What Obama and Drake Have to Do With Being Black

We're supposedly living in a post-racial society, but these days, "black" is being defined much more narrowly -- and it has nothing to do with one's actual racial heritage. To sell out or keep it real? That is the question.

Getty Images (Illustration)
Getty Images (Illustration)

Ours is a novel time in the history of America, indeed, for today the most culturally influential, financially successful and globally visible blacks ever–those of the hip-hop generation (which, to be precise, is now really in its second or even third iteration)–are also the greatest disseminators of the most abysmal anti-black stereotypes conceivable.

Drake, in his professional choices and his public demeanor–and most certainly not in his inherent physical attributes or ethnic background (he had a bar mitzvah!)–has packaged himself to fit neatly into the contemporary vision of what blackness must be–or, at the very least, must worship. And though he is more thoughtful in his lyrics than many of his colleagues, and seems like a thoroughly decent guy on a personal level, his presence on the black scene, unlike Obama’s, has done next to nothing to challenge the ingrained prejudices of a culture that consistently prizes street knowledge over book learning, being cool over being disciplined, and elevates hustlers and criminals to the highest positions of cultural importance.

How will the perpetuation of this self-defeating mindset ever relent? The only way it will, I’m convinced, is if we in black America begin to have an honest and deliberate conversation about just where it is we want our culture to go in the next generation or two. The election of a gifted and brilliant black man to the White House has done more than anything to warrant that conversation. And yet, more than a year into the Obama era, we still haven’t begun to have this dialogue in a serious or sustained way.

Black writers, intellectuals and public figures have an obligation to resist and speak out against such limited forms of identity as we see around us today, and, more than that, to find ways to reconnect the community on a broad scale to the rich legacy of mature cultural achievement within the black tradition. It is a legacy that stems from slave times in figures like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, courses through W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson, and can be found in the not so distant past in James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

Obama, for his part, has tried to spark this discussion on several occasions, most recently last July when, speaking to a crowd gathered for the NAACP’s 100th anniversary, he rightly pointed out that “our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne.” But the president can’t just talk to himself all the time. Where are all the other voices? The silence is deafening.

Meanwhile, Drake’s first studio album, Thank Me Later, will be shipping to stores and dominating the airwaves soon enough, and it’s my guess that it’s going to sound pretty cool. But it won’t do much more than that. For my part, I’d be more than willing to thank him right now if he would do something serious to steer this culture in a new and more intelligent direction, and not just trade in the same worn-out clichés and patterns of thought our parents and grandparents marched to overcome. That would be realer than real.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. It will be published on April 29 by The Penguin Press.