Your favorite President’s favorite rapper?
Obama has felt this way for a while...
Here’s a special edition of my newsletter, usually open only to Friday subscribers but today for all! -Ari
“My President is Black…”
Before “President Obama,” there was Barack Obama. For most of his adult life, he was a political upstart counted out by pundits and the political class — seen as a back-bencher local lawmaker, the loser of a Congressional race, the “protest” candidate against expected nominee Hillary Clinton.
A lot has changed since then, but one thing that’s been consistent for Obama is his appreciation of music and specifically rap — long before that was “safe” for mainstream politicians.
Obama engages with his musical passions in several ways.
He weaves music into his writing and speeches; he meets with artists; he curates an annual playlist to share what he’s listening to (the songs often run across genres and time).
Brush it off
Obama’s style is influenced by his knowledge of music, hip hop, and specifically the great contributions of Black American artists to the cannon. Some of this is casual and unstated — meaning Obama does not usually directly say or “explain” the influence. That was the case in the 2008 presidential campaign, when Obama made a point of brushing off political attacks like “dirt off his shoulder” at a campaign rally. It was a moment of knowing swagger. But at the time, neither Obama nor his campaign said this was a nod to Jay-Z. For many observers, at the rally or watching on TV, it might have gone over their heads. Which is fine. For rap fans, it was incredible to see a candidate embrace the “move” and message from that hit song, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” from The Black Album.
On a more substantive level, Obama seemed to paraphrase a Jay-Z quote about civil right’s progress when speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Selma March:
“We honor those who walked, so we could run. We must run, so our children soar.”
Jay-Z first rapped similar lines in a song imagining a Black president before there ever was one. He also performed them while campaigning for Obama, saying:
“Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk.
Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run.
Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.”
“In the hall already, on the wall already…”
In about a week, HBO will air the ceremony for the new inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including Carole King and Jay-Z. His induction was presented by none other than Barack Obama, who recounted the above references and said:
“[Jay and I] know what it’s like not to come from much, and to know people who didn’t get the same breaks that we did. So we try to prop open the door of opportunity so that it’s a little easier for those who come up behind us to succeed as well.”
On this one, Obama gets the last word…
P.S. Well, almost the last word. Since this is a newsletter for more casual musings, I will add that while I’ve never counted, I’ve heard I cite Jay on the news more than any other artist, which rings true. John Oliver pointed it out in some quality mockery. I think the reason is that Jay’s artistry covers so much ground, it feels relevant to many different parts of America — its hope and despair; its cruel realities and inspiring possibilities.
This is fantastic! I love your analysis of Pres. Obama and how music influences him. It is always so enjoyable to see the way he ties music in with anything he does, and you as well! ;) A really great read for Friday
Obama was a breath of fresh air when he was elected. Much of music is storytelling and activism and can reach into your soul like a good book. Quoting a good song is no different than quoting a good piece of literature or words of wisdom. Music is as much a part of us as anything else. Jay Z's words hit the mark.