Jay Z made history Thursday by becoming the first hip-hop artist to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The man who helped present the award was another trailblazer, the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. The two have much in common, as Obama mentioned in his speech.
Perhaps the most immediate thing they have in common, though, was that neither man was actually at the event. Obama gave his speech in a prerecorded video, and Jay Z tweeted about it later. E! reported the rapper was not able to attend the awards gala in New York City.
In the video, Obama named and congratulated all the inductees before turning to Jay Z (given name Shawn Carter), whom he called “a true American original.”
“I like to think Mr. Carter and I understand each other,” Obama said. “Nobody who met us when we were younger men would have expected us to be where we are today.”
The former president continued, highlighting some of the personal difficulties both men faced and, in their own ways, overcame.
“We know what it’s like not to have a father around,” he said. “We know what it’s like not to come from much, and to know people who didn’t get the same breaks that we did. So we try to prop open the door of opportunity so that it’s a little easier for those who come up behind us to succeed as well.”
Obama sprinkled in a bit of his signature wit as well, saying, “Jay and I are also fools for our daughters, although he’s going to have me beat once those two twins show up,” referring to twins Jay Z and his wife Beyoncé have on the way (or have already had, if you believe the Internet rumors).
Speaking of Beyoncé, Obama tossed in a knowing reference to her and Michelle Obama, saying, “Let’s face it. We both have wives who are significantly more popular than we are.”
It isn’t particularly surprising to see the former president speaking about the rapper. The two share a long and abiding respect for each other, perhaps even friendship.
“I’m pretty sure I’m still the only president to listen to Jay Z’s music in the Oval Office,” Obama said. “That may change at some point, but I’m pretty sure that’s true now.”
As he mentioned in his speech, “I sampled his lyrics to close my speech at Selma.”
It’s true. On the 50th anniversary of Alabama state troopers attacking nonviolent, mostly black protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery to fight for voting rights, Obama said, “We honored those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar.”
This was a paraphrase of Jay Z’s verse on the remix of Young Jeezy’s “My President,” in which Jay Z raps, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk/Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run/Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.”
Furthermore, Obama said, “I tweeted a reference to ‘My First Song’ as I was putting the finishing touches on my final State of the Union address.”
The song’s hook goes:
It’s my life, it’s my pain and my struggle
The songs that I sing to you is my everything
Treat my first like my last, and my last like my first
And my thirst is the same as when I came
It’s my joy and my tears
And the laughter it brings to me, it’s my everything
Obama has previously mentioned the song in an interview, saying he listened to it on the campaign trail because it “kinda keeps me steady. It’s a great song. It reminds you that you always have to stay hungry.”
Obama said he got to know the Carters during the first few years of his presidency, adding, “They’re good people. Beyoncé could not be sweeter to Michelle and the girls. So they’re good friends. We talk about the same things I talk about with all my friends.”
Beyoncé, in fact, sang — well, lip-synced — the “Star Spangled Banner” at Obama’s second inauguration.
Jay Z even once said of the former president, “I’ve spoken to him on the phone and had texts from Obama, of course.” He’s rapped about it too, saying in “On to the Next One” that he has “Obama on the text.”
In fact, Jay Z and Beyoncé visited the White House several times during the Obama administration. And, according to Obama, the rapper still serves as an inspiration.
“Jay, you have been inspiring, making me want to be active in my retirement just you have been in yours,” he said, before closing with a quote from Jay Z himself: “’I never looked at myself and said that I need to be a certain way to be around a certain sort of people. I’ve always wanted to stay true to myself, and I’ve managed to do that, people have to accept that.’”
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