We The People: Hip Hop's Role In The 2012 Election

Rob "Biko" Baker, from the League of Young Voters joins in to discuss Hip Hop's role in what may be one of the most highly-politicized eras in American history.

It’s fairly safe to say that Hip Hop’s political involvement has changed drastically since GZA flippantly dismissed 1984 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro saying, “The hoe didn’t win / But the sun'll stll come out tomorrow...” on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Clan In Da Front.” During the last two elections we’ve seen Questlove of The Roots campaigning for Barack Obama at the most grassroots level, while Jay-Z and Beyonce have hosted a $40,000 per seat dinner for the Commander-In-Chief. But we’ve also seen Lupe Fiasco call the President “the biggest terrorist” while Ab-Soul called him “just a puppet.” You can make an argument that we’re in the midst of one of the most highly politicized eras in American history.

The dynamic of the conversation has changed, yet it seems, at least anecdotally judging by sheer volume, not as many emcees are interested in the 2012 election. Have we essentially traded quantity for quality over the last few election cycles? Instead of just blanket endorsements from rappers giddy at the possibility of having a black president, we now hear about drone strikes, mid-term elections and Israel versus Palestine. Moreover, this talk isn’t coming from the usual suspects like Chuck D and Talib Kweli—there’s a variety of commentary to choose from regardless of your political leanings.

As more and more rappers both throw and quietly remove the fitted hats from the political arena, we ponder Hip Hop’s impact and interest in the 2012 Presidential Election. On board are Rob “Biko” Baker, the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters and frequent HipHopDX contributor, Ronald Grant.

HipHopDX: According to data provided by the US Census, African-Americans among the coveted 18-24-year-old age demographic voted in record numbers during the 2008 election. But the last election also saw a number of Hip Hop artists—at least on the most basic level—get involved in the political process. What was the appeal?

Biko: We also saw record numbers in 2010. Between our phones, Twitter and so many other ways young, black people are more connected than ever. For some that allows us to be more informed. And if you look at the average Hip Hop artist, they’re young, black men also. So in addition to that sense of connectivity, there’s a tremendous amount of influence.

Ronald: It was such an interesting thing to see so many Hip Hop artists in support of Obama in 2008, though they seemed to have little to no interest in the election or political process until then. I hate to say it, but I believe the main reason this happened was because voting for Barack Obama in 2008 was basically the trendy thing to do. This seemed true among so many populations, but especially young people, first-time voters, college students, and urban professionals. Hip Hop fits into all of these molds. People from each of those walks of life have listened to and lived Hip Hop for a while now. So in a sense, the Obama campaign may have inadvertently lit a fire among Hip Hop by targeting the youth vote so heavily four years ago. I believe another main reason that artists in 2008 were riding so hard is two-fold: it’s something that is billed as extremely important yet is fairly easy to do And it was also branded incredibly well. Hip Hop has always had a history of falling in line with slick, masterful marketing. The Obama juggernaut from 2008 probably made both Hip Hop artists and fans feel they were part of something historic but still modern and cosmopolitan. It managed all this while neatly packaged with a bright, red, white and blue Obama sticker.

Where Are They Now?

“[President Obama] told us this was gonna happen. The one thing that I learned on the campaign trail was that 80 percent of Americans think the political process is a hierarchy: ‘Why won’t he just wave his magic wand and make it happen?’ I’m like, ‘Are you going to vote in the midterm election?’ and they’re like, ‘Nah.’ And I’m like, ‘You do understand that the only way those ideas are going to come to fruition is through the Congress?’”  –Questlove, Mother Jones interview.

DX: Where did all these artists disappear to in 2012?

Biko: Certain artists thought it was cool to be political, and there were some artists that thought it was just cool to be cool. Obama’s campaign was based on these concepts of hope and change. And if you look at the recession, unemployment and a lot of other factors, it’s understandable why some people don’t feel that same sense of hope going into this election.

