Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hip Hop & Politics: A Battle of Images

As the world looks back on Barack Obama's first year as President of the United States, it's easy to draw the conclusion that he doesn't have much to celebrate.

His health care bill has sparked a controversy that seems to be slowly eating the United States alive. He can barely get carbon cap-and-trade on the agenda. And despite his best attempt at a direct intervention, his party managed to lose the iconic Ted Kennedy's Senate seat when their candidate simply declined to campaign.

Things worth celebrating are few and far between for Obama. Even his Nobel Peace Prize threatened to reduce that noble institution to a complete sham when it dawned on the world that he hadn't yet earned it -- and the months since haven't gotten him much closer.

If Obama has anything to celebrate, however, it's an important moral victory: his Presidency may well re-shape black culture in the United States in a way that many had hoped, but few had dared actually imagine.

In Barack and Curtis: Manhood, Power and Respect, a number of commentators consider Obama's Presidency, and compare it to some of what many consider to be the conventional popular black culture: gangsta rap music.

Obama's Presidency may, to date, have floundered in the face of his own party's impotence. But whereas once upon a time many black youths may have believed the best they could hope for was to be a basketball player or a rapper, many of those youths will now grow up in a time where there has been a black President.

That so many rappers who otherwise would have had little to say about politics -- particularly individuals like Jay-Z and Ludacris -- worked so hard to help Obama become President even seems to suggest that many of those who won't profit from this change are ready to see it happen.

That's a very profound reality.

If many of the black youths growing up in impoverished neighbourhoods ever believed they could grow up to be President one day, those days are today.

Whatever Barack Obama does with his Presidency from this point forth, there is one thing he cannot afford to do: he cannot afford to not deliver on the promises he has made -- not merely to himself, but to an entire culture of people.

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