AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Are hip-hop stars like Jay-Z turning their backs on Obama?

Nakia HillThe Christian Science Monitor
White House photo

The hip-hop community stood in a loyal b-boy stance behind President Obama in 2008. Sean “Diddy” Combs encouraged young voters to “Vote or Die,” Jay-Z endorsed Mr. Obama on tour, and others rallied the urban community and millennial voters to jump on the “change” bandwagon.

The hip-hop community’s enthusiasm during Obama’s 2008 campaign was contagious. Young voters were chanting Young Jeezy’s “My President is Black,” hip-hop’s ode to Obama. But nearly four years later, rap and hip-hop artists have turned down the volume on their once-boisterous efforts to encourage their fans – a key part of Obama’s base – to get out and Barack the vote.

To see Obama take office for a second term, the hip-hop community needs to return to the momentum it built in 2008.

Logic suggests that hip-hop likely played a pivotal role in the record-breaking turnout in 2008 for young voters and African Americans. Hip-hop consumers tend to be young, traditionally African-American, Latinos, or people of color, and often in urban areas. Young people in particular tend to be generally plugged into the music, media, and celebrity scene – in which hip-hop enjoys a growing presence.

Hip-hop music has long been the leading voice of urban America. Its politically charged lyrics have spread awareness of the issues inner city communities face. As the genre has become more mainstream, often dominating top 40 pop station playlists, the influence of hip-hop artists has only increased.

In 2008, about 23 percent of Obama voters were African-American, 10 percent were Hispanic, and 24 percent were under 30. Total, those groups made up more than half of the more than 65 million people who voted for Obama.

In what is projected to be a tight election, the enthusiasm of Obama’s base will be vital to the success of his campaign. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 57 percent of young voters currently approve of Obama, a decrease of 18 percentage points since Obama took office in January 2009, when the figure stood at 75 percent. Analysts and early survey data suggest Obama may face problems rallying his base – particularly young voters – this time around.

Slow economic recovery, high unemployment for young people and African Americans, and high student-loan interest rates may explain the dampened enthusiasm for the president.

Some hip-hop artists have even publicly criticized Obama’s first term. A slightly disillusioned rapper turned mogul, Sean “Diddy” Combs said in The Source magazine for February/March 2011, “I love the president like most of us. I just want the president to do better.”

In April 2011, Russell Simmons, founder of hip-hop label Def Jam Records, posted an open letter to Obama on The Huffington Post. He cautioned, “As a passionate advocate of yours since I joined your campaign in 2008, there is something you need to hear: in trying to soar above party politics, you risk forgetting your most important commitment to inclusion and empowerment.”

Of course, it may be too early to say whether the hip-hop community will show up to help Obama for the 2012 election as they did 2008. And key members of the community continue to show support for Obama – including those who have criticized him in the past. Last month, Mr. Simmons told Vibe Magazine, “The President has made tremendous progress on a number of issues from ending the war in Iraq to job creation and Wall Street reform, however there are many of his policies that need time to go into effect and we have a lot more work to do.”

Artists like Common and moguls Simmons and Jay-Z have all been invited to the White House for various events and continue to support the Obama campaign for 2012. The Roots performed at a recent fundraiser in New York where the president raised millions for his 2012 campaign from benefactors who included Simmons.

Both Mr. Combs and Simmons have designed shirts for the Obama campaign’s Runway to Win project, a collection of Obama 2012 merchandise from top fashion designers, with purchases funding his re-election campaign.

But if Obama wants to breathe new life into the electorate, influential hip-hop artists need to step up to the microphone and lobby more young and urban voters. The challenge is more than just registering people to vote; it’s getting them to the polls and getting them to volunteer for the campaign as they did in 2008.

The hip-hop community can influence the return of the millions of voters that came out for Obama in 2008. There are also 46 million eligible young voters in this country – many of whom are new voters who may not have followed the 2008 campaign, or the past three and half years of the Obama presidency.

Getting their attention with an impressionable beat and politically infused lyrics chanted by one of their favorite rap artists could spark their enthusiasm for Barack-ing the vote in 2012.

Nakia Hill is a journalism graduate student at Emerson College in Boston and an intern on the commentary desk at The Christian Science Monitor.