Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Hip-Hop's Brand Loyalties

The post-election analysis I've read--and I've read a lot of post-election analysis--has been oddly silent on a theme well-represented in my inbox November 4 and 5: two emails from, two from JLM PR for Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Action Network. In a JLM sentence lifted whole by several blogs and closely paraphrased by allhiphop:

Exit polls across the country indicate that the largest constituency contributing to Senator Obama's victory are 18-35 year olds who are brand loyal to Hip-Hop culture.

Stop wincing at the syntax and the shameless marketing-speak that pervades so much hip-hop discourse and think about it. Not all of the President-elect's six-million-and-counting plurality can be attributed to "Hip-Hop culture." But if you'll permit me to approximate the figures from memory (most of them absorbed at, the youth vote was up one percent and went twenty points more Democratic, the black vote was up two percent and went five points more Democratic. Once it is granted that the hip-hop audience is far from exclusively black, hip-hop activists can in fact claim a major role in Obama's victory.

As with Rock the Vote, hip-hop activism goes back some, to the early years of Bush's reign, and hip-hop journalists have been a big part of it. Source co-founder James Bernard was executive coordinator of the Project Forum on Race and Democracy for the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2003, retired journo William Upski Wimsatt founded the League of Pissed-Off Voters (now, sadly, the League of Young Voters). Elizabeth Mendez Berry and Jeff Chang, two of the best writers hip-hop has produced, were working hard with and on the Hip-Hop Action Network in 2004. But Obama obviously has more traction with this cohort than John Kerry, and in 2008 very few its members followed the lead of hip-hop activist Rosa Clemente, who ran for veep on the Green ticket. Remember Bruce and R.E.M. doing their Kerry tour in 2004? The oddly less publicized equivalent was, to quote JLM, the "18-city RESPECT MY VOTE! Get Out The Vote Bus Tour," in which such headliners as recently released felon T.I. and street dealer turned supermogul Jay-Z hit 18 cities urging fans to register and vote--ending up in Toledo and then Detroit on November 4. On November 3, unrepentant crack dealer (he says) and platinum hip-hopper (that's documented) Young Jeezy, who had already spearheaded a registration drive in Atlanta, took advantage of Georgia's early-voting option by standing in line for two hours in Adamsville, then went and phonebanked for Obama. Anyone who thinks that means he's reformed should check out two tracks on his current album, aptly entitled The Recession: "What They Want," about the marketplace, and "Mr. President," about what Obama can and can't do.

The part of me that's permanently fed up with genteel culture, which is far from exclusively white, is tickled by all of this. I'm a known opponent of the gangsta myth that the street and the hood are defined by gat-wielding dope peddlers, much less that they're hard-working romantic heroes of unlimited sexual capacities and respect for their mamas. But because I listen to a good deal of the relevant music, I know that there's content and truth in those myths--as for that matter does Barack Obama, on record as a sometime admirer of Jay-Z. How the gangsta rap world responds to a black president with a moral vision that in the end is rather more severe than that of, for instance, George W. Bush, should prove a fascinating ongoing story not always as encouraging as you might hope from this superb piece of reporting by published online at Vibe by Jeff Chang. But in the meantime, genteel culturati should try to absorb the fact that gangsta almost certainly played a larger role in getting a genuine intellectual elected president than they did.

Hip-hop partisans, however, have a postscript to consider. Not every election result in November 4 was humane, and for all the congressional stuff that went the wrong way (begone, Jean Schmidt and Michele Bachmann), the one that hurt me the most was the success of Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage in California. This defeat for tolerance has a racial component. Farhad Manjoo did a pretty good piece about it at Slate, and here's Andrew Sullivan's initial post:

Prop 8 Exit Polls

They show a narrow victory for marriage equality: 52 to 48. Every ethnic group supported marriage equality, except African-Americans, who voted overwhelmingly against extending to gay people the civil rights once denied them: a staggering 69 - 31 percent African-American margin against marriage equality. That's worse than even I expected. Whites, on the other hand, clearly rejected discrimination: 55 to 45 percent. Latinos were evenly split. But what matters, of course, is the margin of all the votes. It's still an exit poll, and those polls sometimes under-estimate anti-gay sentiment. So no assurance. But some provisional hope. If marriage endures in California, this debate is over - in America and the world.