Ronald: I personally didn’t see as many Hip Hop artists in such strong support for President Obama during this election cycle. I remember seeing a YouTube video of Bun B sporting an Obama T-Shirt and Diddy commenting on John McCain’s infamous “that one” debate debacle, among other examples. And even though artists like Snoop Dogg, T.I. and A$AP Rocky have come out in support of Obama in 2012, it did seem that the general energy of voting again this year just wasn’t the same among Hip Hop artists. I’d probably go back to the idea of voting for Obama being the trendy thing in 2008, and four years later, it’s not. I’d attribute that to general apathy amongst both these artists and the public at large as to why we’re not quite seeing the levels of support we originally did. And on top of that, the job of emcees is to be just that…emcees, not political leaders. So maybe this disappearing act is something we should have seen coming on the part of major Hip Hop artists.

Hip Hop's New Age Political Dissent

“You might get killed if you don’t listen enough / Well I guess I’m dead / ‘Cause I ain’t listen to Puff / Best believe our system it sucks / And a person like me don’t believe in assisting in such / Nah I be rippin’ ‘em up / But for every pond there’s different ducks / I believe if you participate at a lower level / You can get a lot more things done / Like working with the alderman / But I ain’t alterin’ this song to be a political statement / Let’s take it back to the basement…” –Lupe Fiasco, “Outty 5,000”

HipHopDX: Given all of the recent voter registration problems, and what happened in the 2000 election, do artists like Lupe who don’t participate in the presidential election have valid complaints?

Omar: Absolutely. People love to throw around that cliché about how those that don’t vote don’t get the right to complain, but to me, that’s 100% bullshit. If you’re a taxpaying American citizen, you can criticize your elected officials all you want as long as it’s not libelous. It should be noted that the emcees mentioned above are addressing separate issues. dead.prez and Kendrick Lamar are by-and-large talking about either abstaining from or withdrawal as a form of protest from what they feel is a fundamentally flawed political process. Generally speaking, they haven’t necessarily gone on record telling other people not to vote. And given that the popular vote does not determine the election, K-Dot and dead.prez aren’t harming anything in my opinion. Lupe’s situation is a bit more complex. Based on his previous support of Rhymefest’s Alderman bid, it appears he supports the election process on at least a local level. His stance on the presidential election has been pretty consistent.

Biko: No. Looking back over our country's history dating back to 1824, there have only been four elections in which the candidate who received a greater number of electoral votes won the presidency, even though he didn’t win the popular vote. Those four elections that didn't match up were won by Presidents John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and more recently George W. Bush.

You’ve got Al Gore—one of the people most infamously associated with the [seldom] discrepancy between the popular and electoral vote—campaigning for either an end to or a reform of the Electoral College. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan. I’m from Wisconsin. And everyone knows that touchdown call in the infamous Monday night game [this season with the replacement referees]  against Seattle was bogus. It wasn’t a catch. But, guess what? The Packers still had to take the field the next game and continue trying to make the playoffs and the Super Bowl. The same applies to voting and the electoral process.

Ronald: Their points aren’t necessarily valid, but definitely understandable. I’ll never personally encourage anyone to not vote. But there are many examples of questionable election results from the past, in particular the 2000 Presidential election with Florida and the “hanging chad” controversy that eventually gave Dubya the White House. It becomes more difficult to argue against those that have suspicions about the voting process. Couple that with what we currently have going on with the wave of potential voter suppression/voter ID laws that seem to target the poor, the elderly, college students and people of color, and that suspicion grows. But the main beef I think artists like Lupe, Kendrick, Stic.Man and M1 have is with the electoral process as a whole. With the Electoral College, the media circus that surrounds Presidential elections and the general ideal that government, corporate America and the mainstream media all work together and under the cover of darkness, there may be at least some justification towards the cynicism that these and other artists have expressed.

