Hip hop’s political evolution and the road ahead

From Uncle Luke previously running for mayor of Miami to Shyne now running for the Belize House of Representatives, we examine hip hop’s evolution in politics and what that holds for the future of the culture.

  /  07.28.2020


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

In 2017, Ta-Nehisi Coates released “We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy,” a collection of articles he’d written for The Atlantic during the Obama Administration plus additional blog posts describing the point and process behind each piece. It’s a hefty compilation, tackling weighty topics such as the Black family in an era of mass incarceration, why few Black people study the civil war, and the award-winning essay, “The Case For Reparations.” 

The book opens with a quote from South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller extolling Black achievements to the state’s constitutional convention in 1895. This was during the oppressive Redemption (Jim Crow) period that followed Reconstruction where, for the first time, the formerly enslaved were elected to government in the south. 

“We were eight years in power,” Miller stated. “We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”    

Miller hoped that by listing the success of Black lawmakers in South Carolina during Reconstruction, he would convince the legislature to decide against passing laws restricting the rights of Black citizens in the state. He was wrong. All achievements notched during Reconstruction were soon bastardized and remixed to fit the narrative of South Carolina’s white dominant leadership. And the Jim Crow era took root.  

Coates writes: “Assessing Miller’s rebuttal and the 1895 convention, W.E.B. Du Bois made a sobering observation… ‘If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.’” 

It’s possible to draw parallels between Du Bois’ assessment of the South Carolina legislature’s reaction to Miller’s speech and the way President Barack Obama’s achievements continue to be attacked by his political adversaries. His signature bill, the Affordable Care Act, has been consistently dismantled in red states since its historic passing in 2010. In June 2020, while the country still struggles to wrangle control over COVID-19, President Trump once again asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the law, hoping to remove healthcare coverage from 20 million people during a pandemic and record-high unemployment. Trump also rolled back Dodd-Frank, another Obama era bill that added regulations designed to prevent Wall Street from causing another Great Recession, as it did while President George W. Bush was commander-in-chief. And despite assuming office in the wake of Dubya’s catastrophe, despite adding 11.6 million jobs and returning the stock market to record highs, Obama still battles blame for causing the economic collapse that began two years before his inauguration. Toss in the racially motivated “birther” movement championed by President Trump and it’s not an intellectual leap to believe that in 2020, to paraphrase Du Bois, the only thing worse than a bad Black president is a good Black president

HIP HOP RUNS FOR OFFICE

Kanye West recently announced that he’s running for president, hoping to be the next Black man from Chicago to call the West Wing home. According to Forbes, ‘Ye decided to run for office while reciting rhymes in the shower. He says he’d run as a Republican if Trump decides to remove his name from the bill, and run as an Independent if he stays in the race. Kanye says he modeled his management approach off of Wakanda — Black Panther’s fictional homeland. He says he’s “cautious” of vaccines because “that’s the mark of the beast.” He says he’s pro-life because he’s following “the word of the Bible,” that he hasn’t developed a foreign policy platform yet because he intends to focus on “America first with our great military,” that he was felt threatened as a Black man to join the Democratic party. Whether Kanye’s aspirations are earnest remains to be seen. But, the prospect of a Black president followed by a reality show president followed by a billionaire Black president would be the oddest three chapters in White House history. Somewhere Jeezy is working on “My President Is Black, Part 2.”

Most political attention is laser focused on what happens in the Oval Office. But arguably, the power of government is harnessed most efficiently at local levels, and several from within Hip Hop have run for office hoping to represent their communities

Wyclef Jean ran for president of Haiti in 2010, for example, but was removed from the ballot because of a provision that requires candidates for the presidency to have lived in the country for at least five years prior to their run was added to legislation. ‘Clef was slaughtered in the press for attempting to challenge the decision. 

In 2011, Uncle Luke ran for mayor of Miami with a focus on “economic development, public safety, community revitalization and affordable housing.” He came up short but still garnered 11% of the vote.

Former Bad Boy artist Shyne recently announced that he’s running for the Belize House of Representatives under the United Democratic Party. Born Michael Levi Barrow, his father was the first Black prime minister of the country and his uncle, Honorable Michael Finnegan, currently serves in the governing body, but has decided against running for re-election. Shyne is hoping to assume his seat

Former member of Lords Of The Underground, Dupre “Doitall” Kelly ran for Councilman-At-Large in Newark, NJ in 2018. He was inspired by a conversation he had with Tupac Shakur 20 years prior about correcting the negatives in their neighborhoods. His platform included a focus on improving education in his city. Unfortunately, he came up short, but he described the challenges running for office.    

