DENVER – I can remember very clearly where I was four years ago when I realized that John Kerry and the Democrats were going to lose the presidential election. It was the third night of the Democratic Convention in Boston, and John Edwards had just left the stage after his big address. Moments later, members of the Black Eyed Peas came on stage and started singing, Let’s Get It Started (a more p.c. version of their hit Let’s Get Retarded). It was such an absurd and contrived moment, partly because The Black Eyed Peas are The Monkees of Hip Hop, and partly because nobody on the convention floor was dancing. I knew Kerry had no chance.
The other night in Denver, however, I was at a rooftop DNC after-party watching hip hop veterans Slick Rick and Biz Markie perform onstage. The crowd was a young and colorful mix of delegates and supporters, sweating and cheering and dancing. At one point, Biz started to perform his hit, “Just a Friend,” altering the lyrics to deliver a political message, “Obama, you got what I need! You gonna be the President! You gonna be the President!”
Wild cheers went up in the audience, and I couldn’t come up with anything cynical to say. In a perfect twist of fate, members of The Black Eyed Peas were there that night, too — in the audience.
The sudden, shocking relevance of hip hop in presidential politics can be attributed to a number of things. Most obviously, the Democrats have nominated a black man as their candidate. But I don’t think that’s it. The party looks a lot different than it did four years ago. The faces in the convention hall and the streets of downtown Denver are noticeably younger and more diverse than they were even four years ago.
On the second day of the convention, I found myself in an event hosted by the College Democrats of America called The Hip Hop Caucus. If you’re like me, you are surprised to find out that the Democratic Party even has a hip hop caucus. The event was, kind of predictably, boring, over-intellectualized and self-important: kind of what you would imagine a hip hop class at UC Berkeley to be. The event attracted a number of curious attendees, though.
A group of black teenagers sat in front of me. They had come all the way from New Orleans to the DNC to share their experiences in the wake of Katrina. They came to the hip hop caucus expecting something different and I watched them as they melted in their chairs, rolled their eyes and sucked their teeth through hours of oppressive academic analysis from podium-banging blowhards.
One speaker made a point worth mentioning, however. He said that Barack Obama would be not just the first black President, but the first President of the hip hop generation. I thought about the significance of that for a while: this is not a tired, old black politician who grew out of the civil rights movement; this is a multicultural man who was barely out of his teens when Grandmaster Flash dropped The Message.
In the past year, several artists have come out with songs in support of Obama’s candidacy. Nas built a hit on his new album around a sample of Tupac Shakur’s famous line: “And though it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready to see a black President.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Obama said he listens to Ludacris on his ipod. Encouraged by that revelation, Luda wrote and performed a song called “Politics,” endorsing Obama, while calling Hillary an irrelevant “b*tch” and saying John McCain belongs in a wheelchair and not The White House. As funny as it was, Obama learned that having the support of the hip hop community can be a mixed blessing.
A notable exception, of course, is mogul Russell Simmons, who early on endorsed Dennis Kucinich. He has also been critical of Obama for his condemnation of derogatory rap lyrics, saying the candidate should “reform the conditions of poverty,” not the lyrics of rappers.
More recently, Simmons finally gave his endorsement of Obama late in the primary season, calling him a “spiritual inspiration”.
The important point here is that hip hop’s involvement in this campaign is not forced. It’s not a Sprite commercial or a Scion concert. It is the result of the awakening of a political generation that had nobody legit to rally around until now.
The streets of Denver are lined with vendors selling Obama t-shirts. It’s similar to what I’ve seen this year in cities across America: Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco. It used to be the only portraits you saw on the chests of young people were Scarface and Tupac. Now the image on the glittery, XXXL t-shirts you see on the smiling and optimistic faces of the hip hop generation is a presidential candidate.

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