In the coming weeks, much will be written about his love of music, from the Spotify playlists he often created (prompting the company to post a job opening, just for him) to singing with Willie Nelson and covering Al Green songs.
But what can be lost in these “listicles” is the unprecedented impact Obama had on artists of color, from giving relatively unknown performers like BJ the Chicago Kid an enormous platform to inviting rappers into conversations about criminal justice reform.
During Ronald Reagan’s administration, a few famous artists of color, such as Ella Fitzgerald and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, performed at the White House. But, according to a list released by the Reagan Library, such visits were few and far between compared to those of white artists like Frank Sinatra, Pete Fountain and The Beach Boys.
More artists of color performed during President George W. Bush’s administration, due in no small part to him declaring June 2001 “Black Music Month” and hosting Lionel Hampton, Shirley Caesar, Bobby Jones, James Brown, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Harlem Jazz Museum Artists at a celebratory ceremony.
But artists of color visited the White House as a matter of routine during Obama’s administration, many, such as rappers Common, Jay Z and Usher, visiting multiple times.
This disparity can, of course, be explained partially by taste. Having one’s favorite artists perform intimate concerts at his home is a dream perk of the presidency, and Obama has long been a fan of hip-hop, a predominately black genre.
And, of course, people of color are currently dominating airwaves. As Obama finished saying goodbye, seven of Billboard’s Hot 100 top 10 tracks are by artists of color.
But the deviation seemed intentional.
At the final musical event he and Michelle hosted, a concert in conjunction with BET entitled “Love and Happiness,” he said music at the White House should “reflect the amazing diversity, and the imagination and the incredible ingenuity that defines the American people.”
During the past eight years, he’s lived up to those words. Between the celebrity visits were those of unknown artists of color. As Veronica Toney wrote in The Washington Post, “What’s most interesting isn’t the number of celebrities who have walked the halls . . . it’s the variety of the guests,” citing lesser-known artists such as Mayda Del Valle and Keb Mo.
The most resounding example of this came in 2009.
While many presidents likely would have invited Lin-Manuel Miranda to visit the White House if his musical “Hamilton” had reached its unprecedented level of popularity during their terms, it’s unlikely others would have invited him before he wrote it.
Most remember Miranda’s amusing performance in the Rose Garden, but many may have forgotten his visit to the White House Poetry Jam in 2009, where he debuted a working track that would become the hit musical’s opening number (which Obama watched with glee, if both his expression and standing ovation are any indication.)
Obama, though, didn’t only hand musicians of color a microphone, he gave them a voice during an important historical moment.
During his presidency, the struggles of minorities in modern America grew arguably more visible. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile highlighted the tension between blacks and police, along with the rise of Black Lives Matter.
Sometimes Obama empowered artists simply by inviting them and their families to state dinners. At his final dinner, such artists as (an extremely grateful) Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean (and their parents) were in attendance — and not to perform.
Obama also hosted South by South Lawn, a tech and music festival modeled after Austin’s South by Southwest, on the south lawn of the White House. Many of its organizers, along with its performers, were minorities.
While some panels at the festival discussed climate change, rapper Common performed “A Letter to the Free,” from “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s documentary about racial inequality in the U.S.
“I couldn’t just take my anger and let it be anger,” Common said from the stage, according to the Los Angeles Times. “What could I do with my platform? What could you do with your platform?”
“There is a renaissance happening of previously marginalized voices,” Brittany Packnett, co-founder of Campaign Zero, said. “This event, in and of itself, is run by young people, by people of color and it’s incredible when previously there would have been only a few of us in this spot.”
Most substantial, though, was when Obama invited several prominent artists of color, such as Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, Alicia Keys, Wale, J. Cole and Ludacris, to the White House to hear their thoughts on his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which centers on criminal justice reform.
“Through their own nonprofit work or artistic commitment, many of these artists have found ways to engage on the issues of criminal justice reform and empowering disadvantaged young people across the country,” a White House official told Time’s Maya Rhodan.
The moment, as Common later told Pitchfork, felt truly historic.
“It was myself, A$AP Rocky, Rick Ross, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, and many more in this room,” Common said. “And I’m looking at a picture of George Washington with the president right there next to me, and I’m like, Man, I know George Washington never would’ve seen this many brothers in the White House.” (He meant it symbolically. For the record, Washington never lived in the White House.)
As rapper T.I. told the New York Times, “I don’t think at this present moment in time it’s possible for any president to assume a relevant position in the community, in the culture, without reaching out or having some knowledge of what’s going on in the world of hip-hop. You can’t be disconnected from the most impactful culture in this nation.”
Ever since Obama referenced Jay Z during his first campaign, Obama has been connected to that culture, just as he was Tuesday night in Chicago.
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