…but the GOP ain’t one?
As I was driving to work last week on my hour long commute I was listening to the Sirius XM channel “Backspin”, which for those who don’t know is a Hip Hop station. Well, really a “Rap” station. Actually, to be specific, an oldies Rap station. And I pondered that: has Rap really been around so long that it has an oldies station?!?
Well, yes. Back when I was in my formative years (the 1980s) I would often listen to the local oldies station (on AM radio!) while my friends were listening to Heavy Metal or New Wave, or yes, Rap. And it felt like that music was from a much distant time, one that had no reflection on what was happening around me. But I was seeing it strictly from the eyes of youth, where all time flow seems long and past events seem ancient. The truth is that the music being played, rock from the 1950s and 1960s, was really only about 10-15 years old at it’s tail end. And because it hadn’t happened within my lifetime it only seemed very old.
The same is true for Rap. To today’s kids, it probably very much sounds like oldies music. In fact, classic Rap is now edging on 40 years old, and most of the material on “Backspin” was popular between 20-30 years ago (full disclosure: I didn’t really become immersed in Hip Hop until my 30s). So if Rap/Hip Hop is hitting the big “4-o”, and we have a sitting president who is only 50 years old, is Barack Obama the first “Hip Hop President”? Now, obviously, this issue does involve his race a bit. Being the first black President makes him more likely to be the first Hip Hop President for two reasons: back then (and still true today) Hip Hop was mainly performed by black artists and its popularity was larger in black audiences. So being black, he would more likely be on the Hip Hop train before a white person of similar age.
The real criteria though is his age itself. The past two Presidents were squarely in the Baby Boomer camp, and aficionados of that era’s Rock and Country music, (both hailing from the South). Before that, we had numerous Presidents of the “Greatest Generation” of WWII participants. So popular music ranging from Benny Goodman to Lynyrd Skynyrd has been amply represented. While I think Obama is skirting the back end of the Boomers, he was hitting just the right age during the birth of Rap, and was in college for Rap’s formative Golden Years.
We know that Obama does listen to Hip Hop (and was criticized for leaving it out of his campaign music), and has cemented a number of friendships with noted artists and pioneers of the form. But I don’t think he is quite the true first Hip Hop President that will be as big a game changer as his being the first black President. Yes, he has let some coded signals to the knowing fan slip into his appearances. Yes, he is already disillusioning those in the community that thought he was the one. Yes, he does hang with Hova and Beyoncé. But Obama might just be a bit too cool. He’s not going to be breaking out in a duet with Busta anytime soon. I could see him as the first Jazz President, maybe, but Clinton easily has that one tied up.
No, Obama is too cerebral, and frankly too old. The real first Hip Hop President will have grown up immersed in the culture, not grown up alongside it. He (or She) will have never known a unified “top 40” music chart, but instead a fractured melange of Grunge, Hip Hop, Acid, Boy Band, Pop. And probably, he will be white. Not white like Rick Santorum, or Mitt Romney. But part of that generation that went to see LL Cool J or Naughty by Nature without ever thinking of them as black performers, but just as one more musical act.
The beauty of time is that eventually all trends are inevitable. And whereas going from Big Band to Pop to Rock seemed jarring at the time, it was a relatively gentle progression (albeit one that led to Civil Rights and Hippie culture, aka all the things that divided the Boomers). Hip Hop, on the other hand, was a cultural shift. And by the time it became mainstream the youth that enjoyed it ranged across the entire spectrum of black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight. This demographic is going to more acceptant of who you are, who you love, and what color your skin is. Mainly by not caring who you are, who you love, or what color your skin is. And so, in my eyes, the promise of the first Hip Hop President isn’t as much about music as it is the inevitability of acceptance. And come to think of it, she’s probably going to be Hispanic anyway.