No Help for Obama From Hip-Hop This Time

The appeal to the youth vote has fallen flat because of disillusionment and delay.

Promote the Vote Block Party in Philadelphia, November 2008 (Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)
Promote the Vote Block Party in Philadelphia, November 2008 (Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)

Barack Obama needed hip-hop in 2008, and, well, today not much has changed.

Historically, a candidate who relies on the youth vote ends up on the losing side. But two years ago, Obama’s youth-oriented campaign proved triumphant. In fact, Obama did what many thought would be political suicide: He made it a priority to connect with the hip-hop community in order to rally young voters. And with hip-hop’s help, Obama received the strongest support — 68 percent, to be exact — from 18- to 29-year-olds.  

Five days after Obama won the election, Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy told NPR: “I was convinced from Day 1 when I found out he was running. It’s kind of really rough out here for a lot of people, and I think he gave ’em hope. He was a new voice; he had a new message.”  

It’s not every day that hard-core rappers support political leaders, let alone become active in the political process. However, the 2008 presidential election was a revolutionary discovery for both the culture of hip-hop — which had grown accustomed to voter apathy and disingenuous political leaders — and observers of the culture, who had witnessed only callousness and the complete disregard for the sacrifices of civil rights leaders.

In the marriage of hip-hop and politics, young people began to show promise. Hip-hop came through for Obama in a major way in the last presidential election. But what was so special about Obama that propelled a culture, so narcissistic at times, to invest its time in a political campaign when many of those who were a part of it had never even voted?

I asked a few influential people in politics and hip-hop, and the one theme that resonated was Obama’s power of inclusion.

Actor Hill Harper: “When you see people who have never voted before standing in two- to three-hour lines to cast their vote, somehow and some way they were convinced that they make a difference, that standing in that line and actually casting that vote makes a difference, and that’s pretty powerful.”

Ambassador Andrew Young: “Well, he knows hip-hop, and they identify with him. That’s the first time they have identified with any president that strongly.”

Music executive Kevin Liles: “Barack was our civil rights movement … Barack is to us what Martin Luther King was to them.”

DJ Drama: “He did a lot from the ground up, you know, the grass-roots way. He took advantage of a lot of key components … and I think that people in our position had a voice and, almost to some extent, had an obligation to help him get as many people as possible, especially young people, to the polls.”

One of the main reasons young people came out in record numbers to vote in 2008 was that they felt they were a part of something.