He previously told REVOLT, “Man, this is not an easy task. It takes money, it takes people to contribute financially. But shout out to Redman, he supported, not just as my brother and someone who’s been supportive of us. He supported financially. Naughty By Nature supported financially. Every member of the group. It was a couple of people who really did their thing and supported financially… You can’t jump into politics because you think you’re popular. You have to do the groundwork, the footwork. You gotta put in the work with the residents.”

THE ROAD AHEAD

Che Smith, also known as Rhymefest, ran for Chicago City Council in 2011 and came close to winning, falling short by 6 percentage points. When asked about his experiences campaigning, Smith tells REVOLT exclusively, “When I ran for [Chicago] City Council, Lupe Fiasco came in and helped out. He did a fundraiser for me because Lupe comes from community organizing. A lot of hip hop comes from community organizing, but doesn’t indulge in politics, which is more expansive than community organizing because it’s not just the community. If you’re in city council, not only are you a part of a community, you are part of a vote for a city that has different interests.” 

Smith says part of the difficulty of running for office was that the lyrics to his songs were used against him on the campaign trail.

“All my words that I ever wrote in rap came back to haunt me when I had to go speak to a 90-year-old lady that was like, ‘So, what about your brand new b**ch?’ or ‘Your brand new d**k,’” ‘Fest says. He continues:

“Running for office changed my perspective towards rap music because it made me realize a lot of things we’re saying just ain’t responsible. I realized things that we think are harmless in hip hop are really influencing people. And we try to use the word ‘entertainment’ as a shield. We say, ‘Well, what makes it different than what Arnold Schwarzenegger says?’ Well, we say we’re keeping it real. We affirm the realness of the entertainment, which reinforces structural racism. Rappers should be using the power of our voice to expand the electorate through how we talk about the platform. It should be a trend. It should be us saying that’s what we’re on.”   

For much of hip hop’s history engaging in politics, the emphasis was on activism, grassroots community organizing, and donating to campaigns. Step. Repeat. Eazy-E, for example, found himself invited to a fundraiser for George H.W. Bush’s campaign, creating one of the early 1990s biggest rap-related spectacles. KRS-One led the Stop The Violence Movement in the late 1980s in an attempt to quell violence in Black communities. He produced the song “Self Destruction,” which raised over $100,000 for the National Urban League. Diddy created the Citizen Change campaign in 2004, partnering with Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, and Mariah Carey to bring voter awareness to young people and minorities. Artists ranging from Melly Mel to Ice Cube to Tupac to Killer Mike have engaged communities and politicians in their music and off wax, and the culture has directly produced a number of political candidates, few victors, and even fewer political action committees. There remains a gap between a willingness to get involved in politics and an ability to raise the funds necessary to spawn consistently successful campaigns. 

Organizations like JAY-Z and Meek Mill’s Reform Alliance, which hopes to help over 1 million people falsely incarcerated escape the correctional system, represent a promising for hip hop’s future in the political sphere. It’s an example of the community harnessing its power to enact change away from the ballot box. The same can be said for the recently announced #BreatheAct, which includes wildly progressive measures like defunding the police. The Breathe Act was assembled by a number of entertainment industry mavens and fashions itself as a modern-day civil rights bill, something absolutely crucial to forward progress. 

The lingering question is this: Should the culture capture sweeping political power and reconstruct the current landscape, will it inevitably run into an ethos similar to that described by W.E.B. Dubois in 1895; an ethos similar to one currently attacking Former President Barack Obama’s legacy? Will it wither in the shadow of revisionist history and systemic forces feeding off a disenfranchised populace often pushed past apathy?    

“I think every rapper with influence should have a local candidate that they support hard and know their policies.” Rhymefest concludes. “Hip hop has the ability to be kingmakers. Why do I know everything about Brooklyn, Harlem, Bronx and the differences in it? Rappers. Rappers can take that skillset of claiming their hood and really do that for our upliftment. Not just to [brag about gang life]. If we did that with policy, we could change everything.”

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