My President Is Black

“I think it’s important that Hip Hop not understate its role. I’ve always viewed Hip Hop, because it was organized for young people by young people as an alternative to violence, as more than music but actually the extension of civil rights. Because of that, Hip Hop has brought, for 35 years, people black, white, Asian, Latin together under the muse of music. And it has grown a generation of people who are so accustomed to being around one another that slowly certain myths [about one another] began to fall. So I think Hip Hop has a significant slice [of credit for Obamas victory] because Hip Hop exposed us to one another before politics did. Hip Hop has done wonders in terms of breaking down the false walls of racial differences in this country. It’s brought us in big part to this point. Thank God for the art form of Hip Hop.” Killer Mike, exclusive HipHopDX interview.

DX: How much weight do celebrity endorsements—particularly those from Hip Hop artists—carry?

The bigger question to ask here is should celebrity endorsements—particularly those from Hip Hop artists—carry so much weight in a presidential election? The reality is that celebrity endorsements of politicians have always held a lot of stock, because everyday people have a tendency to do what celebrities do. Voting is no exception. In terms of the 2008 election, there were so many artists, Hip Hop and otherwise, that came out in support of Barack Obama. And Hip Hop from all corners and all sub genres were in strong support, from will.i.am (with his remixed Obama speech music video featuring lots of famous faces) to Bun B, Jay-Z and Diddy. I won’t go as far as to say that Hip Hop won the election for Obama in 2008, but I definitely would say that when fans of Hip Hop music and culture saw an artist they could relate to in support of one of the major candidates, it may have swayed them to pull the lever for him.

But should this be the case? It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, these artists probably did drive more potential voters from the Hip Hop and post-Hip Hop generations to the polls and did a masterful job at doing so. But on the other, it also shows that such a major decision such as which candidate to hire for the highest office of the land can be influenced by the ideal of, “Well, if so-and-so can vote for Obama, I will too.” And that’s troubling.

The Choice Is Yours

Ultimately, all three participants agree that the amount of political discourse Hip Hop has generated this election cycle is both great for the state of politics as well as Hip Hop.

“I was on a panel with Lupe Fiasco, and he expressed his thoughts on the president and the election,” Baker explained. “We didn’t get to chop it up. But his opinion comes from an informed place. And Kendrick has backed off from his initial statements somewhat. I think all of the discussion is dope. I can respect them on a certain level. And when November 6, comes, I’m going to be casting my vote.”

With all due respect to Young Jeezy, more specific and narrowly tailored debate and less “My president is black / My Lambo is blue…” talk probably benefits everyone involved in the political process this time around. More information and a livelier cliamate for debate can never be a bad thing. When the votes are tallied on November 6, it will be interesting to see both fans and artists alike weigh in regardless of the results. If the last few elections have taught us anything, it is that we most likely won’t see any wholesale changes to the election process in the near future. That essentially leaves the two choices of participating in and trying to change an admittedly flawed system from the inside or abstaining from the process.

***This article has been revised to reflect the following correction***

Correction: October 19, 2012

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the four elections during which the electoral vote has not matched the popular vote.

Rob “Biko” Baker is the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters. You can follow him on Twitter at @bikobaker and learn more about the League of Young Voter’s efforts to educate and empower young voters at http://www.theleague.com/splash.

Ron Grant is a freelance writer originally from Detroit and currently residing in Orlando. He has contributed writings to BrooklynBodega.com, PNCRadio.fm and runs two independent music blogs. Follow him on Twitter @RonGreezy.


  • bebopp

    yo crack hip hop needa to be outta do polotic thang, too complacated for da hiphops to undrstand. just give me my bamaphone

  • Anonymous

    Hip Hops roll in being racist is more like it. None of this shit matters, they all have an agenda to fallow regardless of which puppet head is made to look like they actually mean something beside to make the people not realize the fucked up shit the government is doing. Less government period, they are out of control. Fuck everyone co signing these fucking puppets. Ron Paul was only one of the real candidates that was running but the controlled media did not give him hardly any air plat so no momentum was built up.

