He's on fire in the streets. Kids and adults alike are wearing bootleg T-shirts emblazoned with his face and phrases. Approximately 95 percent of the hip-hop community is singing his praises. And yet his appeal is just as strong in other parts of the country and the world: His remarks resonate from Chicago to Compton, from Brooklyn's Marcy projects to Marseille, France.
In a scenario that would have been nearly impossible to imagine four years ago, we're talking about the Democratic candidate for president of the United States.
"He's gonna win," LL Cool J told MTV News matter of factly, as if the outcome of this fall's presidential election were already a foregone conclusion. "We need to support Barack Obama and his quest for the Oval Office."
"What [Obama] represents is, we as a people are a part of the American Dream," Jay-Z — who displayed a giant photo of Obama onstage during his recent Heart of the City Tour with Mary J. Blige — told Vibe recently. "The message is for a kid from in Marcy projects right now to say, 'Maybe I can be the president.' "
"I think Barack can help cure the country," Nas, who recently released a song called "Black President," told MTV News earlier this year. "Not just [for] us blacks, but also with all Americans. I think there's so much our president can do. [Obama] seems like a human being — I say that because a lot of presidents don't seem like human beings, they seem like straight-up businessmen who care about nothing but the business."
LL Cool J, Jay and Nas are just three members of what may be Obama's most vocal group of cheerleaders: the hip-hop community. Outkast's Big Boi recently released a video for his song "Sumthin's Gotta Give" that depicts himself, Mary J. Blige and John Legend working in an Obama campaign office. Kanye West recently teamed up with Jay — who calls himself "the 'hood's Barack" on his "A Billi" freestyle — for an Obama-boosting track called "Jockin' Jay-Z."
Rappers from T.I. to Common to Young Jeezy to first-time voter Soulja Boy Tell'em have spoken out for him. We've heard a myriad of pro-Barack songs, we've seen the release of Obama-themed mixtapes, and Ludacris — one of the few major rappers who has met Obama — recently did a mixtape freestyle about the candidate that probably had more impact than he'd intended (more on that in a minute).
For once, there's something that virtually everyone in rap agrees on. Yes, there is excitement about the possibility of seeing the first African-American take the Oval Office, but their collective co-signs are about much more than race. Many feel he's the best man to lead the country through the deep challenges we face.
"We're a small part of it, but we're showing our support to show that we are aware of what's going on and where it's going," said Young Jeezy, whose forthcoming LP features a duet with Nas called "My President." (Check out a clip of the song right here.) "We really want change. We really need it. It's not the same no more.
"I'm not endorsing the dude because he's black," he continued. "Listen to what he's saying: He's saying what I wanna hear, just like my favorite rapper. If [an MC] is saying what I wanna hear, I'mma go buy his album. If [a candidate] is saying what I wanna hear, I'mma go vote for him. I can vote, by the way. Watch me, I'm going to register to vote."
Yet hip-hop's embrace is a mixed blessing — politically, anyway — for the candidate, as the media firestorm over Ludacris' mixtape freestyle about Obama showed dramatically. Luda's lyrical jabs at Hillary Clinton, John McCain and George Bush were vilified by some media outlets, leading Obama's camp to issue a statement saying Luda "should be ashamed" of his words. (Ludacris had no comment on the situation when contacted by MTV News.)
The controversy put a long-simmering question into bold relief: Can hip-hop support Obama without hurting his campaign?
Cleaner-cut entertainers such as Oprah Winfrey and Usher have not only publicly expressed their support for Obama, but have appeared by his side to shake hands, take photos and/or address large crowds. Yet edgier artists, especially most current rappers, haven't been seen anywhere near him. (Ironically, presumptive Republican candidate John McCain appeared onstage next to Jeezy on national television and shook his hand).
In fact, the most prominent acknowledgement of hip-hop's involvement in the Obama campaign came via the statement Obama's press rep sent out in answer to the Ludacris episode — although he has given some carefully measured props to Jay-Z and Kanye West, saying he likes their music, and of course made a subtle Jay-Z reference about treating haters' comments like "dirt off your shoulder" in a speech during the primaries.