Oh, and there was no gender gap. And a massive generation gap: the under-30s voted for marriage equality by 67 to 31 percent. The over 65s voted for discrimination by 57 - 43 percent.

Insofar as the hip-hop audience is generational, you can say that this doesn't look so bad. But the raw fact is that hip-hop's record on homosexuality is abysmal. It is hip-hop that has taken a prejudice present in African-American culture and jacked it into some kind of cross between an ideology and a tic--the use of the word "faggot" as an insult in high school (and younger) culture, which was damn near universal a few years ago though I get the sense it's fallen off slightly the way slang does, was the direct result of the free use of that word in hip-hop (cf. "gangsta" and of course "nigga," and maybe the falloff can be attributed to a parallel falloff in the music). The hip-hop activists I've named combat this, and lately a few name hip-hoppers--Kanye West comes to mind--have explicitly dissented. But it hasn't been enough.

This kind of thing is why so many culturati prefer to remain genteel.


By Carola Dibbell on November 8, 2008 10:18 AM

It's my impression that quite a few older white professionals did serious campaign work for Obama. Didn't ask them what they were listening to, it's true. Except you.

By Elizabeth Mendez Berry on November 10, 2008 7:45 PM

Interesting piece, but FYI, I did not work with the Hip Hop Summit Action Network.

By steve on November 11, 2008 11:54 AM

Saying there is a racial component to Prop. 8's defeat is wrong-headed. The driving force behind homophobia is, no suprise, religion. The Baptist religion is prominent among African-Americans, Catholicism among Latinos, and such conservative religions are (proportionately speaking; obviously there are more white Christians througout the country) prominent among those two racial/ethnic groups.

Let's say we removed the religious component. Simply put, there's no way those poll numbers would look as they do now. It is absolutely absurd to address this issue as if there was something inherent about being African-American (or Latino) that makes them homophobic.

And what if African-Americans and Latinos voted in the same proportions? There still wouldn't have been enough votes to defeat Proposition 8. There aren't enough of them to have made a difference one way or the other, especially not African-Americans who only made up 10% of the voters.

As for the prejudice within hip-hop music and hip-hop culture, can't we say the same for country music and culture? It doesn't seem like we're making much inroads in Tennessee, either.

Homophobia among African-Americans is a serious issue that must be addressed. I entirely agree with this. But the basis for African-American homophobia is no different from white homophobia. Almost all of it finds its roots in religion. Naturally, homophobia is as diverse as America is, what with our wide range of cultures and divisions. But let's make no mistake about it. It all comes down to hate-mongering churches.

By Jones on November 11, 2008 2:15 PM

Reactionary as the previous comment finds prejudice, and supposing Steve approaches Prop 8 statistics outside the context of the article, Christgau's generalizations, that they are of 'hip-hop culture' and not of racialist verbalization, contain a fundamentally cultural rather than 'racial component.'

By Robert Christgau on November 13, 2008 9:29 PM

Carola Dibbell, my wife and chief professional associate, edits most of my published writing, but due to the cram-it-out nature of blogging, not at ARTicles. Her comment illustrates why this isn't a best practice. Absolutely older white professionals did a great deal of serious campaign work for Obama. In Alexandria, Virginia, where I put in four and two halves days and she put in one and a half, most of my fellow canvassers were middle-aged folks with a genteel-culture aura. The point I didn't make clearly enough had to do with turnout. Those people would have voted for Obama just as they most certainly did for Kerry. The hip-hop vote was new--alienated younger people both black and white who'd never before bothered with the democratic sacrament of voting. As for Liz Berry, she's of course right--it was the League of Pissed-Off/Young Voters; I edited a piece she wrote about it. But Jeff Chang (who just won a writing fellowship from the Ford Foundation, hey hey) tells me that he did in fact participate in Hip-Hop Action events, albeit not in any official capacity. Steve's comment requires a post of its own, though I was pleased that Jones noticed that I was talking about culture, not race.

Articles, Nov. 11, 2008

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