An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited the decades in which the Rev. Jesse Jackson campaigned for office. This version has been corrected.
B-Rock Is in the House
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The hip-hop artist Nas says he was on tour in Sweden in the early hours of Election Day when a line from his recent song "Black President" started running through his mind: "What's the black prez thinking on election night?"
Hopeful about the voting to come that day, "I thought, 'Wow, we're really here, he's really here,' " said Nas, speaking about President-elect Barack Obama in a phone interview from London. In the dark of night, he set up a mike and started to speak on that: "How many old folks been through Jim Crow got tears going down their cheeks," he rapped. "America surprise us, and let a black man guide us," he finished.
"It was just spontaneous," said Nas. "I have the studio stuff I need and just put it together right in the hotel room. We had a DJ, Green Lantern, who produced it, and he blasted it off online and everywhere else."
By daytime in New York, Nas's song "Election Night" had arrived at MTV, and was playing on hip-hop radio stations around the country.
Since last week, hip-hop artists have issued a host of new songs in tribute to Obama's victory. Will.I.Am, the Black Eyed Pea who created the "Yes We Can" tribute, released the jubilant "It's a New Day," which includes the lyrics, "I woke up this morning feeling brand new/'cause the dreams that I've been dreaming finally came true." Common leaked the song "Changes" from his upcoming album. Ron Browz remixed his song "Pop Champagne" -- "It was just about partying," he said in an interview -- to create "Pop Champagne for Barack," including the line "We pop champagne for Barack's campaign." And Jay-Z previewed his song "History," about victory and defeat, on the New York City hip-hop station Hot 97.
Clubs played the songs over the weekend -- "Everyone was jumping," said Jill Strada, the music director at Hot 97. MySpace pages galore are featuring remixes from lesser-known artists who created their own versions of "Yes We Can." And there are songs still in the works, like "First Lady," from the all-woman group Crew Grrl Order, about Michelle Obama.
"One of the brilliant things about hip-hop is that it's something that can comment almost in real time," said Adam Bradley, an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in California who is writing a book on hip-hop. "There's obvious joy and celebration, but also a sense of historic moment, and almost a tragicomic awareness of what it took to get to this point," he said.
"Racism is so bloody and thick, and old, and alive," said Nas. "It's kind of hard for all of us sometimes to see the light and to know that sometimes there's going to be a brighter day and a bigger man."
The hip-hop world has long embraced Obama. Vibe magazine dubbed him "B-Rock." All summer long, the senator got shout-outs in some of the most popular hip-hop songs. And Obama himself has expressed love for the music even as he decries its negative aspects.
"I love the art of hip-hop; I don't always love the message of hip-hop," Obama said in an interview with BET, mentioning that the genre can be degrading to women and materialistic.
Chuck D once called hip-hop "the black CNN," and the music carries a long tradition of criticizing the president -- and hoping for a black president.
"Reagan is the prez but I voted for Shirley Chisholm," Biz Markie rapped in 1988. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was frequently mentioned in hip-hop during his candidacies in the 1980s, at a time when such references amounted to a critique of the electoral process.