I’m officially tired of “Black President” songs. Incidentally, I also happen to be a right-leaning moderate. Though, as some might suggest, my distaste for the recent outcropping of politically-charged, and primarily hip-hop, activist tracks has absolutely nothing to do with my political affiliations. In most regards, I’d be perfectly content if Barack Obama wins this year’s presidential election, but the uprising of Obama support tracks — spearheaded by the always-outspoken Nas and frequent cultural contrarians Ludacris and Young Jeezy — are an incredibly interesting intersection of politics and art, if also forehead-slappingly obnoxious.
The most obvious issue to be filed against these songs is the sheer societal ignorance of the artists presenting them. Not to say that Nas hasn’t always been a cultural sounding board, but rather these rappers are ignoring the 20 years of work that legitimate organizations like Rock the Vote and the more recent, Diddy-led Vote or Die campaigns have done. Both organizations, started and run by notable musicians and socialites, have been attempting to motivate America’s youth to vote.
As such, these songs (both Nas and Jeezy’s own “Black President” and Ludacris’s “Politics As Usual”) boil down to one message: Vote for the black guy. Not that I don’t understand where this sentiment stems from — obviously, these artists have an invested interest in the country and feel Obama is the better candidate. But Obama himself has even spoken out against this concept as something that is not only somewhat inept, but also not particularly palatable and profitable for the United States.
Moreover, each of these songs, save for the somewhat respectable Nas cut, are incredibly parochial and, at times, wildly offensive. Ludacris, on his DJ Drama-produced mixtape The Preview — a record in which he colloquially calls Obama, Barack O-Drama —actually utters the line, “Hillary hated on you so that bitch is irrelevant,” with the word “bitch” being overpowered by the sound of a silenced pistol. Surely, the implication of a violent oligarchy is the kind of support Obama needs in his campaign and the real way to persuade young voters to get out to the polls.
Jeezy’s track disappoints on even more levels. The chorus, which hardly sounds like a political statement, is reminiscent of his typical thugs-to-riches fare: “My president is black, my Lambo’s blue / And I’ll be goddamned if my rims ain’t too.” The problems with this line are nearly innumerable: Your president is not black even if your candidate is? How does Obama relate to your cars? Your rims are blue? Or black? No one ever accused Jeezy of being intelligent because he never tried to be. Now we can all see why.
Nas, who samples an Obama speech in an old-school breakbeat style, flows — whether appropriately or not — more on the struggles of African Americans than about Obama, save for a few lines in the second chorus (“What’s the black prez thinking on election night / Is it how I can protect my life, protect my wife, protect my rights?”). But where Nas’s slipup occurs is in his portrayal of Obama as, essentially, the black savior. His lines about African American struggles become more depressingly idealistic, as Nas seems to truly believe that Obama will miraculously solve all these issues; the stock he places in the candidate is mindlessly utopian: “If he dies we die too.” The irony of closing the track with a sample of Nas’s own, “The World Is Yours”/Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents II,” is apparently lost on Nas.
Even more bothersome than a few poorly-conceived tracks, though, is the way in which politics seem to be dictating art rather than simply coloring it. In a somewhat disturbing argument I had with a fellow critic, he revealed to me that he only listens to music that appeases his political inclinations, allowing the artist’s political views decide what music he listens to. He cited Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, U2 and Funkadelic, among others, that never would’ve made the albums they had were it not for their politics. But what he, and I assume many others, fail to see, is that these artists were influenced and motivated to create the albums they did because of their current political state, rather than using their art as a hypothetical soapbox.
It’s this distinction and evolution happening with these “Black President” songs that make it so quizzically interesting. No longer it seems, at least for a handful of artists, are politics merely a muse and catalyst for making music; rather, the evolving state of contemporary politics has become the art. Consequently, an artist’s political views are now becoming nearly as important for a listener — at least in this highly charged political season — as the aesthetics and quality of the music itself.
For as much as I might hope that these songs receive a cease-and-desist order immediately, they’re bound to be a staple in hip hop for at least a few more years: If Obama wins, like-minded rappers will release what are essentially victory songs; but if he loses, they will be accusatory, calling the American voters and government racist. I don’t know which I’m dreading more.