In the video for “My President,” Gabriel Hart wanted to honor and re-create the excitement of Barack Obama’s historic presidential election. So on Nov. 23, 2008, Hart had trap rapper Jeezy walk out of his blue Lamborghini’s scissor doors to a majority-black crowd cheering and holding “My President is black” picket signs in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood.
It was unusual for a rapper — especially a rising trap rap power player — to make an ode to a politician. Rap music is more likely to sound weary of political institutions than to show trust in them, says Lakeyta Bonnette-Bailey, author of “Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics.”
Besides Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s “Jesse,” a song in support of 1984 presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, rappers have used music to channel their dissatisfaction with society, singing “F--- Tha Police” and “FDT,” as in “F--- Donald Trump.”
“My President,” on the other hand, swelled with pride.
“Jeezy was representing for those who have been alienated, who usually say they do not participate in the political process,” Bonnette-Bailey says. “These segments feel that they do not have the political efficacy, their voice does not matter, their voice does not count. Jeezy was one of the first to represent that segment.”
The video made a statement: The voice of the disaffected was being heard. But largely missing in the video were public leaders, who have long failed to engage authentically with hip-hop. Ten years later, that appears to be changing in Atlanta — Jeezy’s home base and hip-hop’s current mecca — as local rappers like Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris and T.I. have thrown their support behind Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams.
If Abrams wins in the upcoming midterm elections, she’ll become the first black female governor in U.S. history. The question is whether she’ll be able to generate the same excitement from a young and diverse electorate that Jeezy tapped into 10 years ago.
Before he made his way to Georgia’s left-leaning epicenter during the aughts, Jeezy grew up in Hawkinsville, a town where more than 20 percent of residents earned less than $10,000 in 2016, according to the U.S. census. “I didn’t really know nobody who paid taxes because nobody made that type of money,” he says. “Even now, being a successful businessman, Uncle Sam seems like a silent partner. He doesn’t have to put in the work to get paid on time.”
As Jeezy found his footing as an artist, he rapped with that same cynicism toward the government. In 2004, Jeezy, then 27, was driving past Atlanta’s Fox Theatre when he scoffed at a passerby wearing a “Vote or Die” T-shirt. “Vote or Die ain’t got nothing to do with me,” he recalls thinking. Never mind that Jeezy was exactly the sort of voter that P. Diddy tried to reach, of any political affiliation, with that initiative.
Instead, Jeezy named his next mix tape “Trap or Die.”
When Obama entered the national spotlight, Jeezy wanted to coax the candidate’s win into existence. The rapper sent shuttle buses out for folks who needed to register to vote. He volunteered at a Georgia Democrats phone bank at Austell (“Yeah, it’s me,” he told one caller). He registered to vote for the first time that year.
On June 3, 2008, when George W. Bush was still president, Jeezy left his house in a rush because he came up with a hook that he wanted to record immediately: “My president is black, my Lambo is blue.” It was the final song on his No. 1 album “The Recession.”
“We were just hoping and praying for the culture,” he says, “not just because [Obama] was black, because it would be a new regime, a new wave.”
Still, Jeezy met resistance behind the scenes — a challenge that could be chalked up to a generational divide, misunderstanding over hip-hop’s influence, or both. In his “My President” video, he was surrounded by landmarks from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life: his two-story birth home, the nonprofit King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King and his father were co-pastors) and his and Coretta Scott King’s shared Georgia marble crypt.
Yet Hart says that neither the National Park Service nor Dr. Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer’s pastor since 2005, allowed him to show that connection on screen. Hart had to send the “My President” lyrics with his initial permit request. Warnock never said why he denied that application, though when Hart called, he found himself explaining hip-hop’s impact in the political arena. “You may not agree with the way we’re saying what we’re saying, but we’re connecting,” Hart recalls telling Warnock.