  • michaelterrelle

    I got a legitmate right to be angry with what I'm seeing, feeling, and reading - given my personal experiences with the American system that is run by white folks and lost others. Make no mistake about it, I do be angry. So to add to my previous post, I ask, Why did Neil Armstrong who passed form recently, say immediately after he was reported as setting foot on the moon, 'One step for man , and one giant step for mankind'? ANSWER: he knew who he was, an ape of sorts, thus manlike. ++

  • Anonymous

    Hip Hop should play no role in this or any election. Their participation is strictly for show.

  • Explain

    I am interested in hearing how ROM plans to make America "energy independent" in just 5 years.

    • Anonymous

      you put wind turbines and solar panels in the midwest. n mass produce electric cars, because if it wasnt for oil company greed gas would be an obsolete technology. its pretty simple really. but money is the root of all evil and no one wants to let the public get things for free.

  • N.B.

    The first thing I will tell you is EDUCATE YOURSELF WITH FACTS going into the election. DO NOT FALL FOR THE OKIE DOKE. Both of these muthafuckers are liars and do not give a shit about you. Obama has not made the economy any better since he took office. He wants to spend $100 of millions each year to support Obamacare despite knowing that is is unfeasible to support it long term. He is running $1 trillion in deficits each year but wants to blame it all on Bush. He is the one continuing the Bush tax cuts but not finding ways to cuts ridiculous government spending. Romney wants to cut taxes for the rich and raise taxes on hard-working Americans. He also knows NOTHING about creating middle class American jobs because in his "small business" experience he cut those middle class jobs and sent them overseas for bigger profit margins. Look at Gary Johnson, Ron Paul and any other candidate who refuses to accept the "norm" for the American way of life and the American Dream. If you are under the age of 55, think about your future. There will be NO SOCIAL SECURITY for us and Medicare will be unsustainable so don't expect much there either. You are a part of the biggest Ponzi scheme on the planet. Do not blindly give your allegiance to either one of the candidates. Educate yourself on the facts and vote accordingly. The races for Congress are just as important. If you have someone in office for 30 years, ask yourself, what have they done for your life? If you can't point out anything better, vote their asses out. Use your brain this election. Vote based on facts. Don't just follow the 2 party system because you have to. Vote with your brain and your heart. Do what is best for you and your family. Don't think about race or party. Think about you and your family and your future.

  • imfromFinland

    I have thinked sameway long time, it doesnt matter who sits on chair of president it was it obama or romney, they just for oil there and "terrorism" is reason to go on middle east with warriors so to get oil from there! They killed gaddaffi because gaddafi was changing hes oil selling currency for gold, and of course usa was messed up because they cant use worthless pressed dollars anymore. 9/11 was false flag terrorist attack and after that there came the thing "terrorism" and former CIA agent "Osama Bin Laden" who was later killed because too much risk.

    • H4ZE

      first of all gaddaffi killed thousands of innocent ppl, thats why hes gone. and second, maybe yall in finland aint heard but its been discovered for a while now that the usa is sitting on some of the largest oil reservoirs in the world. we would have the ability to be completely energy independent for the next 150yrs if our dumbass president would give the ok to drill.

  • triPAUD

    I didn't read any of this. Lol, I just wanted to say from outside in, if all of voting hip hop community wanted Obama in, you have enough power that if you simply vote, it'll happen. Its that close that your votes really do matter.

  • michael terrelle

    And I call him a sell out and a fag cause he be flirtin' with the people who have the Rh factor (bloodline), the monkey gene, and he won't tell the American people that such is a serious problem among nations dwelling in the same land; but if he didn't know, then he really shouldn't be president--since he is that stupid. All medical doctors have heard of the "red monkey gene" which so-called blacks cannot contract. In fact, he won't discuss it knowing that some people in this country mostly whites and it is written in books. This was a further curse upon the cursed ones, and again it was instituted by God Almighty; because this siutation exists, it is the likely reason why so-called blacks and the whites do not really get along they are two different people at war with each other; one cursed by God , the other not having that same curse. Allah turned a people into apes because they were so disobedient.