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What hip hop tells us about President Obama
01:49 - Source: CNN

CNN gained unique access inside the White House to document President Obama’s final days. Watch “The End: Inside the Last Days of the Obama White House” Wednesday at 9P ET/PT.

Story highlights

Hip-hop lyrics reveal a divide on whether Barack Obama did enough to uplift black America

Obama is viewed as both the representative of and a victim of the American establishment

Washington CNN  — 

While evaluations of President Barack Obama vary widely in various subsets of black America, hundreds of Obama mentions in hip-hop over the last nine years show that the immediate legacy of the first black president will not only be shaped by his accomplishments, but by the challenges he faced and by the policies of presidents yet to come, who could either advance his work, or dismantle it.

A CNN analysis of Obama mentions in song lyrics reveals a divide in hip-hop over whether Obama did enough to uplift black America. A particular artist’s opinion of the first black President is tempered by the their mistrust or acceptance of establishment politics.

Lyrics that came out between 2007-2016 chronicle the idealism of 2008, the disappointment that followed, the pride that transcends politics and how the nation’s first black president and the rise of his successor, Donald Trump, forced America to confront its ongoing struggle for racial justice.

Common reflects on black America, Obama’s legacy and the silver lining of Trump

Evaluations of Obama are often shaped by whether the artist is part of mainstream hip-hop or the counterculture, and whether the artist is assessing Obama “as a leader of the free world” or as a revolutionary leader who was expected to “bring about radical change,” Bakari Kitwana, the Executive Director of Rap Sessions, told CNN.

‘When I think that I can’t, I envision Obama’

“My President (is black)” by Young Jeezy was released in 2008 amid the worst economic downturn the US had seen since the Great Depression. But the promise of “hope and change” was in the air and this pro-Obama anthem captures the sense of triumph and hope that many black Americans felt during Obama’s rise.

The video features exuberant crowds with Obama posters, surrounded by names of iconic African American leaders, black children holding up newspapers announcing Obama’s win and a jubilant Rep. John Lewis, an early civil rights leader who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, waving a sign that reads, “My president is black.”

Jeezy gets political: Reflections on hope, change and Obama

“I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds of all races and colors to erase the hate and try to love one another,” Nas raps in the 2008 track, “Black President.”

Chicago rapper Common, who was invited to the White House and has remained one of Obama’s most loyal supporters, paid tribute to the incoming President in his 2007 song, “The People,” and his 2008 song “Changes.”

And once Obama took office, Brooklyn rapper Maino released “All the Above,” chronicling the rapper’s struggles through a rough childhood, a painful life on the streets and his eventual incarceration:

“You’ve been seeing me lately, I’m a miracle baby/ I refuse to lose, this what the ghetto done made me/ I put that on my father, trying to hope for tomorrow/ When I think that I can’t, I envision Obama.”

‘I ain’t see no change’

As Obama’s first term in office came to an end and partisan politics kept Congress deadlocked, poverty and hardships endured in the inner cities and the prospects of change seemed dim.

“Button on his lapel, picture of Obama/ Four years later we stuck in the same drama,” Brooklyn rapper GZA raps in Wu Block’s 2012 song, “Ridin’ Round.”

And in October 2015, Jeezy strikes a darker tone in “Streetz” – a track off his “Politically Correct” EP that touches on issues like mass incarceration and street violence.

“Seen a black president, I ain’t see no change tho/ They say street life numb ya, all I feel is pain tho,” Jeezy raps. “… All the good jobs firin, ups ain’t hiring/ Man this stress getting tiring in these streets.”

The video takes place in a cemetery, as names of those killed by street violence flash across the screen.

“When we talk about Obama not being able to do enough for black people, a part of the problem is that the needs are so great,” Kitwana said. “… These issues are so huge that it would be impossible for him to solely focus on those things without getting push back from the right.”

Obama, who has commuted the sentences of 1,000 inmates to date – more than the past 11 presidents combined, made criminal justice reform more of a focus during his second term in office, promoting new initiatives to rehabilitate former prison inmates, commuting sentences of non-violent drug offenders and becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

Jeezy told CNN in November 2015 that while he would have “gone much further” on issues like criminal justice reform, Obama’s efforts are “better late than never.”

“I think that’s a great gesture by Obama … and that’s the beginning of some type of slight change,” he added.

‘Why it took 3 days for Obama to respond?’

Chicago rapper Vic Mensa told CNN that while representing black people “was not necessarily his job,” Obama “could have been a lot more vocally sympathetic” to issues that impact black America.

Lyrics show that Obama was criticized for not speaking out on race and racism, particularly on the issue of police brutality, which gained mainstream media attention following the 2014 police shooting death of unarmed Missouri teenager Michael Brown, which sparked an uprising in Ferguson and fueled the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Vic Mensa Obama quote graphic

“People saw Obama go and speak about Sandy Hook when young people were killed and then they saw Mike Brown get shot in broad daylight and the president didn’t say anything,” Kitwana said. “That hurt a lot of people.”

Over the last two years, the Justice Department, headed by Obama-appointed Attorney General Loretta Lynch, launched several investigations into police departments around the nation, including Ferguson, revealing patterns of racial discrimination in policing.

“We haven’t been convicting police officers for their murders,” Mensa said.

“If Obama was to address it he would give you 45 seconds of why we need to respect our officers and give you 15 seconds about how they might be going wrong, and that’s not an honest assessment of the situation,” he added.

