It’s been nearly a week since Illinois senator Barack Obama concluded an inspiring run for president of the United States by beating Arizona senator John McCain in the 2008 election. It’s clear that the global community as a whole have responded happily to his improbable victory.
Although Obama tribute songs have become the the new “A Milli” (as 2dopeboyz.com accurately put it, referring to the avalanche of remixes generated by Lil Wayne’s “A Milli”), however, not everyone has responded to this historic moment with unqualified joy. Many artists, critics and activists, while aware of the importance of Obama becoming the first African-American — and the first biracial — president of the United States, as well as the first black man to head a major Western nation in centuries, have cautioned against losing sight of the many problems that still plague American society. And a handful of others have argued that Obama may occupy the executive office, but he’s part of a political system that has fundamental problems one man can’t overcome.
Mere moments after the various broadcast networks projected Obama as the winner at roughly 11 p.m. November 4, JLM PR, a publicity firm that represents Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.’s Hip-Hop Caucus, sent out a series of press releases. The first was titled “The Hip-Hop Vote Propels Barack Obama To The White House.”
“Tonight, the hip-hop generation made history,” emphasized Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr, President of the Hip Hop Caucus. “In the 60’s, young people had to be revolutionary, but in the 21st century we have decided to be ‘solution-ary.’ We have come out in large numbers to not only change America, but to change the world. We have made America respect our vote!”
“What we are witnessing today is the game changing impact of the hip-hop vote,” asserted Valeisha Butterfield, Executive Director of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN). “Our grassroots efforts to get out the vote paid off tremendously. Young adults from every part of the United States shattered all records and expectations. I’m so proud of my generation stepping up to the plate.”
“Tonight, we all witnessed the transformation of American society,” declared Dr. Benjamin Chavis, President/CEO of HSAN. “The early results of the presidential election verifies that the hip-hop generation is a responsible and caring generation. Hip-hop artists and icons, male and female, all worked hard to make sure the issues and the interests of young people were represented. President Elect Obama now has a serious mandate from the hip-hop generation. Hip-hop transcends race and will continue to be a force for change, not only in America, but also throughout the world.”
The vision of the hip-hop generation and its young people is in full and glorious effect tonight. While many older Americans, who marched and struggled so hard so Senator Obama could run for president of the United States never dared to believe in his candidacy’s real potential, young people, particularly the hip-hop community, had faith and their imagination became our reality.
HSAN and the Hip Hop Caucus were not the only observers who claimed that the hip-hop generation — or young urban people of color — were a key factor in delivering Obama the White House. The now-president-elect claimed other key constituencies, as Jeff Chang wrote in his “Zentronix” blog on Vibe.com:
As soon as the polls closed in California, all of the networks called a landslide victory for Barack Obama. The margin was nowhere near close. In the popular vote, Obama beat McCain by nearly 6 million.
Over 90% of African Americans voted in record numbers for Obama. But he also won among women, split the white working class, and picked up a much larger number of white male voters than John Kerry had in 2004. Obama’s electoral college tally corresponded to his margin of victory among young people, Asian Americans, and Latinos: 2-1.
Most hip-hop artists — much like the rest of the country — rejoiced when Obama was elected. Typical of the response was MC Zion/Zumbi’s post on his group Zion-I’s website:
The spirit of the African is one that has been wounded, but cannot be broken. So, on Nov. 4th when Barack Obama became the first African American president, it was no wonder why I saw my folks jumping for joy and crying in the streets. Honestly, it was the first time that I saw black folks collectively happy since I went to the Million Man March in ‘95. It was the moment that our ancestors died for, what MLK lived for, and what we always dreamed of.
However, others delivered a more nuanced response. In a long but well-written essay titled “America’s Great Hope,” Immortal Technique placed Obama’s win against a larger backdrop of the ongoing struggle by activists for universal human rights:
November 4th I saw Black people in Harlem waving American flags proudly and loudly. I saw them painted red white and blue, chanting and cheering “USA, USA”. I saw cops shaking hands with brothers from the hood who hate cops. I saw white college students who have gentrified Harlem and the last of Harlem’s bulk of Black residents welcome them with open arms dancing in the streets because they were wearing Obama buttons or carrying Obama posters. He truly is a unifying force. He has changed the FACE of America, but now the question remains can he actually change America? Can he stop the war? …
Racism hasn’t disappeared and you can always tell a racist/ignorant person by their notion that because Obama is president that we live in a post racial America. It is a sign of progress, it is a great triumph for all people, (after all we forget Barack is half white too.) It is very inspirational, but inspiration alone doesn’t complete a crusade.
I am sometimes accused of being too serious, which fools mistake for negativity. No I just understand that now the idea of Reparations for Blacks in America will be completely off the table. The powerful will remain powerful, the rich will stay rich and we gain advancement only in serving other’s causes that we then accept as our own. He cannot change the past but he can change the future, and this more than anything is what I, and others are hoping he will be able to do expeditiously.
After all he only has 18 months from the time he is elected, until the next congressional election really gets into the swing of things, and Congress turn to the their own races. He will need to act quickly.
