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Barack Obama gets name-dropped in hip-hop

  • Story Highlights
  • Vibe magazine puts Obama on its cover over headline "It's Obama Time"
  • Senator's name is dropped into at least two popular singles this summer
  • Some in hip-hop community are critical, others say Obama young and fresh
  • Obama has complicated relationship with rap music industry
  • Next Article in Politics »
By Peter Hamby
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Vibe magazine has dubbed him "B-Rock." He's getting shout-outs in some of the most popular hip-hop singles of the summer. He's even had a high-profile meeting with Ludacris.


Vibe magazine, one of the leading publications covering hip-hop, put Obama on its cover over the headline "It's Obama Time."

Barack Obama might not be leading the Democratic presidential field in national polls, but the freshman senator has managed to capture the imagination of the hip-hop community, comprised mostly of rap artists, music industry professionals, activists and young fans of all races.

Despite Obama's sometimes critical opinion of rap music, the candidate's name is being dropped on iPods, car stereos and music Web sites across the country.

Take one of the summer's biggest songs: In his new single "The People," Common uses the lyric: "My raps ignite the people like Obama," while the song's music video flashes on an "Obama '08" bumper sticker.

"He's fresh, you know, he's got good style," Common told CNN. "As far as people in my age group and people that love hip-hop, there's a love for Obama. He represents progress. He represents what hip-hop is about. Hip-hop is about progress, the struggle."

Then there's "Say Something," a new track from the popular Brooklyn-based lyricist Talib Kweli, who raps: "Speak to the people like Barack Obama."

Those references follow a song from Asian-American rapper Jin, who recently penned an up-tempo song called "Open Letter 2 Obama" that's garnered more than 320,000 hits on Jin's MySpace page.

Jin's song is so popular online that the Obama campaign is offering it as a free cell phone ring-tone on its Web site, and Obama was introduced with the song before his speech to the College Democrats National Convention in South Carolina in July.

Part of Obama's hip-hop appeal is simply cosmetic -- he is young and African-American.

It also doesn't hurt that his name just works better in a rhyming verse than, say, "Kucinich."

"More than anything his name is a nugget of lyrical gold," said Kweli. "It sounds like a gunshot going off ... Obama rhymes with a lot of things."

Kweli told CNN that Obama, 46, is a "refreshing face like [Muhammad] Ali in '63" and that among Kweli's friends, Obama would win a presidential poll overwhelmingly. Kweli, who said he hasn't voted in years and may not vote in 2008 because he believes the political system is broken, explained why Obama has piqued his interest.

"His youth, his being black, the way that he speaks, the way that he lays out his point of view," Kweli said. "It's someone who looks more like you. I don't mean black, but I mean the young thing. And his name is Barack Obama. This country is become more and more multicultural."

Asked if the senator listens to hip-hop, campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki directed CNN to a June 27 interview he gave to New York City radio station Hot 97.

"I'm old school, so generally, generally, I'm more of a jazz guy, a Miles Davis, a John Coltrane guy, more of a Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder kind of guy," Obama said in the interview. "But having said that, I'm current enough that on my iPod I've got a little bit of Jay-Z. I've got a little Beyonce."

It's unclear if Obama's emergence as a hip-hop byword will have any mobilizing effect on young voters or among African-Americans, a demographic he is working hard to cultivate, especially in South Carolina, a crucial early primary where state partly leaders say blacks could make up half of Democratic voters.

What's more likely is that opponents would try to turn Obama's relationship with hip-hop -- however tenuous it might be -- into a cultural wedge issue in a general election were Obama to win the nomination.

The tactic has been used on the campaign trail before. In his 1992 bid for the White House, Bill Clinton blasted recording artist Sister Souljah over her controversial remarks on racial violence, a move designed to appeal to centrist voters.

Fifteen years later, rap music is still a lightning rod in the culture wars, and Obama might be reluctant to embrace hip-hop in the same way hip-hop is embracing him.

"He might say something I don't agree with, that definitely might happen," Kweli said. "But whatever. It just depends on what it is. ... I think Hillary Clinton voting to go to war is a bigger mistake than Bill Clinton saying something bad about Sister Souljah."

Since declaring his candidacy, Obama has maintained a complicated relationship with rap music.

He has criticized the industry on several occasions for failing to recognize the power it holds over young people. His criticism has also frustrated some artists, bloggers, and even music executives, proving that despite all the attention he is getting in song lyrics, Obama can't assume the hip-hop world has his back.

In April, in the midst of the controversy surrounding radio host Don Imus, Obama was quoted by The Associated Press as saying rappers also bear some responsibility for degrading language.

Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam records, responded in the New York Times magazine, calling Obama a "mouse, too, like everybody else," and saying that instead of reforming rap lyrics, "What we need to reform is the conditions that create these lyrics. Obama needs to reform the conditions of poverty."

In the September issue of Vibe, one of the hip-hop industry's leading publications, Obama agreed with some of Simmons' criticism but stressed that rap music's influence is undeniable.

"So yes, my job is to focus on poverty, education, health care, but I think we have to acknowledge the power of culture in affecting how our kids see themselves and the decisions they make," Obama told the magazine, which put the presidential candidate on its cover above the headline: "It's Obama Time."

Common, who hails from Obama's hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and also attends Obama's church, Trinity United Church of Christ, said he is willing to accept some criticism of hip-hop as long as Obama wins.

"If you're really supporting somebody, you're not looking for something back all the time," said Common. "He'd do best just getting elected and going in there and doing well, that's the best way he can give back to us. We don't need him to be at the concerts."

Both Common and Kweli bristled at one question that Obama's faced at recent presidential forums and debates: whether the candidate is "black enough."


"It's a horrible question," Kweli said. "It's very divisive. It divides us. Obviously that man is black. I think it's utterly ridiculous."

Common laughed and said, "He looks black to me." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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