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POP MUSIC

President Obama hasn't had rappers, hip-hop artists in White House Music Series

Rapper Jay-Z speaks during a campaign rally for then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, in Columbus, Ohio, in Nov. 2008.
Rapper Jay-Z speaks during a campaign rally for then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, in Columbus, Ohio, in Nov. 2008. (Terry Gilliam - AP)

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By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Here's proof that hip-hop is still America's most potent and controversial pop form: Barack Obama -- a leader some have dubbed the hip-hop president -- has yet to have a rapper perform in the East Room.

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This administration loves music. It has held numerous concerts through the landmark White House Music Series, a laudable effort to celebrate unique strands of American music at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Thus far, the series has shone its chandelier light on country, jazz, Latin and classical.

So what's taken President Obama so long to recognize the genre that mobilized to help get him elected?

Hip-hop was pumping out the hosannas during Obama's trek on the 2008 campaign trail, praising him in rhyme after rhyme. Young Jeezy's "My President" was the most compelling hit to emerge from the pack -- a powerful confluence of pop hit, street anthem and rally cry. Over a triumphant beat, the Atlanta rapper gave his endorsement with a trademark roar: "Obama for mankind/We're ready for damn change, so y'all let the man shine!"

So far, Jeezy hasn't roared those words in the East Room. And it's not because the administration doesn't understand reciprocity. In June 2009, country hunk Brad Paisley released "Welcome to the Future," a soaring tune that cites the Obama presidency as Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream manifest. A few weeks after "Welcome to the Future" hit the airwaves, Paisley was in the White House crooning it for the first family.

Meantime, Jeezy is presumably still waiting for his invitation. Ditto for Ludacris and Common -- both A-list rappers who praised Obama during the campaign. And while Jay-Z made a quick and quiet visit to the White House in March, the only rap performance to take place there during Obama's term came in spring 2009 from Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas. (And let's be real -- Will's not a rapper so much as a walking, talking, rhyming BlackBerry commercial.)

One can assume that Obama is still tiptoeing the very thin line between embracing the hip-hop community and catering to constituents who remain dubious about rap music.

He took a similar approach during the campaign, adopting Jay-Z's dirt-off-your-shoulder gesture during a speech in North Carolina, while distancing himself from a Ludacris song that hurled pointed insults at Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and George W. Bush.

But isn't that the beauty of both hip-hop and American politics? Opinions run hot. Mud gets slung. In a crumbling music industry where survival often depends on playing nice, hip-hop is not afraid to push envelopes. And that's exactly why it's worth celebrating in America's house.

It wouldn't come without criticism. If Bill O'Reilly was able to persuade Pepsi to drop a Ludacris endorsement in 2002, one can only imagine what Glenn Beck might do with an Easter Egg Roll appearance from Gucci Mane.

Still, it's time for the White House Music Series to recognize hip-hop. Common -- a Chicago rapper who is incredibly thoughtful, widely revered and squeaky clean -- seems like a plausible candidate. Even better: an appearance from hip-hop troupe the Roots. Many of these Music Series events contain an educational component for young students, and you're not going to get a better drum lesson from anyone other than Roots bandleader and timekeeper ?uestlove.

Or maybe invite hip-hop royalty. Twenty years ago, Chuck D of Public Enemy was one of American music's hottest lightning rods. Today, he divides his stage time between rapping and giving lectures. He spoke on a panel at Washington's Duke Ellington School of the Arts in February. Did he think the POTUS was overdue in recognizing hip-hop?

"The Obama administration has other things to worry about," he said. "They have to worry about the constituency of the United States of America, and I think the president is wise enough to understand that there are major issues at hand."

Let's hope he's also wise enough to invite someone like Chuck D to perform at the White House -- sooner rather than later.


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