Barack Obama's inauguration was an enormous magnet for the stars of stage, screen, TV, and the radio, the celebrity-stuffed culmination of the goals of the Sixties civil rights movement. Some of the most prominent stars were black musicians. This is an opportunity to raise the question: Whither goest black popular culture, especially hip-hop music, under the new president?
1. Will the Obama presidency drain the swamp of hip-hop hate? Can he remake the dividers into uniters? On Tuesday night, the rapper Jay-Z performed on the ABC Inaugural ball special in a tux and nerdy glasses, toning down the thug-rap with a song called "History." ABC didn't have to bleep a single word, even if the older demographics in the audience were still wondering why this is called music. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the pendulum of rap music swung away from glorifying the "thug life" of drug dealers, pimps, and gangsters? With a black man in the White House, could rappers be less pessimistic about authority? When talking about The Man, there is no more powerful man in Washington than the black man just sworn in as our 44th president.
The early signs aren't promising. On YouTube, Jay-Z and another rapper, Young Jeezy, appeared at a Monday night "Hip Hop Inaugural Ball" in Washington. They certainly weren't in the spirit of optimism and nonpartisanship. Jeezy proclaimed: "I wanna thank two people. I wanna thank the mother [profanity] overseas that threw two shoes at George Bush. Listen, listen! I wanna thank the mother [profanity] who helped them move their [profanity] up out of the White House...My president is mother [profanity] black!"
Jay-Z rapped: "You can keep ya puss, I don't want no more Bush / no more war, no more Iraq, no more white lies, my president is black!"
Looking at rappers like this, you really have to wonder if they really believe their own wealth-building bluster about how terrible America's been to them. What kind of dystopian country have these young black millionaires been living in? Jay-Z was born a few weeks before 1970, Young Jeezy was born in 1977. When they were growing up in the Carter and Reagan years, was America a land of apartheid and oppression? Sadly, some of the most successful hip-hop music thrives on an extreme of pessimism and despair, and spreads it, like poisoned peanut butter. But they never lived it.
2. Will Obama's rise shift black youth away from thug-rapper role models like 50 Cent and toward black high achievers? NBC's "Today" explored the "Harvard vs. Hood" debate over black role models. It was outrageous to find correspondent Jamie Gangel sympathetically painting the gangsta-rapper 50 Cent thusly: "Behind the trademark scowl and explicit lyrics is a smart, soft-spoken businessman who can be very different in private." He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, she underlined. "Do you think you're misunderstood?" she asked hopefully.
After getting a nod, she changed the subject to commerce: "But he knows what sells. You scare people." 50 Cent agreed: "I know I scare people. That's actually my job. That's why they buy my music. I scare them for $16.99, and they-and they buy the records and they're entertained by it." Gangel suggested it was all unreal, and therefore innocent. Does this woman fail to understand this guy was a crack cocaine and heroin dealer before being "discovered" by Eminem?
Sadly, when Gangel proceeded to ask young blacks whether President Obama or 50 Cent would be a stronger role model, most picked the rapper, as one said, "because he's cool. I mean, he's what's in. Yes, the highest leadership position in American has changed, but society has still not changed yet." Another added: "I do think that the life experiences of 50 Cent cannot be dismissed, and I think a lot of African-Americans can relate to 50 Cent's experience."
This is where some fatherly fuddy-duddies are desperately needed. Would a "businessman" like 50 Cent have met the favor of Michelle Robinson's father before she brought home Barack? It's nice to visualize a tough old-school dad that would dare to look down his nose at a wildly successful gangsta rapper as more of a menace than a man.
These kids still tried to pay tribute to Obama - by calling him "gangster." It's partially President Obama's fault. He's been very tight-lipped and cautious about disparaging rappers. He's done it only when pressed, and always with great caution and tributes to rap artistry. He's tried to display how he's down with hip hop. He has copied Jay-Z's moves and invited him to perform at a concert after the Inauguration for his staff party in Washington. What wonders he might work if President Obama would sound much more like Bill Cosby now that he's standing in a powerful bully pulpit. But who will press him to try it?