Obama & Hip Hop: The Transracial Drumbeat

Adam Bradley is talking about the President of Flow — about how 30 years of hip-hop (“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world”) laid down the rhyme-and-rhythm track for the Age of Obama. Add this to the open-source mix of Obama ingredients, along with the “black prophetic tradition” of church and civil-rights history:

Part of it is that sense of swagger… the confidence with which Barack Obama carries himself and the fluency he brings, across racial lines… You listen to Barack Obama’s speeches from 2004, and you hear consistently the drumbeat of the common good, a broader understanding of race.

So that dogged trans-racialism — I am not going to say that he is post-racial, because he is very much someone who takes us deeper into race, rather than away from it — defies some of the binary ideas of Black and White that a lot of black political figures over the last several generations have used to consolidate power. That is his “threat,” and maybe also a place we can see him picking up on hip-hop, a movement that has on it a clear association with black identity, but from its birth, was multi-racial, was about community across racial lines: Latinos, White hipsters of lower Manhattan coming together with hip-hoppers to create this new form.

There is a new American reality out there. We’re only starting to catch up with hip-hop in that regard. We are just catching up to where hip-hop has already been. Barack Obama manifests that.

Jay-Z has a line on that song, “My President is Black,” in which he says, “My president is black/ in fact he’s half white/ So even in a racist’s mind he’s half right/ So even if you got a racist mind its alright/ My president is black but his house is all white.” There is so much joy in that, and so much behind the correction that Jay-Z is giving to Young Jeezy’s line of “my president is black.” Adding that half-white element is so fundamental to understanding how Obama works.

A lot of people, Shelby Steele in particular, have thought about Obama as a kind of bargainer — a Bill Cosby, or better yet, a Heathcliff Huxtable for American politics in the twenty-first century: someone who is identifiably black and yet curries favor with whites, or at least makes them comfortable and unburdens them of some of their sense of guilt… I think that this misses some of what Obama does and what Obama can do in part because of his biraciality. There is a way that he has the capacity to bridge the divide, not in an artificial way of placation, but as a genuine embodiment of himself. Because he has already had to do that in his own life, his own personality.

Ralph Ellison has that phrase, “the completion of personality.” What we have seen, and we are able to witness it in [Obama’s] memoir, Dreams From My Father, in particular, is a child of mixed racial origins and a lot of mixed connections with the Black and African sides of his origin, nonetheless finding his way, stumbling his way, toward a sense of wholeness. And maybe, just maybe, he can help this country do the same thing.

Adam Bradley in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 11, 2009

Adam Bradley makes a polished case for the rough diamonds of rap and hip hop. It’s “new-school music but old-school poetry,” he says, solidly founded not only on African oral tradition, black “signifying” and word-play artists like Muhammad Ali (“the first heavyweight champion of rap”) but also on the ancient sounds of strong-stress English poetry back to Beowulf.

Bradley was raised both classical and hip: home-schooled in Salt Lake City by a grandmother who fed him Shelley and the Romantic poets; and night-schooled by a big brother who led him through town. In his Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, you can feel Bradley’s valiant drive to justify the sound of rap to two exacting influences: the queen mother of “close reading” who taught him at Harvard, Helen Vendler; and the fussiest of all authorities on jazz, Ralph Ellison, whose posthumous novel Three Days Before the Shooting Adam Bradley had a large hand in re-editing. Bradley wants to show the rest of us how to hear hip hop as, love it or not, the poetry that speaks for and about the real universal civilization of the 21st Century…

My big question is still: what’s the chance that hip hop will return to us someday as art of genius, with the majesty of Count Basie in Sweden in 1962? Or this recent rearrangement by a string quartet in Paris of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” from 1959?

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  • jazzman

    Chris asks: What’s the chance that hip hop will return to us someday as art of genius, with the majesty of Count Basie in Sweden in 1962? Or this recent rearrangement by a string quartet in Paris of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” from 1959?

    I’d say if the “art of genius” sobriquet is applied as in the cited examples and primarily to the music of CB or Miles’ compositions then I doubt that today’s rhythmic sampling or remix ganks would hold up in comparison. If the art is to be standalone poetry, possibly, though the grandeur of the English language is infinitesimally represented in the genre. The strong rhythmic component lends itself to trance dance and occasionally I find the sampling interesting (Jump Around etc.) but monotonous.