In The Game’s 2016 song, “Let Me Know,” the rapper slams Obama’s silence following the July police shooting death of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, rapping, “Why it take 3 days for Obama to respond? Cause Minnesota 3 days from the White House lawn.”

Long Beach rapper Crooked I told CNN that while he was heart broken by the President’s silence on the 2014 police shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Obama was often “backed into a corner” on issues of race.

This was demonstrated by the intense backlash leveled against him following his response to the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed teenager from Sanford, Florida.

Obama was accused by Republicans, from Rush Limbaugh to Newt Gingrich, of inciting racial divisions following his heartfelt message to Martin’s parents, where he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

“When Obama said Trayvon resembled ‘em/ Nobody hurried to arrest George Zimmerman,” Brooklyn rapper Papoose raps in the 2012 song, “Crooklyn Remake.” “It’s not black and white it’s not a contest/ It’s just wrong and right.”

‘Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters’

While Obama rose to become the leader of the free world, lyrics show that he was simultaneously viewed as a victim of the American establishment and as a mouthpiece for a capitalistic, imperialist superpower that has kept people of color down.

“The Republicans said on day-one … they’re going to make him a one-term president, and that they’re going to give him hell,” Crooked I said. “I’ve never seen a person of power get treated like that … that would have never happened to a white president.”

New York rapper stic.man of the hip-hop duo Dead Prez warns in the 2008 song “Politrikkks,” that “it’s still white power, it’s the same system, just changed form … Even if Obama wins, Uncle Sam ain’t my friend.”

Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, an establishment critic who backed Bernie Sanders in 2016, echoes a similar sentiment in his 2012 song “Reagan,” rapping that Obama is “just an employee of the country’s real masters.”

“Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor/ Just an employee of the country’s real masters,” Killer Mike raps, criticizing American militarism and the war on drugs. “Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama/ Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters.”

In his 2013 song “Progressive 3,” which slams mass incarceration, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples proclaims that Obama has no real power.

“The black and brown been going through a holocaust/ You see Obama just a house n**** to me,” Staples raps. “They locked the children up in prison and they ditching the key.”

And in The Game’s 2014 song “Don’t Shoot,” Swizz Beatz touches on the racism Obama experienced, rapping, “They don’t really respect Obama out here.”

‘(Trump) got me appreciatin’ Obama way more’

But as hip-hop braces for a Trump presidency, lyrics shows that Trump’s rise has already begun to have an impact on how Obama is viewed.

“(Trump) can’t make decisions for this country, he gon’ crash us/ No, we can’t be a slave for him/ He got me appreciatin’ Obama way more,” Compton rapper YG raps in the 2016 anti-Trump anthem “FDT,” which stands for “F*** Donald Trump.”

Hip-hop entrepreneur Karen Civil, who was invited to speak at the White House by the first lady, told CNN that the Obamas made it possible for people of color to have a seat at the table because they are “connected to society.”

Civil fears that in a Trump White House this will change.

“I know I’ll never be able to sit in that room. I know it will go back to sitting in the back of the bus,” she said.

In his 2016 song, “The Day the Women Took Over,” Common hails black women leaders, rapping, “Mothers get medals for being courageous soldiers/ On dollars, it’s Michelle Obama, Oprah and Rosa.”

Hip-hop lyrics show that as first lady, Michelle Obama was more insulated from political critiques than her husband.

“A bar has been raised by Michelle Obama for what we expect out of the first lady,” Rapper and singer Lizzo told CNN. “She’s like the Beyonce of first ladies … If people don’t’ like Obama, they love Michelle.”

‘My President was Black’

As Obama leaves office, he also leaves behind images that for many in the hip-hop community, remain powerful and profound.

From the time a young black boy touched the President’s hair, realizing it felt like his own, to the time 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin, who waited her whole life to see a black president, was moved to dance in the White House upon meeting the Obamas, there is an enduring sense of pride and hope that transcends politics.

This pride is captured in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2016 essay, “My President Was Black:”

Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a visit to the Oval Office in May 2009. The boy wanted to know if Obama's hair felt like his.

“… I also knew that the man who could not countenance such a thing in his America had been responsible for the only time in my life when I felt, as the first lady had once said, proud of my country,” he writes. “… The feeling was that little black boy touching the president’s hair. It was watching Obama on the campaign trail, always expecting the worst and amazed that the worst never happened. It was how I’d felt seeing Barack and Michelle during the inauguration, the car slow-dragging down Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd cheering, and then the two of them rising up out of the limo, rising up from fear, smiling, waving, defying despair, defying history, defying gravity.”

And Jeezy, whose lyrics are both reminiscent of the idealism of 2008 and the disappointment that followed, still maintains that Obama “gave us hope.”

The Atlanta rapper told Genius during Obama’s last month in office that Obama “led by perfect example. He showed people how to move as a unit, and be a family, and strive.”

Common Obama quote graphic

Common, who reflects on the state of black America in his 2016 album, “Black America … Again,” expressed a profound sense of pride in the nation’s first black president:

“(Obama) provided the scope of what a black man can be … how much depth and intelligence and resolve and courage and compassion and strength and humanity we have as black people. He’s been a shining example and that’s been a beacon for us,” Common told CNN. “… As a black man, I know that he has represented black people in a beautiful way. and we thank him for all his hard work, his commitment, his heart and his spirit.”