fronts.
And then, on June 16, Donald Trump announced he was running for president.
Obama’s approval rating has risen 9 points to 54 percent since Trump’s launch, suggesting the theatrics of the presidential election are causing voters to reconsider the 44th president. The same is true in hip-hop, where multiple artists have dropped tracks hinting at a reappraisal.
Ice Cube famously said hip-hop artists were “street reporters,” serving up “reality rap.” Chuck D long asserted that rap is the “black CNN.” These sentiments shed light on the ways rap artists have grappled with a black man not only winning the White House but governing over the past eight years. He never approached Richard Pryor or Chris Rock’s comic notions of the first black president. Obama went beyond 2pac’s skepticism.
In December, Rick Ross included “Free Enterprise” as the first track on Black Market. With Trump’s bombast already in full effect, and Obama’s approval rating creeping up to 47 percent, Ross raps about wanting OutKast’s Andre Benjamin to succeed the president. (He also raps, less gallantly, about assassinating the GOP candidate.)YG’s powerful “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” says Trump “got me appreciatin’ Obama way more.” This is key. Obama’s legacy with the inner cities is contentious, but he also never called Mexicans “rapists,” endorsed voter suppression laws or flirted politically with David Duke. In the sequel, G-Eazy warns it would only “take a day to undo what Obama fixed up” under President Trump. Between March and July, when the two tracks came out, Obama’s approvals held steady around 51-53 percent.
As hip-hop reacts to the possibility that the first black president may be succeeded by an angry white reality TV star, Obama’s made his own inroads with the culture. He brought Kendrick Lamar from the White House lawn to the Oval Office. In April he met with Ludacris, Nicki Minaj, Pusha T, Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes, and others to discuss the administration’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which supports programs to keep young people out of the criminal justice system. Rick Ross’s beeping ankle bracelet interrupted the president as he concluded a speech on child safety.
Since launching My Brother’s Keeper, over $500 million in grants and $1 billion in financing has been raised to assist young men and boys of color. In addition to answering one of the toughest critiques of his presidency (and #BlackLivesMatter), it also continued his fourth quarter efforts to reform the criminal justice system. He recently became the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison. Earlier this month, he granted clemency to a record 214 inmates in a day.
Over the last year, hip-hop has been central to Obama’s “bucket list” approach to governance, from Hamilton to Wale becoming the first rapper to introduce a State of the Union address. He’s even championed rap internationally. After beat boxing for female rapper Suboi in Ho Chi Minh City, he summarized the importance of the arts and, implicitly, hip-hop: “Music, poetry, representations of life how it is and how it should be, those are the things that inspire people… it’s how we build understanding… and build a better future together.”
Maybe as a result, recent Obama references have displayed varied but positive impressions about the commander-in-chief. In 2016, Young Thug’s girl gets the lavish (i.e. “Obama”) treatment during Chance the Rapper’s “Mixtape.” Chief Keef treats him as a fellow Chicagoan. And Drake makes a pun about his rhymes being as bulletproof as the president’s “whip.” It’s reminiscent of Obama: The Early Years, when he was perceived with a blank slate, a myriad of meanings applied to him as he rode voter enthusiasm to the White House. Each artist evokes Obama in their individual narratives… and the nimble, dexterous president doesn’t feel out of place in any of them.
This chameleon-like cool is unique to Obama, or at least the Obama family. It’s hard to imagine the pop group Fifth Harmony dedicating a song like the Michelle Obama-ode “Bo$$” to Melania Trump.
Been waiting to drop this: summer playlist, the encore. What’s everybody listening to? pic.twitter.com/mqh1YVrycj— President Obama (@POTUS) August 11, 2016
Last week’s sultry “summertime playlist” underscored, in his last few months in office, the turnaround the president has experienced as he’s pivoted to legacy building. For fans of hip-hop, in particular, the playlist represents a kind of reconciliation with longtime Obama boosters Jay Z and Common (in addition to Nas, Wale, Method Man, Chance the Rapper and other notables.) It’s a fun, if transparent, mixtape for summer ‘16, and especially noteworthy given Obama—the first “hip-hop” president—was openly snubbing the genre by leaving it off a Spotify playlist during his reelection bid.
Obama’s presidency demanded a degree of reconciliation not merely from a country still adjusting from decades of racial animus and discriminatory policies, but from the black community itself. From his nadir approval ratings coinciding with Weezy’s vicious diss to his popularity spike riding alongside the Trump juggernaut, and finally My Brother’s Keeper, the last 18 months of Obama’s presidency have shown deliberate overtures to the black community and millennials explicitly through rap.
Perhaps gone are the days when Jay, Jeezy and Ye gave Obama hopeful callouts in their verses; nevertheless, today hip-hop is stronger by acknowledging both his transformational appeal (and his shortcomings), but also their own acceptance of the real achievements of the first black president.
After nearly two terms in office, rap’s approach toward Obama may ultimately reveal something more powerful: nuance.