Does the hip-hop generation finally have a viable presidential candidate? Before we answer that, a little history is in order. In 1984 and 1988, the Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president of the United States. Jackson even had a rap song commissioned in his honor Grandmaster Melle Mel's "Jesse" yet in truth, the former MLK aide was much closer to the civil rights generation than to the then-emerging hip-hop demographic.
In 2004, Dennis Kucinich, an über-liberal congressman from Ohio, publicly stated he wanted to be the candidate for the hip-hop generation. Yet when directly asked, he couldn't name even one song by his favorite rapper, Tupac.
As the '08 campaign gets under way, with a Democratic field including self-aggrandizing ice queen Hillary Clinton and long-lost Duke of Hazzard John Edwards, Barack Obama seems the only logical choice for hip-hop generationers in 2008. Though he doesn't rhyme or namedrop rappers, the junior senator from Illinois has much in common with the hip-hop generation: At 45, he's (relatively) young. He's fresh. He's charismatic. He represents a new way of thinking. Oh, by the way, he's also black.
Even as media flacks debate his "blackness," Obama's greatest strength might be his ability to depolarize race. During a St. Patrick's Day rally at Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza, his overall message seemed to be "It's not a black thing, it's an American thing." Obama openly relished his lack of Washington experience (causing one middle-aged white woman to exclaim "Thank God!") while championing "politics not based on fear, but based on hope." Obama raised the specter of slavery and outlined proposed legislation to prevent racial profiling, yet his platform is otherwise typical moderate lib-Dem fodder: universal healthcare, education, disabled veteran support, ethics reform, opposition to the war, etc.
At the Oakland rally, Obama spoke in a soothingly Midwestern "Farmer Jim" voice, a folksy cadence that resonated with confident leadership. This could prove to be his secret weapon as far as the all-important issue of electability is concerned. Both G.W. Bush and Bill Clinton plain-talked their way into the White House; Obama's ability to twang like a geetar-picker might make statements like "we can't continue this occupation" seem sensible to America's heartland, while still appeasing progressive pockets like the Bay Area.
Barack's speech told only half the story. His visit generated excitement in an Oakland crowd estimated at twelve thousand, many of whom brought their children. At the end of his 45-minute oration, instead of jaded cynicism, a palpable sense of optimism resonated through the venue. Yet hip-hop's political observers are divided over whether Obama can be what Jackson and Kucinich weren't.
Writer Adisa Banjoko, for one, supports Obama because he "makes me feel I could say to my son, 'If you work hard, you could be president.'" To Banjoko, Obama's candidacy is bigger than hip-hop. "The hip-hop generation is too small," he says. "America finally has a real candidate. ... My question is, will hip-hop rise to the occasion?"
That's a good question. In a recent blog entry, radio personality Davey D skewered all the Democratic candidates, opining that "none of these clowns are making it happen." His gripes revolved around the lack of critical dialogue on issues like Katrina, police brutality, immigration laws, and prison overcrowding all of which could theoretically be addressed by Obama's legislation to reduce profiling. Furthermore, until hip-hop can offer a consistent voting bloc, politicians will overlook its concerns. Plus, with a year and a half until the election, there's plenty of time for dialogue. Davey's suggestion? That hip-hoppers draft Public Enemy's Chuck D instead (with Flavor Flav as his running mate? Wowwwwww). That might be an amusing protest vote, but a purely symbolic one that stands little chance of altering the status quo in America.
On the other hand, as Obama noted during the Oakland rally, "If we change our policies, we will change the nation." He added that "change has never come from the top down, it's come from the bottom up."
There's little doubt that electing a black president would flip the script of American history. But don't vote for Obama because he's black: Vote for him because he ain't wack. If Barack were a rapper, Banjoko speculates, he'd be Kanye West or Lupe Fiasco: "He looks good, but he's not soft." Underestimate him, and "you could get caught slipping."