examining the rise of the rapper politician
November 22, 2018
I recall quite vividly the death of Private First Class Alexander Arredondo — a 20-year-old Marine killed under enemy fire in the sweltering summer heat of Iraq in August 2004. The news image of his father’s burnt body running from a van he’d set on fire moments after military officials had come to deliver the news of his son’s passing will never escape my imagination.
That image of grief would come to signify the war’s human cost and the devastation felt beyond the front lines. More dead soldiers would follow in the build up to a 2007 troop-surge, ordered by then President George W. Bush, that materialized despite growing public opposition to the war. By January of that year – 67 percent of Americans felt the war was a failure. But the battle waged on.
Antonio Delgado, a young lawyer who rapped under the moniker ‘A.D. The Voice,’ would attempt to capture American frustration over the war in his 2007 debut single, ‘Draped in Flags’. He’d rap about the lack of rationale for intervention in Iraq, the death of innocent Iraqi civilians and the lies told to the American public to justify it all. One could easily recognize the passion in the words he spoke. But the single went relatively unnoticed, as did his short-lived rap career.
Eleven years later – in the rural sprawl of upstate New York – a region noted for its racial homogeneity and conservative leaning, a congressional race would bring ‘Draped in Flags’ to national attention. The song ignited a debate as to whether Delgado, then a candidate for New York’s 19th Congressional District, could be trusted to represent the interests of a predominately white constituency in Congress. Conservative pundits scoffed at his past rap lyrics bemoaning America’s legacy of white supremacy and anti-Black racism – topics covered unabashedly on Delgado’s self-titled debut hip-hop album.
“Mr. Delgado’s lyrics paint an ugly and false picture of America,” his Republican opponent, James Faso lamented in July. His statement would be followed by a series of hard-hitting attack ads that implied that Delgado’s hip-hop past made him unqualified to hold public office.
Voters ultimately disagreed, electing him to the 116th Congress in early November – making Delgado the first rapper turned politician elected to national office in history.
On July 19th, 1988, at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, Georgia – Reverend Jesse Jackson delivered a rousing speech on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. He spoke of America’s faltering commitment to it’s poor, openly deriding the failures of Reaganomics and the social decay wrought by social and economic racism.
“Leadership must meet the moral challenge of its day. What’s the moral challenge of our day? We have public accommodations. We have the right to vote. We have open housing. What’s the fundamental challenge of our day? It is to end economic violence,” Jackson decried.
His remarks translated sermon into political genius and cemented the legacy of his Presidential campaign to serve as the realization of a generation of Black preachers who propelled themselves into American politics through the power of their pulpits.
Though Jackson would concede the Democratic nomination that evening and ultimately cease pursuit of political office thereafter, he’d leveraged his notoriety as a renowned preacher and civil rights activist to infiltrate the realm of electoral politics. By doing so, he laid the foundation for a new generation of Black politicians that would build on his astute political acumen to secure themselves electoral victories.
In the decades that followed, Black politics would bear witness to the ascension of a new brand of professional politician – one that cast aside the fiery sermons of the civil rights era in favor of a divergent brand of respectability politics that reflected the social tenets and ideologies of a rising Black middle class. Many across Black America yearned to assimilate into the American dream. But many were left behind to contend with an omnipresent American nightmare.
A decline in the centrality of the Black church in Black political life would leave a void in prophetic and radical voices that echoed the plight and temperament of the Black urban poor.
Rappers would rise to fill it.
Hip Hop’s political journey began as a by-product of quelling black social movements in the late 1970’s. Its music arose out of an atmosphere of political disillusionment and social disaffection. Its artists employed dissident lyrics and pro-Black aesthetics to confront uncomfortable truths about American life. And for a time, the genre was a wholly anti-establishment force with acts like NWA, Public Enemy, KRS One and Sistah Souljah using their art as conduit for political activism.