In the end, only the sleek lines of the new Ebenezer’s bell tower made the frame. “The stipulation was this: ‘Do not show any of our property,’ ” Hart says. (Warnock did not respond to requests for comment.) Hart says his formal requests to have Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) appear in the video went unanswered. The civil rights leader only popped up by chance, after Hart caught him outside his Atlanta office and asked if he could cheer for the camera.
Jeezy wasn’t privy to what Hart went through to secure the “My President” location, but he expected more support from Obama than he received. While Obama joked of listening to Jeezy’s music during the 2014 White House correspondents’ dinner (“My first term I sang Al Green. In my second term, I’m going with Young Jeezy”), the rapper says he wasn’t among the dozens of hip-hop artists who got invited to the White House.
“I kept thinking, man, all the s--- I did, he didn’t even acknowledge it,” he says.
Jeezy hasn’t felt connected to the political process since 2008. He didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election, which saw a decline in black votes for the first time in 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center. (Hillary Clinton enlisted Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper and Big Sean to perform a concert the weekend before Election Day. But Bonnette-Bailey and Hart argue that those artists don’t quite connect with the same alienated voters as Jeezy.)
Two years later, Atlanta’s hip-hop community is hoping to reach folks who would otherwise feel disinclined to vote, in support of another potentially historic candidate. In September, only a few miles north from where Jeezy’s “My President” video was shot, Abrams appeared at One Musicfest in the nearby Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, between T.I. and 2 Chainz’s headlining sets — a cameo that was a month in the making, says festival founder Jason “J” Carter.
The event, an urban music festival inspired by Woodstock with the tagline “Unity Through Music,” was among Abrams’s highest-profile stops during her campaign trail, at least until halfway during early voting. (T.I. had already endorsed her on Instagram, after he and Abrams appeared in a panel discussion in July. He also reposted reports of alleged voter suppression.)
“In a lot of ways, my story is like the story of One Musicfest,” Abrams said on stage. “It’s about going beyond the odds. It’s about seeing the community. It’s about understanding the complexity of who we are and finding a way to bring us all together.”
On Oct. 21, Abrams went with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to a meet-and-greet that featured a performance by Georgia rap veteran Pastor Troy. She attended a fundraiser co-hosted by Ludacris and film producer Will Packer (“Girls Trip,” “Night School”). And she appeared on stage with Dupri during the 25th anniversary concert for his label So So Def.
“The hip-hop community is 100 percent behind her,” Pastor Troy says. “She has my vote because I love her being tangible.”
Abrams’s campaign even got a song of its own. When Mo Ivory joined Abrams’s team in August as director of surrogates and media, she caught Jay Rock’s hip-hop chart hit “Win” on the radio and thought it would make a fitting campaign song. A few weeks after Ivory reached Rock’s label Top Dawg Entertainment, Rock sent over his new version.
Rock may be from Los Angeles, but the logic behind the remix is all Atlanta hip-hop savvy: Instead of “You with me or against me,” he raps, “Stacey / you either with her or against her.”
“She especially wanted to reach out to young voters who might not normally vote,” Ivory says of Abrams. “We all know what an important bloc they are and how important music is to them.”
Activating the folks who abstain from voting, T.I. says by email, will require “creating a sense of urgency and setting a hard reminder (especially given where we are now) that we can’t afford to not vote . . . ever.”
Hip-hop is now an integral part of any get-out-the-vote effort, and the dynamic between hip-hop and politics has changed drastically since “My President” was first released. But whether the message reaches folks like Jeezy — those who voted for Obama and then didn’t show up to the polls in 2016 — remains to be seen.
As Jeezy divides his time between Atlanta, Los Angeles and Miami, he wonders whether politics still feel out of reach for those he knew back home. He’s proud to have had a part in a historic election — probably how a good portion of Atlanta’s hip-hop community hopes to feel after the midterms.
“Not everybody is going to be happy all the time,” Jeezy says, “but if you come in and make things disruptive and you turn people against each other, then you got to ask yourself if you’re being a leader. I’m just glad that I could be a part of a situation that somebody was actually being a leader and leading.”