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Bond Between Obama and Hip Hop Being Tested

Black America Web.com, News Analysis, Tonyaa Weathersbee Posted: Aug 06, 2008

It was a romance that was bound to hit a rough patch on the Barack Obama campaign trail.

For some time now, a flirtation of sorts has been going on between the hip-hop world and the first black presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Common mentions Obama in his song, The People. Vibe Magazine dubbed him B-Rock. Obama even borrowed a bit from Jay-Z with the dirt-off-your-shoulder gesture he used to blow off opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton and others who were hatin on him.

But that relationship was bound to be tested in a big way.

Obamas campaign recently had to disavow remarks by Ludacris who, in typical street style, praised Obama by dissing his opponents. In a song titled Politics as Usual, Ludacris used the B-word to describe Clinton, called President Bush mentally handicapped, and said that Obamas septuagenarian GOP challenger John McCain doesnt belong in any chair unless hes paralyzed.

It was a shout out that Obama was forced to shun.

I hate that Obama had to distance himself from Ludacris. He and most rappers have, after all, started their lives on the cultural fringes of society; in a world where their art form has been shaped by the rawness of their daily experiences. I look forward to a time when Obama can be more about enlightenment than condemnation.

But theres an irony here that I hate even more.

While its good to see rappers like Ludacris showing love in their own, albeit obnoxious way, for a politician like Obama, what I hate is that many of the young black men whose lives they have influenced by glorifying their pathologies in their lyrics wont get a chance to cast their vote for Obama.

Too many of them are behind bars.

In America, one out of every nine black men ages 20 to 34 are incarcerated or under the supervision of the criminal justice system. According to U.S. Census data, around 16 percent of black men in their 20s who werent in college were in jail or prison.

And the Sentencing Project, a non-profit group that advocates against the mass incarceration overtaking America, estimates that around 13 percent of black men are unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws.

Meaning that now that a brother has a real shot at becoming president, a lot of brothers wont be able to vote for him.

Of course, I dont believe that every young black man who is incarcerated was doing the explicit bidding of a gangsta rapper. Yet when scores of black men are being pushed to the margins of society because they cant find a way into the mainstream, when they see violence and disrespect as the only way to assert themselves in a society that devalues them, and then they see rappers make millions off of glorifying that lifestyle, then its not much of a leap to understand how rap culture has helped to turn incarceration into a fixture instead of an aberration in their lives.

Ideally, hip-hop artists ought to use rap as a tool to inspire young black men to rise up and overcome a system that keeps them down. But they dont. What they do is deify those who succumb to it.

XXL Magazine, for example, has published jail and prison issues that focus on incarcerated rappers. There are a number of articles each year that feature interviews with locked-up rappers. Every other day, there seems to be some rapper who has run afoul of the law over something silly, but who has discovered that feloniousness seems to sell. Incarceration and rap culture have become a meat-and-potatoes pairing.

And thats bad, because now, the candidacy of Obama offers hip-hop a unique moment in shaping U.S. history. It offers many of the young black men whom the rappers speak to, the ones who have often felt shoved to societys edge, their moment to have a real voice in it through the power of the franchise.

Too bad that too many of them will spend that moment in a jail cell instead of in a voting booth.

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