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November 10, 2008

Obama’s victory and racial politics

By Spear's

Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency has been feverishly hailed as a historic event as momentous as man’s landing on the moon – an event that asserts humankind’s ability to overcome its previous shortcomings, touch the outer limits of its imagination and make dreams come true. Even in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, the US Constitution counted African-Americans as three-fifths of a person; now an African-American will lead and unite a nation of 304 million into one whole.

The miraculousness of this social transformation was inscribed on the ecstatic, tear-streaked face of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Black civil rights leader who had himself sought the US presidency many times, but was too left-of-centre to succeed. Yet for all the beautiful hysteria of hope surrounding Obamamania’s apotheosis, Pres. Obama must rule pragmatically and inclusively, protecting and advocating the interests of a truly United States of America. This is will not be without its unintended consequences.

Although Obama’s own ethnic mix of White American and Black African, of Muslim and Christian, promises to unify the races, the ensuing agitation could easily fracture societies and pose a socio-political cost for Europe, whose own ethnic minorities will now agitate for greater political participation. In the UK, numerous editorials have cited the reasons why they could not have a black prime minister in the foreseeable future; in France, despite a huge North African Muslim population, there is not a single black mayor. Look for more ethnic political agitation in both countries in the coming months, especially when Pres. Obama visits and addresses a Muslim country in his first 100 days, as promised.

Obama does not spell the end of racism, but he does spell the end of identity politics, and this will not die easily. Born during the Civil Rights era and currently gripping Latin America, identity politics seeks to fracture a people along racial and socio-economic lines to seize power and angrily redress a (usually distorted) history of perceived wrongs. But Obama’s election ensures that this angry fiery brand of politics, as practiced by Ch?vez and Muslim fundamentalists, will no longer fly. However, the most interesting social consequence of the election of America’s first Black president will be much closer to home: in the African-American community itself.

“Pull your pants up! Pull your pants up and get an education!” urged an elated African-American of America’s Black youth: they can no longer differentiate themselves as some rebellious, hip-hop counter-culture symbolized by hoodies and saggy jeans. Guess what boys and girls, announces Obama’s election: you are now mainstream!

African-Americans must now accept the responsibility that comes with no longer being in the margins, but at the very pinnacle of the White mainstream power structure.

This will become a problem for Obama, who is not only the first Black president of the US, but also the first president of the hip-hop era: many of his voters grew up with hip-hop, which Obama himself enjoys.

Not only is he a fan of Jay-Z and Kanye West, and Ludacris are friends and fans of his. Regardless, Obama won the election by refusing to play the race card, by emphasizing his ability to bridge nations and races, the way his White American mother and his Black Kenyan father did. This ensured that Obama did not alienate the Whites or Latinos he needed to win. Once in office, however, he will no longer have to distance himself from his rapper friends, none of whom were at his election victory party, but will be at his inaugural.

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Though he admires rap’s ability to condense complex thoughts into a brief and appealing format, Obama’s tastes in rap runs toward the mainstream and inoffensive, like his campaign. Not all his rapper friends are impressed.

I remember fondly the birth of gangsta rap. In 1987 Boogie Down Productions (aka ‘BDP’) released an album I considered a revelation: the presciently titled, The Blueprint of Hip-Hop. Though a White girl stuck in the suburbs, I loved the direct gritty portrayal of urban life and social marginalization and its message of empowerment through embracing shared anger: the very cornerstone of identity politics that would later fascinate me as a political theorist.

As a seventeen year-old Editorial Assistant at The American Poetry Review, I tried hard to persuade my editor that we should publish the KRS-One’s lyrics rather than the pathetic poetry of W.S. Merwin and the Language poets (“What a ridiculous name, after all. Is that like being a Pictorial painter?”). Rappers’ use of the oral tradition and their choice of themes made them natural descendants of the Homeric hymns, I argued, and their sophisticated use of césure, emjambement and half-rhyme would leave any modern poet in the shade. No takers.

Rap was considered a fad. Now, it’s the biggest thing in music, from the ghetto to the ‘burbs to the clubs. Rap is as mainstream as, well, America’s first Black president. Arguably, in fact, it is rap’s giant cross-cultural appeal that has made the election of America’s first Black president possible. Obama is, therefore, not just a fan, but a product of rap culture.

The problem is, not all Blacks, and not all rappers, want to go mainstream. When Obama criticized the misogyny and the materialism of many hip-hop lyrics, Russell Simmons, America’s rap impresario extraordinaire, called Obama “a mouse, too, like everyone else,” and asked Obama to examine the conditions that make such lyrics “necessary.” He came just shy of implying Obama was out of touch with Black reality.

Obama’s election puts the African American community in an untenable position that will result in their division along a clear ideological line. Either they “pull their pants up,” lay down their anger and join the White-dominated mainstream, or they deny their greatest contemporary hero, Obama. Either choice is potentially an exercise in self-loathing. The existential conundrum has been captured by Russell Simmons himself.

After Obama’s election, Simmons struck a conciliatory note, calling it a “glorious” affirmation of “the hip-hop generation and its young people.” He said his criticism was “just defending hip-hop” and its truth-telling ability – a truth Obama is loath to admit, apparently.

Obama famously rejected the song Ludacris wrote for his campaign as too nasty about his opponents, going so far as calling Ludacris’s lyrics “shameful.”

Ironically, then, Obama’s election is more divisive for Blacks than for Whites. African-Americans are like any rebel fighting force that struggles with being in power: they have been in the trenches for so long, they’re not entirely sure who they are or what to do without the trenches that have so defined them.

Sure, there will continue to be plenty of poverty and violence and racism for them to rap about, but now that one of them is now the most powerful man in the world, they’re going to have to add a new tune to their repertoire: “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Maybe Ludacris or Russell can write a little ditty on that.

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