On the cusp of the historically worst election in history, the Clinton campaign held a rally in Cleveland highlighted by some of the biggest names in the game today. Beyoncé, J. Cole, Jay Z, Big Sean, and Chance the Rapper. This kind of hip hop-politics crossover is increasingly common, but it appears, ultimately useless.
The event, while not unprecedented — even though much of this election was — predictably drew nods from a frothing media desperate for a headline. But the question I’m left with, is… what the hell are they doing up there?
The first hip hop song I ever loved was “Show Me Something” by J. Cole, one of last night’s performers. The Warm Up, J. Cole’s second mixtape and arguably one of his best projects, released in 2009 about six months after Barry O took the reins.
By then, the transformation was well under way. Jay Z was stumping for Obama in November, days before his first presidential victory in 2008. He would go on to sign J. Cole as the first non-Jay Z-still-J-lettered artist to the Roc Nation label, a stable that has grown to include Big Sean, Demi Lovato, Kanye West, and many more. In many ways, J. Cole is a cog of the music-politics alliance.
Since then, much has changed for our hero, namely that he made it up onto a stage next to Jay Z and Hilldawg. And, that she’s up on the stage with either of them.
Even more has changed in how we perceive our politicians. I don’t mean in the throwing tomatoes, “hey, look at this piece of shit” way. Rappers didn’t get up on stage and stump for their favorite candidate. Non-politicians didn’t get elected to office, and even former actors becoming presidents developed resumes worthy of the office on the way.
If anything, artists stumping had a recent history of disaster, though not from the rap world: Clint Eastwood talked to a goddamn chair on national TV for so long it made a group of despicable folks — don’t worry, it took them four years to peak — looking for the door.
Now, hip hop is unquestionably mainstream, and we have Obama to thank, in large part. Like Nixon starting detente with the Soviet Union, a white politician could not have mustered up support from every level of the black community. And Clinton benefitted from the relationship after the fact, even if she didn’t win.
The success of the genre plays a role too. Gone are Clinton’s days of quietly labeling black youth superpredators, or all of white America shitting on N.W.A for a song called “Fuck Tha Police”. Now, she stands next to the very type of people she once might have spurned.
This titanic team even drew ire from He Who Cannot Be Trumped, proclaiming he doesn’t need their support. And to the awe of about half the country, and delight of the other, he was right. No eleventh hour celebrity support was saving Clinton.
So hip hop is in a weird place. Guys out in Chicago grind their way to the top, mingling their music with their gangs and endangering themselves in the process. Icons like Jay Z and J. Cole walk in the limelight on the other end of the spectrum. It’s hard to tell if their involvement has a political effect, but to the seedy machine, it’s better to be safe than lose an election.