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?

Related Content