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.
As we head into the homestretch before the midterm elections, Democrats are on the brink of losing their majority in Congress, which will result in Republicans regaining control of the House and the Senate. Enough reason for me to send in my absentee ballot, but not all young people will follow suit this election.
Why? Young people were the last line of defense this time around. But they were not included in the campaign outreach until the very last minute — a mistake that will leave Democrats at a huge disadvantage on Nov. 2, because if 2008 is any indication, young people are an important part of the Democratic coalition, and quite forceful when included.
It has been only two years, but the hip-hop community has yet to see the fundamental changes that would deal with things such as unemployment, housing, the public school systems and the prison industrial complex. The promises of 2008 have yet to be felt in a tangible way; we're still jobless and unable to pay our bills, so many young people feel that their presence at the polls this election won't even matter.
While the stakes are as high, if not higher, in 2010, young people can't seem to look beyond their disillusionment to make it to the polls, which will be to their detriment if the GOP gains control of Congress.
A recent national poll of America's 18- to 29-year-olds by Harvard's Institute of Politics found that 60 percent of those surveyed were concerned about meeting their current bills and obligations, while 46 percent of those in the work force were concerned about losing their jobs. It seems that the group of individuals who were among the most hopeful in 2008 are losing hope. There is no motivation, and no excitement about getting involved this time around.
Last-minute attempts were made to recapture the spirit of the last presidential election among the young hip-hop generation. Obama and the Democratic National Committee invited Atlanta rapper B.o.B. to perform at the inaugural Gen44 Summit on Sept. 30 in Washington, D.C.
A few weeks later, Obama took to MTV, BET and CMT to hold a live town-hall meeting with young America in an effort to mobilize the youth vote for November. Hashtags, retweets, Facebook updates and text messages were all saturated with #president, #MTV, #BET and #BarackObama during the town hall — but it was transient.
No one should be surprised when, on Nov. 2, young America chooses to stay home and watch MTV and BET while tweeting, Facebooking and texting about everything but the election.
No T-shirts will be made, and there will be no street anthems or crafty celebrity-endorsed hooks. Obama and the Democrats need hip-hop to step up again and vote, but unless there's an app for that, better luck next time.
Jennifer Ogunsola is the media-relations manager for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. She is currently working on her first nonfiction book. Follow her on Twitter.