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Rappers took the White House. Now what?

A crowd of White House press looks on as Kanye West and then-President Donald Trump meet in the Oval Office on Oct. 11, 2018.
Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures
Getty Images
A crowd of White House press looks on as Kanye West and then-President Donald Trump meet in the Oval Office on Oct. 11, 2018.

You can learn a lot about rap's relationship to politics from Russell Simmons. Before he was an accused predator in exile, the Def Jam co-founder was a mogul who used savoir-faire to climb into higher strata. He didn't vote until he was 39, but by the late 1990s he'd become a crusader, hosting fundraisers for then-first lady Hillary Clinton and co-founding the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. He argued hip-hop could be an effective tool of civil rights, though his language notably centered a material focus: "It's the difference between 40 acres and a mule and 40 acres and a Bentley," he told The New York Times in 2002. Simmons would ultimately become a bit more issue-conscious than many in the hip-hop set, backing the Occupy movement and endorsing his longtime friend Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016 because of the latter's stance on the factory farming lobby, but his efforts also reinforced his own position as a change-maker with powerful friends. In a Bloomberg profile, Randy Credico, co-founder of the nonprofit Mothers of the New York Disappeared, challenged Simmons' intent: "This is about ego for him. If he wanted to do something useful, he could move his Phat Farm line of clothing out of China where they use slave labor and create factories in communities of color." Simmons responded, "Am I not supposed to be competitive like everyone else?"

Simmons is one of many hip-hop figures whose image looms over a new Hulu documentary, Hip-Hop and the White House, directed by the journalist, author and filmmaker Jesse Washington. The entrepreneur's onscreen presence is minimal — he appears briefly in a photograph, and his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network gets a nod — but many of the ideas he helped foster establish the basis of the doc's scattered thesis. The film considers rap's association with presidential politics, how the Reagan administration shaped the genre and how its growing influence has marked the tenure of every president who followed. Charting this timeline at montage speed allows each president to stand in for some larger rap conversation: George H.W. Bush and gangsta rap's tangles with police, Bill Clinton and hip-hop's transition into a commercialized product, George W. Bush and rap's organizer awakening, Barack Obama and the politics of Blackness, Donald Trump as a lightning rod for rap morality. In doing so, the documentary provides a framework through which to reevaluate rap's proximity to hegemony, but it finds itself prisoner to the Simmons ideology — lost between crusader and capitalist.

As its POV character, the film elects trap lord Jeezy, who narrates much of it and is positioned as a kind of convergence point for all its threads, beginning with his post-inaugural performance of "My President is Black" alongside Jay-Z in 2009. "Hip-hop speaks truth to power. The President of the United States of America is the power," he says. "This is the story of how hip-hop got the power." Around him is a cast of interviewees that includes fellow artists (KRS-One, Chika, Mick Jenkins, Waka Flocka Flame), rap thinkers (The Hip-Hop Generation author Bakari Kitwana, historian Davey D, writer and political commentator Farai Chideya), politicians (Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka) and former WNBA player Renee Montgomery, who visited the Obama White House after winning a championship with the Minnesota Lynx.

Across the hour-long runtime, the speakers try to tie the two defining American institutions together, lingering on their obvious frictions. In one vignette, Common reflects on his trip to the White House with other rappers to discuss the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative as the Obama run was coming to a close in 2016, characterizing it as a move from the back room to a seat at the table. "You could see the pictures on the walls and think, like, they never thought that we would be meeting in here," he says, the screen panning across stodgy Founding Fathers portraits. It is a compelling image, one immediately undercut with a harsh truth spoken by Daddy-O of Stetasonic: "A bunch of people went in the White House with Obama. We don't know what happened. All we saw is pictures; I ain't seen no list of demands. This is supposed to be our guy. Why are we not privy to what's going on inside?" Neither the point nor the counterpoint are about the successes or failures of the initiative itself, but simply what is to be gained by an abstract "hip-hop" from a president who presumably owes it one.