    If it is to be hailed as a hybrid art composed of violent images and rearranged samples meant to provoke and engender the gamut of emotional reactions then it could be considered ART (Hi Potter) but such ART is created in the ear of the behearer and IMO doesn’t evoke the artistic emotions in me (and I’ll wager many) that Basie or Miles does.

    It is of passing interest (at least to me) that Miles Davis’s final studio CD, Doo-Bop was a Hip-Hop flavored offering (I kinda like it – but it is far more harmonically musical than modern Hip-Hop) and if he’d lived long enough, it’s possible that he would have changed jazz music once more from the 4 or 5 changes he already pioneered.

    Peace to ALL,

    Jazzman

  • Thanks, and peace to you, beloved Jazzman.

    I was thinking of Emerson’s resonant line in Self-Reliance:

    “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

    I think this is the feeling behind Adam Bradley’s case for Hip Hop. No?

  • mbrooks

    Feeling very vindicated in my white boy 12-year hip-hop love affair. I was in Ankara Turkey for the last couple of months of the seemingly endless democratic primary. Political junkie that I am I would slip into one of the many Internet Cafes and drink up the latest campaign news. One day I remember catching on youtube an Obama speech where brushed his shoulder off in response to Hilary’s latest broadside. That is Hip Hop. Beautiful.

    You guys never got to Nas. He is unbelievable. Nas stand out as an unavoidable leader in the genre who really might join Ellington, Davis and the other greats who have earned posterity. It’s something like listening to folk music without Pete Seeger to not get a hold of this album. I recommend Illmatic Nas’s debut. The subject matter is familiar, but Nas’s distinctive voice is journalistic, a chronicler of a rough neighborhood in Queens in the early 1990s. More recently when Nas teamed with his Dad renowned Jazz player Olu Dara for Bridging the Gap Nas made clear his love, embrace and living appreciation of the musical cultural continuum that Hip Hop arises from. “The blues came from gospel, gospel from blues Slaves are harmonizin’ them ah’s and ooh’s.” That is history, education and living communion.

    Thanks for another great exploration.

  • nother

    Thanks for keeping it real with this conversation. Since DJ Kool Herc, Hip-hop has been a clamor for authenticity through a collective statement of individuality. Because “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

    -Ralph Ellison

    In the same way black youth co-opted the N-word that had been used to deride them – they glamorized the ghetto that had been afforded them. They’ve been playing the cards they were dealt to full tilt – no matter that the dealer was using a marked deck.

    “Considered a fool ’cause I dropped out of high school

    Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood

    And it’s still all good”

    -Biggie Smalls

    Biggie’s response to his critics was that he was simply a narrator telling a true story and “you can’t hide reality.”

    Well, as a humble blogger, I gotta be real, and the reality is different now than it was in 98 – at the height of hip hop.

    “Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game

    Reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business

    If it got where it started

    So we all gather here for the dearly departed”

    -Nas from his song and album “Hip-Hop is Dead.

    Barak Obama is the both the end and the fruition of hip-hop as we know it. It’s a time for change in music as well as politics. Hip-hop will still fuel music for years to come, it just won’t be driving the car (Bentley).

    I’m glad Chris played the song Jai Ho. Because it’s a good example of where we are going. Music make up of as many parts as Obama himself.

    Oh yea, Biggie said that his secret was playing old smooth tracks for the adults, layered with new lyrics that the youth can relate to. Here is an example of Ice Cube doing this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4RY-eJgHHs

  • nother

    I do have a quibble though (blogging = quibbling). When discussing the sexism in hip-hop, Mr. Bradley says that the thing to do is ingest the poison with the art. My response would be it’s easy to say you would ingest poison when the poison has not been intended for you. Is that not akin to me as a white man saying that we should accept the racism of Don Imus because he is funny?

    When will we get to a point that sexism is on par with racism?

  • Sorry – can’t buy this … if art is only a reflection of culture then it is on the level of propaganda or advertising. Sugar coating macho swag and misogyny with style only makes the message more virulent. This is like promoting artistic pornography for children.