The Price of Change
Barack Obama was supposed to be the one to change it all, but at what cost?
Words: ERIK PARKER
Illustration: MIKEY BURTON
“My president is black/My Lambo is blue/I’ll be goddamned if my rims ain’t too” —Young Jeezy, “My President”
When Obama was elected in 2008, he was viewed by the black community as the human wrench that would foul up the works and somehow rebuild the system. America’s first black president harnessed the angst of young blacks and the hope of older African-Americans who longed to see Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream realized. It was a rare moment of black unity in a post–Civil Rights era.
Above all, it was the so-called hip-hop nation that became the president’s biggest cheerleaders. Whereas presidential politics was previously viewed as a mumps or measles transaction, rappers like Jay-Z offered robo calls to get out the vote. And Ludacris, the Game, and most other rappers offered full-throated endorsements, if not money. The spirit of rebellious youth in America found itself beaming with a dose of black pride and giddy with the possibility that someone in a suit with power might understand their story and brush the haters from his shoulder with Shawn Corey Carter’s cool.
After the election, rappers continued to stand in lockstep with Obeezy. Young Jeezy dropped an anthem, “My President,” in which he wanted the world to know that there was something special about his president being black that connected in some way with the fly blue rims on his Lambo. It was a win-win for hip-hop, and a victory for Americans who wanted to see the world through a post-racial haze. But what have we lost along the way? What if that “hopey-changey stuff”—as vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin once mocked—changed us more than it deconstructed the system?
When Eazy-E, Mr. “Fuck tha Police” himself, dined with George W. Bush at a fund-raiser in 1991, it was considered odd and a bit gangster, a move designed to show his power as opposed to that of the Republican president’s at the time. But Obama’s presence was a thumb in the eye of the white establishment. Aging hip-hoppers who once pumped up Public Enemy and N.W.A in equal parts had long grown away from the rants and blunt aggression of firebrands like Louis Farrakhan. By the time Obama was running for president, it was far more radical to put a black eye in the face of the all white-bred presidents’ club than it was to label America’s white folks as devils. To those reared on Africa medallion rap, Obama was a revolutionary figure just by running for president in his black skin. And that has proven enough to keep young blacks in his corner, with little public dissent.
Of course there are the rogues, the community’s outliers who still challenge the system, which now includes the Obama. Lupe Fiasco rebuked Obama’s policy of drone strikes, in which “enemy combatants” are struck down from a remote controlled plane in the sky that makes victims of any teenage boys and innocent bystanders who happen to be in the vicinity. Lupe received little or no support from the hip-hop community at large. Yasiin “Mos Def” Bey recently demonstrated how detainees in Guantanamo Bay are being force fed while they are on hunger strikes in order to bring attention to unjust detentions.
Outside of Obama’s divisive foreign policy, in America’s hoods, real problems rage. The unemployment rate among young black men is well over 40 percent. While Jay-Z held a 40,000 per plate fund-raiser for Obama’s second term, the murder rate in Chicago, the president’s hometown, continued to climb (more than 200 killed for the year 2013 at press time). If George Bush was president at this time, would there be a Kanye West–style rant about how much Obama doesn’t care about black people?
To be sure, Obama has had some modest legislative wins for black interests. He enacted the Civil Rights Division of the justice department; he signed the Fair Sentencing Act to diffuse the crack and cocaine sentencing disparity; he added funding to HBCUs. But much of what he’s done for the morale of black boys and girls who have big dreams is immeasurable. His presence has helped redefine for white kids and the world what it means to be an African-American man. He has not shied away from responding to major race issues in the news, most recently giving light to the Trayvon Martin killing.
“How do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys,” President Obama said during a press conference in July after the Martin ruling. “…The more we can do to give them a sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.”
Until then, fighting the power may be our only hope. Even if your president is black.