Common's loftiness here underscores a tenuous conflation, in the film and at large, between rap's cultural reach and its political power. The terms are part of the trouble: Both "hip-hop" and "the White House" are loaded symbols with many different meanings, which require more unpacking than the documentary has space for. When it asks what hip-hop has received from the White House, it is really asking about a Black constituency it sees hip-hop representing. But the skipped link in the chain is what rappers themselves owe that constituency, and who they represent in these meetings besides themselves. Thus, connecting the executive handshakes enjoyed by Ice Cube, Kanye West, Jay-Z and others mainly illustrates an exchange between individuals: rap giving a president a boost with the right demo, rappers reaping social capital from the photo op. When Trump's pardons of various rappers briefly comes up, there is no examination of this symbiosis, or of the flattening of a broader cause to the level of individual rights. YG, who dropped the anti-Trump track "FDT" into the heat of the 2016 campaign, here laughs off Lil Wayne's pardon as a moment of self-preservation: "I saw that and said, 'He politicking. He get a pass.' " (It doesn't come up that Wayne once endorsed Trump.) The subtext is that politics are only useful to the extent that they can serve you personally.

Few rappers exemplify this principle more clearly than Kanye: His politics have fluctuated dramatically, but the point of convergence is his ego. The doc draws out the significance of his famed 2005 comment that then-President Bush "doesn't care about Black people," making it a kind of turning point. It was certainly a bold statement to make — a necessary one, even, amid Hurricane Katrina's devastation — and still it rings out today, echoing in other high-profile moments when the unspoken is suddenly blurted into the room. In hindsight, we can also see it for what it was: the result of a filterless disposition and part of a never-ending effort from the rapper to center himself in the conversation.

Considering that Kanye's music over the years has had much more to say politically than that call-out did, it's clear the documentary is mostly possessed by statements as cultural moments: Apart from brief stops at "FDT," "My President is Black" and "F*** the Police," it spends precious little time on rap music itself. Nothing is said, for example, of Dead Prez, who on "Know Your Enemy" rapped, "George Bush is way Worse than Bin Laden is / Know your enemy, know yourself / That's the politic / F.B.I., C.I.A., the real terrorists," or even Eminem, who on "Mosh" called the Iraq War a ruse for oil grudges and daddy issues. (Em was later interviewed by the Secret Service over threatening lyrics directed at Trump). It doesn't grapple with Lupe Fiasco's anti-war song "Words I Never Said," which was critical of Obama, or the rapper's ejection from an inaugural event in 2013. It can't even spare a thought for Tipper Gore's war on rap vulgarity. Really, it is only willing to consider the moments caught on camera: Sista Soulja's response to Clinton's repudiation, Kanye at the telethon, Common at the Tiny Desk.

In trying to explain rap's shifting relationship with Trump — from its obsession with him as an avatar for American wealth to its more atomized reception of his MAGA agenda — Jeezy says he once named a song after the man because he associated him with billions of dollars, never thinking he would be president. The notion that Trump was always political, or that wealth and its accumulation are themselves political, is never considered. Here and elsewhere, it is hard to assess how the film defines the rap politic: Is it pro-Black? Anti-establishment? For the poor? The newly rich? It can't really decide. Most of the rappers interviewed express no real politics at all. This is exemplified in a bizarre segment that features Waka Flocka, who endorses Trump for president in the upcoming election. In a series of cut-together ramblings, Flocka says nothing in particular — calling Benjamin Franklin a president, saying Obama isn't Black and Trump is a "real n****," voicing his disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement. In letting him go, it feels as if the filmmakers want him to explain what he believes, but it's clear he has no cogent beliefs. And in refusing to really engage with that truth, they reveal a key flaw in the film's logic: the presumption that hip-hop is inherently an activist force, and not merely a tool with activist potential.

Jeezy and Jay-Z onstage at the former's "Presidential Status" Inauguration Ball at Club Love on January 18, 2009 in Washington, D.C., where they performed the Obama-era anthem "My President is Black."
Prince Williams / FilmMagic/Getty Images
FilmMagic/Getty Images
Jeezy and Jay-Z onstage at the former's "Presidential Status" Inauguration Ball at Club Love on January 18, 2009 in Washington, D.C., where they performed the Obama-era anthem "My President is Black."