"I think the first thing [the hip-hop community has to] do is let the man become president," Ice Cube opined. "They gotta work in other ways to get him in the White House. It's not really about doing a song right now. He has to separate himself from that stuff; he's in a political race. Everybody should kick back for a minute, see what happens in November. If he becomes president, he wouldn't have to separate himself as much from some of these statements. Because Obama can't come as hard-core as Ludacris as far as his message right now — he can't do that. Us rappers might have to hold our tongues for a few months."
"[Rappers] need to be quiet, super quiet on Barack," Scarface agreed. "All it takes is for a mutha----er getting out there being real [ghetto] and people will be like, 'We don't wanna f--- with Obama'; they'll wanna smash on him because of what somebody else said. [Someone] speaks for himself and its Barack's fault? What did Luda say — that's Barack's fault? Is it Barack's fault what I'm saying? I don't wanna be the reason he don't get [the presidency]!"
Indeed, Craig Werner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who teaches courses on black music and hip-hop culture, said a potential pitfall for Obama is the often "horribly distorted" depiction of hip-hop in the mainstream media. "The most problematic hip-hop gets 90 percent of the coverage in the non-music press," Werner said. "Hip-hop is associated in so many people's minds with crime, drugs and misogyny, so Obama's faced with a constellation of problematic images. The question is: How do you send a message that doesn't wind up demonizing somebody?"
Chamillionaire took a slightly softer stance on the situation. "It's cool to make a couple comments, but be careful about what you say because they're gonna try to pin it towards him," he said. "We know it's so much tension around politics right now, they're trying to take him down. Maybe everybody needs to chill out a little bit. I'm not sure how much Barack mixtapes are helping him. I don't think no person is doing a mixtape [addressing] Barack's [political] views.
"As far as the Ludacris situation," he continued, "I don't think Luda or anybody ever thought it would be that big. I heard the freestyle the minute it came out and, in his defense, that's what people do on the mixtape circuit: I've put out multiple mixtapes where I might not [actually] feel a certain way about somebody but I'll say a punch line to give them that shock value. It's nothing new to the mixtape circuit. I don't think he really wants McCain in a wheelchair [the lyric reads: 'McCain don't belong in any chair unless he's paralyzed'], it's just a freestyle thing. It was crazy they took it that big."
For its part, the Obama camp says it embraces the support of the hip-hop community. "During this election, young people from all walks of life have responded to Senator Obama's message of hope and change for the future with great enthusiasm," Corey Ealons, director of African-American media for the campaign, told MTV News. "And that includes those in the hip-hop community: individuals who are talented, intelligent, and entrepreneurial in spirit, but who in the past have felt that government and politics don't really work for them.
"Senator Obama wants to engage the hip-hop community more in the political process because issues including education, jobs and health care are as important to this generation as any other. We will be talking to the hip-hop community more throughout this campaign and letting them know they have reason to put their trust in Senator Obama because he will work to fundamentally change their lives."
Ealons stressed that while Obama "absolutely" appreciates the musical innovation and creativity of hip-hop, he's made it very clear that he would like to see a more conscious attempt to include positive portrayals of women and the community in the music.
"The hip-hop experience is [for some] the black experience, and the campaign has been very inclusive and has been one that has welcomed voices from all over the country," Ealons said. "With the hip-hop community it's been an interesting conversation because, on the one hand, we know the hip-hop community has reflected a great deal of what's been happening in our inner-cities for a long time, and the systemic challenges that face that community. Senator Obama has a plan as part of his overall call for change that will address those challenges. The voice of the hip-hop community will be reflected in this campaign with Senator Obama's plan for inner city communities."
While encouraging hip-hop to continue its efforts to get out the vote this fall, Ealons said it remains to be seen if the senator would literally embrace the culture by appearing on a stage with, say, Jay-Z or Kanye West. "These situations are a case-by-case basis, when and where and timing," he said, pointing to recent shout-outs from Jay-Z during his concerts and the multiple shout-outs from Alicia Keys and others at the recent BET Awards as evidence of the support for the Obama campaign. "The hip-hop community has clearly embraced Senator Obama and they see him as someone who can effect change in a dramatic way. The key with us as we go through the next few months is identifying opportunities where we can work together to communicate the senator's message."
