Our President was Black: The musical legacy of Barack Obama
Jan. 20, 2009 — The most famous people in the world are gathered in Washington D.C. for what feels like a transformative moment in American history. Barack Obama has been sworn in as president of the United States, and the occasion has been celebrated with performances from iconic musicians like U2, Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin, just to name a few.
The greatest moment, though, comes at the first inaugural ball, which features the Obamas’ first dance as the most powerful couple in the free world — the lone figures on the center stage as Beyoncé sings the Etta James classic, “At Last.”
Of course, “At Last” is the quintessential first dance song, but in this backdrop it turns into the kind of unreal moment that brings tears to your eyes. Beyoncé, Barack and Michelle are all dressed stunningly and smiling so brightly. I can’t begin to imagine what’s going through the Obamas’ minds in that moment. Are they paralyzingly nervous about what’s to come? Are they stunned with disbelief? Euphoric? Relieved? Looking at them, looking at each other, nothing outside the present seems to matter.
At the time, or at least in my naïve pubescent mind, this felt like a new beginning, like Beyoncé was washing away the sins of old America with her beautiful voice, that we could slowly fade to black on the image of the Barack and Michelle slow dancing and enjoy a happy ending. Now, as the country faces an uncertain future, it’s painfully obvious that this was yet another middle chapter — a good time, but still a moment undetached from the scariest, most painful passages of American history. Transformative as it might have felt, the Obama presidency, unfortunately, did not truly put an end to anything.
But regardless of what comes next, that breathtaking Beyoncé moment set the tone for a huge part of the legacy of the presidency of Barack Obama: an unprecedented relationship with artists — especially musicians — and a kind of creative credibility that no president before him had ever earned. Succeeding a leader who faced protests from artists as diverse as Kanye West and the Dixie Chicks, President Obama saw and promoted the benefits of music in a new way, and his administration made connections with artists from across all genres.
The Obama White House was where Lin-Manuel Miranda debuted the first song of his phenomenal juggernaut “Hamilton.” Watching the old video of Miranda’s performance now, it’s amazing how much of a novelty it seemed, like he’s a trying-too-hard history teacher. That first drop of “Alexander Hamilton” sounds like a punchline. Miranda himself looks too young to be at such a serious event. But the Obama administration put him up there and gave the future MacArthur Genius and superstar a chance.
And Miranda was just one of the earliest of the Obama White House’s immensely talented musical guests. President Obama hosted one of the greatest performances of Aretha Franklin’s long, storied career. He had Prince play a private party. He welcomed boundary-pushing, revolutionary artists like Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monáe, who in presidencies past would likely have been dismissed as being too “extreme.” He appeared via satellite at a Jay-Z festival show, and he sang on stage with B.B. King and Willie Nelson.
The great thing about President Obama was that he approached music as a fan, not as a politician. He didn’t look for big stars to co-opt for votes (see: Reagan and Bruce Springsteen); rather, Obama truly seems to love and appreciate what music can accomplish. He organized festivals at the White House so he could both see the artists he loved and give them larger exposure. The dude could start singing Al Green at the drop of a hat. He was so obsessive that he couldn’t narrow down his favorites into one summer playlist, instead releasing “Day” and “Night” versions that, combined, would run for over two-and-a-half hours.
He even has the passionate opinions of a fan. When Kanye West infamously interrupted Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, President Obama offered his (ostensibly off-the-record) response: “He’s a jackass.”
As Aziz Ansari said when recounting his own Obama story, “This dude acts the exact same way I would act if I was the president.”
As Common remarked after being invited to the White House to discuss the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, “It was myself, A$AP Rocky, Rick Ross, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper and many more in this room, and I’m looking at a picture of George Washington with the President right there next to me, and I’m like, ‘Man, I know George Washington never would have seen this many brothers in the White House!’ ”
As Jay-Z put it, simply and triumphantly after the 2008 election, “My President is Black.”
But now, with the impending inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, artists for the first time in a generation will have to deal with a president who is not their friend. As a country, we have swung from one of the most passionate lovers of music ever to that guy who says he “likes everything” but really just listens to The Chainsmokers and Maroon 5.
Like, seriously, who is even going to sing at his inauguration? Ted Nugent? Pat Boone? The Naked Cowboy? Literally, per Wikipedia, those are 30 percent of his musical endorsements right there. I mean, even Nixon, the least cool president in history, still got that one weird photo op with Elvis. Somehow, despite his recent remarks, I don’t see Kanye being allowed anywhere near the Oval Office.
So everything will be different. The festivals will likely cease. The Correspondents’ Dinner will be a lot less cozy. After an era of good feelings, artists will have to fight harder to be heard. They will be asked to directly challenge the Executive Branch for the first time in almost a decade. They might even provoke direct Twitter fights with the most powerful man in the free world.
But if I’ve learned anything, it seems clear that yet again, we’re not at the end of America or a new beginning. The Trump Presidency, like the presidencies of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush, is another middle chapter, only with a few more pages in front of it.
That’s not to discount the very real damage that Trump can do, or the lives that are put at serious risk due to his election. But it’s a reminder that this is a continuation, not the end, and we don’t have the luxury of stopping all that was easier under Obama. Artists have seen how good it can be, and now, they’re going to have to fight to keep that alive.