When I think about rap and the White House, my mind is drawn to the cover of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, released at the tail end of the Obama administration, which depicts a mob of Black men and boys posing triumphantly before the South Lawn, holding dead presidents while standing atop a dead president. It has always read to me as an illustration of how at odds the White House still was with the rap revolution, even if a Black man had his finger on the button. To many rappers who had expected much more, Obama had come to reflect a "politics as usual" stance by the end of his second term, a complex reality that the documentary never quite unpacks. "I've been disappointed by politics since the day I was born," Nas told The Guardian in 2012. "The historic part of him being elected president was got, and everyone was happy about that, and I'm glad I lived to see it. The flipside is, after we get over that, it's back to the politics, and it's something which doesn't have time for people. It's its own animal."

That is the tension at play here: symbolic victories versus systematic rehabilitation. If Obama was the first hip-hop president (an idea originally forwarded by Simmons, and a point the doc underscores in the former president's restrained acceptance of the form and diplomatic deployment of rap knowledge for street cred), then rap's positioning in both his and Trump's White Houses can be deemed a triumph of sorts. And yet, viewed from the present, it is hard to see the presidency as anything more than another lens through which hip-hop's social position has been refracted. To call that progress is one thing; to call it leverage is a reach, because the conversation almost always plays out with the White House as a public relations arena, not a policy-making one. "Hip-hop's mostly symbolic moves against establishment authority illustrated how politics can often reach beyond familiar mentions and venues," S. Craig Watkins wrote in the 2005 book Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. "Nevertheless, because hip-hop's grandest political moves have taken place on the stages of pop culture, they have not been able to directly engage or affect the institutions that impact young people's lives." Admittance to the White House hasn't made direct engagement any more feasible; it is merely a different kind of theater.

If you are looking for a more coherent text on how hip-hop views itself, consider Noname's 2023 album Sundial. It's a record about the rapper's function in society, which interrogates rap's very capacity for revolution and even looks inward at her own complicity in its exploitation. Listening to the album after watching Hip-Hop and the White House feels like a point-for-point refutation of its ideas — it challenges Obama and Jay-Z, draws lines between the industrial military complex and gun violence, and suggests rap's rebellious bark is bigger than its bite. In a certain sense, of course, you could say Jeezy is right: Hip-hop indeed got the power. What Noname makes explicit is that it has also assimilated into the power structure, and that a force that serves that status quo cannot also be a voice for the marginalized. Any real political movement in hip-hop must require rap to first look within itself: It must reckon with its own tendency to cozy up to power, to align itself with prestige in the name of advancement. (For a recent example, look no further than Drink Champs' queasily received announcement of New York Mayor Eric Adams as an upcoming guest.) Much of the history of hip-hop is, understandably, performed in deference to the almighty dollar, but rap's commercialization has shifted its priorities from overcoming poverty to making the Fortune 500. To court the White House and not question corporate power is to misunderstand how American politics works.

There was always this idea that setting foot in the White House was a way to bring the concerns of Black America to the chief executive's doorstep, to have an audience with the free world's most powerful person. And yet, the most actionable rap advocacy has always focused on policy. I think about Meek Mill as a spearhead for probation reform. I think about Quavo pushing for gun legislation. I think about the Paper Route Empire label teaming up with The Bail Project. I think about the Hip Hop Caucus mobilizing against the Atlanta development nicknamed Cop City. After more or less glancing over the Biden administration, the documentary builds to expectations for the 2024 election: "Hip-hop has not realized its full potential and influence with presidential politics," Rep. Waters says. You can read the ending as an attempt to rally the hip-hop voters for another cycle, but Hip-Hop and the White House has not laid out the case for why anyone should answer the call. Those seeking what a clear-eyed Chika calls "return on investment," after decades of the political establishment taking advantage of the rap megaphone, could be waiting a while. In the meantime, it would be wiser for rap to reinvest in itself.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]