Despite the calls for calm from Cube, Jeezy and others, asking MCs to button up is futile — but making sure they're more cognizant of their words, especially in the wake of the Luda freestyle, might be a more realistic goal.
"I thought about [hip-hop associations harming Obama's chances], I really did." Jay-Z said to Vibe recently. "So in the concert, I always say, 'This is not sponsored by Obama.' I make it very clear to say that, 'cause I know — 'Obama associated with this guy from f---in' Marcy projects?!' I know that's coming any day. I think about that often. I mean, what do you do? What do I do? I have to support the guy. ... But I don't wanna hurt him. I ain't like the preachers and all those guys. I don't wanna make the inappropriate statements and keep going. I'm the guy that will fall back."
"You gotta speak what you feel — you gotta be respectful, though," said Young Jeezy. "Like anything you do, you can't come to anybody's show and be disrespectful if you're supporting them. So you don't speak on nobody and act a fool."
Werner said the situation goes both ways. "In some ways, you have to assume most of the hip-hop community will be behind him because they don't have a choice, because their vote ain't going to McCain," he said. "But if he uses this kind of secret code, the dirt off the shoulder, saying, 'You and I both know it, but I can't afford to say so,' it could work for him."
Oakland, California, MC Mistah F.A.B. agreed, but said more recognition from the candidate is in order. "[Rappers] have to realize that [supporting Obama publicly] is like a corporate meeting: 'Come support us, but dress for the occasion. Put on your attitude for the occasion,' " he said. "It's hard. You wanna see him be a part of it more, but you know the powers that be are going to make it such a big deal. They'll be like, 'Obama was with dude [who] was smoking weed.' I would love to see Obama go on 'Mixtape Monday' and show his involvement, show he's not trying to distance himself.
"If a king goes out and fights wars with his people, his people will do anything for him," he added. "If you're just a king in your castle and you calling shots, then the respect from the people will never be there. We don't see our leaders with us in our situations on a heavy, heavy level."
South Carolina mixtape master Chuck T has a harsher view: He said, in no uncertain terms, that he feels betrayed by Obama's lack of overt reciprocation for the hip-hop community's affections.
"A lot of people may not feel me on this, but you gotta feel me if you real: I'm not voting for Obama," the DJ said. "I don't like Obama. Obama is a traitor. He turned his back on everybody. He turned his back on Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright — Reverend Wright has been with him since the beginning. Ludacris has done stuff in his support, he speaks the truth, but Obama feels that a certain demographic may not vote for him [because of it], so he turns his back on Luda. Bernie Mac, he invited Bernie Mac to come in and do his roast or whatever it was called. Bernie Mac said some things that were offensive, that's what Bernie Mac is known for. What does he do? Turn his back on Bernie Mac. Who's he gonna denounce next? I'm not even voting this year. If I did vote, it would be for McCain. I like to know the enemy. Barack, I don't know."
Despite the passion of Chuck T's statements, political reality dictates that standing arm-in-arm with the hip-hop community may not be the best way to advance Obama's presidential aspirations, at least for now. There may never be a time when he, as a politician, can openly embrace it without coming under fire.
And while it seems fairly certain that we'll never see Obama doing the "Weezy Wee" at a Lil Wayne concert, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, chairman of the nonpartisan Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, noted that there may be a more simple reason why Obama's acknowledgment of his hip-hop co-signs hasn't been trumpeted more loudly.
"Having a young person like Obama run for president has inspired many in the hip-hop community," Chavis said. "But he's running for president, so he's not going to endorse any one genre of music or any one aspect of a cultural phenomenon like hip-hop — because he's going to be the president of all Americans."
Get informed! Head to Choose or Lose for nonstop coverage of the 2008 presidential election, including everything from the latest news on the candidates to on-the-ground multimedia reports from our 51 citizen journalists, MTV and MySpace's Presidential Dialogues, and much more.