By Adam O'Neal
In early 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama sat down for an interview with Black Entertainment Television. The friendly dialogue provided Obama, then mired in a closely contested primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, a chance to touch on a range of political and cultural topics.
Asked if he liked hip-hop music, Obama responded, "Of course," adding, "I've got to admit, lately I've been listening to a lot of Jay-Z. This new "American Gangster' album is tight."
It wasn't the first time Obama publicly discussed hip-hop, and it wouldn't be the last. At a campaign stop in 2008, he mimicked dusting off his shoulder, an allusion to a hit Jay-Z song. He has gone on to describe himself as a fan of Nas, Lil Wayne and Kanye West.
Obama's promotion of the genre -- unprecedented for a viable national political candidate -- helped launch a new era in which political figures of both parties can embrace the once politically toxic music, though they do so with some degree of caution.
Although hip-hop can be traced back to the 1970s, it became a cultural force in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan references have been a mainstay ever since Ice-T criticized the 40th president over the Iran-contra scandal: "We buy weapons to keep us strong/ Reagan sends guns where they don't belong."
In 1991, N.W.A. rapper Eazy-E donated $2,490 to the Republican Party and attended a luncheon attended by President George H.W. Bush and 1,400 mostly white Republicans. The rapper's spokesman explained blithely that he was a "Bush fan." White House officials, evidently embarrassed that a rapper whose lyrics glorified violence against police been invited to the event, declined comment.
Trying to position himself as a centrist in his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton famously rebuked the rapper Sister Souljah for saying that blacks should kill whites instead of each other. Clinton's comments posited him as a moderate and suggested that hip-hop and national politics were incompatible -- at least then. Throughout George W. Bush's presidency, the genre appeared as a footnote, and sometimes an ugly one, as when Kanye West accused Bush of being a racist during a Hurricane Katrina fundraising telethon.
Signs that the times they were a changin' came in 2011, when the rapper Common -- whose lyrics also dealt with violence against police -- was invited to a White House poetry night. Although conservative media outlets criticized the invitation, they were unable to drum up widespread support for a boycott. Common attended without incident, and the furor died down.
Hip-hop now attracts a bipartisan clique of fans on Capitol Hill, in addition to its best-known booster in the White House.
Democratic Rep. André Carson of Indiana, a self-described former "battle rapper," performed under the name Juggernaut into his early 20s. Though he gave up rap to pursue community activism and politics, Carson said that rapping helped him become a better communicator and public speaker.
Florida Republican Rep. Trey Radel describes himself as a "hip-hop conservative" in his Twitter biography. He tweeted his thoughts on Jay-Z's newest album earlier this year and penned an essay for Buzzfeed about hip-hop.
Radel wrote that he found "a conservative message in [the Public Enemy protest anthem] "Fight the Power' because I believe when government expands it becomes a political tool meant to oppress." The first-term congressman acknowledged that he has philosophical disagreements with many of his favorite rappers. But that's not a phenomenon limited to hip-hop, as attested by the unrequited crush Republican Gov. Chris Christie has on fellow Jersey guy -- and decidedly liberal -- rock star Bruce Springsteen.
Sen. Marco Rubio has also publicly discussed his appreciation for hip-hop in several interviews, telling GQ his favorite rap songs are "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A., "Killuminati" by Tupac, and "Lose Yourself" by Eminem.
A Rubio spokesman, asked earlier this year if the Florida Republican was concerned about political backlash over being a fan of such controversial musicians, told RealClearPolitics, "The short answer is no."
But some conservatives' embrace of the genre has piqued some liberal critics, who call the rush toward publicly celebrating hip-hop pandering. Alan Pike, writing for ThinkProgress earlier this year, accused Rubio of hypocrisy: "If you're milking hip-hop for credibility while marginalizing its challenges to the kinds of policies and narratives that Republicans run on, you might need to test your listening comprehension, period."
Some Buzzfeed readers harshly responded on Radel's essay, commenting, "Nobody cares" and "Does he listen to rap music that isn't 20 years old?"
Radel, who mentioned that he has recently been listening to relative newcomer Kendrick Lamar, told RCP that he sees hip-hop as overwhelmingly anti-establishment more than explicitly conservative or liberal.
Democrat Carson, asked if considers it disingenuous for conservative politicians to embrace the music form, offered a blanket defense of Republicans: "I think music is music. You can't say it's hypocritical for a member of the Black Caucus to embrace polka."
He also expects hip-hop, as it grows as an art form and increases its market share, to become even more culturally and politically acceptable as time goes on.
"I think society has changed," he said. " [Politicians] were concerned about what they considered to be urban-centric music infiltrating their homes and having an impact on their kids. Now it's become so universal, it's a part of everyday life."
RNC Deputy Press Secretary Raffi Williams concurred, suggesting another reason Republicans might want to listen to hip-hop: its popularity. They appreciate it "just like a lot of their constituents" do.
Radel agrees. His constituents "are excited to see someone, a Republican especially, attempt to talk to people across generational, ethnic and cultural lines," he said.
Although hip-hop has gained wider acceptance, politicians must be careful of exactly which songs -- and which artists -- they embrace. The rise of Kanye in the early 2000s paved the way for rappers without violent backgrounds. Gang affiliation, or a history dealing drugs, is no longer a prerequisite for respect. Still, the genre's rougher edges remain.
Lil Wayne made an art form out of creatively describing new ways to disrespect women and abuse drugs. Kanye protégé Pusha T nihilistically compares his time in "the rap game" to his former career as a cocaine dealer. Just last week, Eminem released a song that immediately drew scrutiny over its blatantly homophobic lyrics.
Asked about the more violent aspects of hip-hop, Radel said, "These are lyrics that I think are terrible and have no place in society." He added, however, that controversial lyrics represent greater problems.
"All music is a reflection of that time, that era. While I do recognize some of the violence, I recognize the reality of hip-hop," he said, noting that listening to N.W.A. for the first time exposed him to things "that I never knew existed."
He's not the only politician to embrace hip-hop with caveats. In the same BET interview that Obama praised "American Gangster," the future president also delivered what would become the boilerplate political line on the music: "Honestly, I love the art of hip-hop. I don't always love the message of hip-hop."