They’d in-turn find themselves targeted by an apparatus of government censors and propaganda bent on silencing their critiques. As the popularity of ‘conscious rap’ waned – hip-hop’s political evolution did not.
By the mid-1990’s, efforts like LL Cool J’s Rock the Vote’s Hip-Hop Coalition, designed to register Black youth for the 1996 presidential election, gained mild traction. The crossover appeal of rap music had political insiders taking notice and by the early 2000’s hip-hop moguls were eager to enter the political conversation.
In 2004, Diddy’s ‘Vote or Die’ campaign helped bolster support for John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential run, catalyzing the trend of leveraging the culture’s sphere of influence for political gain.
This trend would hit a stride in 2008 when Will.I.Am fronted a celebrity studded promo video in support of Barack Obama’s Presidential bid, crystalizing the Senator’s “Yes We Can” speech in the American psyche. The video would garner more views than the President’s speech itself and the Black Eyed Peas frontman would go on to record two other songs that election cycle in support of Obama’s campaign.
Upon election, President Obama would acknowledge rap music’s place in the public consciousness, referencing Jay-Z lyrics in official speeches – the most famous of which were made at the 50th Anniversary of the march on Selma. “We honor those who walked so we could run,” Obama said. “We must run so our children soar” – pulled from Jay’s verse on Jeezy’s “My President” remix. President Obama would also release a series personal playlists that included the likes of Nas, Mos Def and Kendrick Lamar, and invite rappers like Common, Wale and Big Sean to perform at the White House.
Still, visibility and activism had not translated to any formal entry into the electoral politics until Killer Mike announced himself as a write-in candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives in 2015. Though his campaign made no serious headway, it represented a significant strategic shift in hip-hop’s political life.
Perhaps assumptions around the pervasiveness of respectability politics within the Black community and the oft-overlooked reality of class in our collective politick played a role in keeping rappers on the periphery of Black political discourse. The public has been largely comfortable with rappers dissenting so long as it’s remained over a beat.
But the election of Donald Trump was a pendulum shift in our social-political culture.
And in the last two decades, America has witnessed a cacophony of white celebrity enter the political fold; actors, comedians, pro-wrestlers, and reality stars have catapulted themselves into office by unabashedly trading in fame for votes.
What makes many rappers distinct amongst their celebrity cohort is the tenor of their art and the ideologies, histories and conditions contended within their broader work. Rappers have operated as the quasi-political organizers of their day, taking heed from the preachers of yesteryear to give voice to the voiceless. One could argue that rappers are also, in fact, the populous preachers of their time, untied to any restriction in how they translate the public angst they bear witness to.
In the span of a half a century, rap music has found itself the most influential and economically formidable music genre in history – grossing $10 billion in 2017 alone and accounting for more than a quarter of all streamed music in the United States.
Just as Black preachers at the turn of the 20th century took full stock of the political power of their congregations, hip-hop’s strong hold on American popular culture presents an opportunity to transmute celebrity into actualized political power.
It is indeed curious that the rise of Donald Trump and the radical right would coincide with the public spectacle that is Kanye West – one of the most famous rappers of a generation. The term rapper has always instilled a certain level of panic and awe in white conservatives. Now amusement can be added to the list. Perhaps that’s intentional. What easier way to dissuade a rising tide of young Black entertainers who used rap as a vehicle for their activism than to distract the public from seriously considering the politics of any rapper, let alone one with questionable ethics and a deteriorating state of mental health.
Nevertheless, Congressman Delgado’s refusal to disavow his rap career is a testament to the viability of rappers as politicians. In 2018 and beyond, a rap career can no longer serves as an impediment to electoral consideration. We’re at a moment of national reckoning when the politicians of old are becoming increasingly unpalatable. Black folk across the nation, often sustained and inspired by the rap music that serves as the soundtrack to their lives, need new voices to represent their interests at every level of government.
The country is primed for rappers to begin stepping off the stage and onto the ballot. The choice is theirs to make.
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