Music reflects a people's political, social and cultural life, so it is no surprise that "We Shall Overcome" conveys the optimism and determination of the Civil Rights era, and Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin On?" conveys the disillusionment of the post-Civil Rights era. Similarly, it is no surprise that since Barack Obama has opened a new chapter in the history of race and politics in America, that the music inspired by his candidacy suffused with his message of hope and change.
Indeed, Obama's candidacy has inspired an unprecedented wave of unsolicited campaign songs and videos. "I Got a Crush on Obama" by Obama Girl (Amber Lee) was named the biggest Web video of 2007. "Yes We Can," which has garnered over 17 million viewings so far, earned Will.i.am a Webby award, and it has become the unofficial theme song of the Obama campaign. Together these two videos rank among the most popular political campaign songs of all time.
But the success of these U.S. videos to some extent obscures the degree to which Obama's candidacy has captured the imagination of the world and inspired an international outpouring of music.
A music compilation blog called Obama—The WorldBeat Album from the site Calabash provides a small but useful sampling of this proliferation in world music. In addition to "Obama Girl" and "Yes We Can," there is a calypso track by Trinidad's Mighty Sparrow ("Barack the Magnificent"), an Afrobeat rendition by Cameroonian musician Fojeba ("Fired Up & Ready to Go"), a reggaeton-style song by the Miguel Orozco ("La Caminata") and a Tex-Mex mariachi song ("iViva Obama!"). If these songs are representative of broader trends, Obama-inspired world music is upbeat, hopeful, committed and of surprisingly high quality.
Mighty Sparrow's "Barack the Magnificent" is an overtly political praise song that asserts:
The respect of the world that we now lack,
If you want it back, then vote Barack!
Because this time we come out to vote!
Stop the war!
Stop genocide in Darfur!
No matter what,
Get health care for who have not!
He stood his ground
When the war was a conception,
Said it was wrong,
So he didn't go along,
Fojeba's "Fired Up & Ready to Go"is a sweet, lyrical, complex Central African makossa that overlays samples of the rhythmic cadences of Obama's own voice with soft guitar riffs and group vocals. The combination is an engaging and inspired music that captures Obama's mood and message.
Obama : But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope
Audience [roar overlaid by a lilting guitar]
Obama : We've been told we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't. Generations of Americans have responded, with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: "Yes We Can. Yes We Can. Yes We Can."
Audience [chants with soft guitar overlay] "Yes We Can."
Fojeba : Ready to Go. Ready to Go. [repeated over and over]
Obama : And if one voice can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world. One voice can change the world! So we just want to know one thing: Are You Fired Up? [Crowd roars. ]
Obama : Are You Ready to Go? [Crowd roars]
Fojeba : I am … Ready To Go. Ready to Go. [repeats]. Senator Obama, Senator Obama. [repeats] Will be [repeats] Our next [repeats] President! [repeats] Ready to Go! [repeats]. I am … Ready To Go [repeats]
Obama : On next January 9, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. [crowd roars] I love you back. Thank you. Thank you very much. I am so fired up and ready to go.
Miguel Orozco, a Chicano from East L.A., has a more direct approach that mixes English and Spanish in the reggaeton "La Caminata." Appealing to Latinos of all nationalities to rally around Obama, Orozco chants:
Viva Obama 08 (amigosdeobama.com) urged Chicanos to get out and vote in the March 4 Texas primary. A band of horns, violins and guitars, with the musicians dressed in full mariachi regalia, has the feel of a paid political song, and its lyrics for that reason are not as engaging as the others. Nonetheless, it catches what young Chicanos find fulfilling in Obama's candidacy—his humble origins, a champion of the working class, an ability to bring people together.
Jamaican singer Cocoa Tea's song, entitled simply "Barack Obama," celebrates an Obama-inspired interracial call for change to meet the needs of the people:
"Why, why why why why, boy, why why? Lord.
Well this is not about class nor color, race nor creed.
Make no mistake, it's the changes, what all the people they need.
I'm a shout out: Barack Obama! Barack Obama! [repeats]
Them say Barack Obama! Barack Obama! Woy!
Now you can hear it in the morning. Obama!
And you can hear it in the evening. Obama!
Black man and white man shouting.
You can hear them saying: Barack Obama, Barack Obama [repeats]
They say Barack Obama. [repeats]
Obama's international appeal rivals that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. That he was born to parents who were international as well as interracial, and that he grew up outside the United States makes him a biological and cultural emblem of the new global era. His very persona is an implicit promise that past racial, ethnic and class divisions can be, and are being, overcome. That he speaks of change, of transforming the way Americans deal with each other and with the world also resonates internationally.
Germans see Obama almost as the re-incarnation of their favorite American president, John F. Kennedy. Obama's father's people hail him as potentially the first "Kenyan" president of the United States. Untouchables in India and gypsies in Europe with whom I have spoken recently see his rise to prominence as inspiration for what their own societies might one day achieve. On a less optimistic note, a black Cuban friend tells me people there are relatively indifferent to Obama, convinced that America is not ready for a black president.
A group calling itself TheWorld Wants Obama Coalition tracks Obama's international standing in some 37 countries around the world. The coalition finds that Obama's support defies usual assumptions, being highest in Japan and Brazil, one of which has almost no blacks and the other has more than the United States. Support is also high in Europe. With all this enthusiasm, my guess is that musicians in other nations have produced, or are producing, songs similar to those highlighted on the Calabash Web site. Do you know of any world music with an Obama flavor? If so, let's use this space to share it and document the impact of Obama's candicacy on all of us.
Laurence Glasco is an Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Department of History.