Immortal Technique’s essay hinted at some of the cynicism running through pockets of the progressive and pan-African movements. Many of them believe that his win means nothing, and will do little to tear down what they believe is an imperialist system. This debate has largely taken place outside the mainstream press, and through chat rooms, messageboards and email blasts.
Dead prez, for example, posted a new track to their MySpace page called “Politrikkks.” “Even if Obama wins/Uncle Sam ain’t my friend,” goes the chorus on this withering dismissal of Obama’s election bid. The duo even incorporates a Malcolm X speech into the mix. “Democrats and Republicans, just two sides of the same coin/Either way it’s still white power, it’s the same system just a changed form,” raps M-1.
Then Stic.man adds, “Billion dollar campaign, trillion dollar bailout/Anyone know the definition of a sellout/If Obama wins, he wouldn’t be the first black/Take your $2 bill and turn it over on the back.”
This is in reference to the appearance of John Hanson, who served as president of the Continental Congress from 1781-1782, on the $2 bill. Some, particularly the late comedian/activist Dick Gregory, have claimed that Hanson was of African descent.
On November 5, stic.man of dead prez used his MySpace page to send out an open letter from pan-African writer and activist Marimba Ani. In the piece (which I found archived on this blog, Cantholdmytongue.com), she argues that black support for Obama is part of an “assimilation” into a system that is designed to “destroy” them:
It is now Tuesday, November 4, 2008. Is this the final act of assimilation, accommodation, and integration? Is this how we are fulfilling our promise to the Ancestors? Has America made restitution for what was done to them, still being done to us? Is the Maafa over or has it merely morphed into another, more insidious form of genocide? Are we now experiencing a life-threatening condition of cultural AIDS in which our immune system has turned on itself? Has the Yurugu virus mutated so that it looks like us? Are we participating in our own destruction? …
We stopped organizing. We stopped confronting “the system.” We sent our sons to fight for u.s. monetary gain. We did not see value in self-determination, self-definition, and self-reliance for our people. …
So now we are “making history” by being swept up in someone else’s definition of what history is. We are “making history,” by capitulating to integration, accommodation, and assimilation.
Incidentally, Ani does not mention Obama’s name once during her essay.
Over on Huffingtonpost.com, Naomi Klein, an influential Canadian journalist whose brilliant expose The Shock Doctrine details the evolution of corporatist ideology and its impact on domestic and international affairs, seemed to promise retribution if Obama abandons progressive principles:
The question is now whether Obama will have the courage to take the ideas that won him this election and turn them into policy. Or, alternately, whether he will use the financial crisis to rationalize a move to what pundits call “the middle” (if there is one thing this election has proved, it is that the real middle is far to the left of its previously advertised address). Predictably, Obama is already coming under enormous pressure to break his election promises, particularly those relating to raising taxes on the wealthy and imposing real environmental regulations on polluters. All day on the business networks, we hear that, in light of the economic crisis, corporations need lower taxes, and fewer regulations – in other words, more of the same.
The new president’s only hope of resisting this campaign being waged by the elites is if the remarkable grassroots movement that carried him to victory can somehow stay energized, networked, mobilized – and most of all, critical. Now that the election has been won, this movement’s new mission should be clear: loudly holding Obama to his campaign promises, and letting the Democrats know that there will be consequences for betrayal.
The volley of criticism from the left is understandable considering that Obama made several compromises during his run for President. Notoriously, he voted to approve th Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) despite earlier promises that he wouldn’t. And as Klein noted on her website, Obama brought several free-market ideologues onto his election team — the same guys that helped foment the current global economic crisis.
However, some of the diversity in opinion is an inevitable result of the noise of the Internet age. With a 24-7 media apparatus in place, it makes sense that varied reactions to Obama would not only blow as hard as the wind, but also in a multitude of directions. As the New York Times pointed out, Obama faces considerable pressure to begin governing now, even though he will not actually be president for another two and a half months.
Bukue One, a rapper and hypeman for Del the Funky Homosapien who frequently uses Del’s MySpace page, sent out a MySpace bulletin congratulating Hieroglyphics fans for supporting Obama. (Hiero printed up a best-selling “Hier-Obama” T-shirt a few months before the election.) He was subsequently greeted by dozens of commenters arguing that Obama “is no different than Bush or McCain.” Somewhat exasperated, Bukue One responded:
OK. here’s a challenge. TO all my super doubter, “It’s all bad,” “there was no difference between clinton/bush/mc cain/obama folks,” first i’m wondering if you really don’t see a difference between the state of affairs during clinton’s administration vs bush’s? Second, i’ve heard some many people with the ability to find flaw and corruption. I wanna hear your solutions. What would you do? who would you pick? what form of government structure would have? communism?, socialism? I wanna hear solutions. YOu have the mic. If you feel we are all miseducated and hoodwinked and you care about us (your fellow hip hop fam and culture folks) Help us with your wisdom ideas and solutions. We can’t move forward with solely doubt and pointing out flaws.
Alternet’s transcription of Barack Obama’s victory speech: President Elect Obama: ‘Change Has Come to America’ (Yes. He. Did.)
Illustration by Shepard Fairey.