The Critical Reception of Barack Obama in American Rap Music

Seminar Paper, 2009

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. KRS-One

3. Nas

4. Dead Prez

5. Mr. Lif

6. Brother Ali

7. Conclusion
7.1 The Nature of the Corpus
7.2 The Right to Criticize
7.3 Different Opinions within Rap Music


1. Introduction

“Traditionally, hip-hop culture has been very skeptical of American government. Much hip-hop music [...] serves a sort of "watchdog" function” (Riggs, Tectonic). Since groups like Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy introduced political rap music during the late Eighties, a certain branch of this sub culture took over the mission they inherited from their predecessors, namely artists like Gil Scott Heron and groups like the Last Poets. Those rap musicians consider their task as artists to give expression to their function as part of the national conscience. “Lyrics from different artist range from anti-American to revolutionary to more sobering ideas that encourage listeners to simply stay aware and involved” (Riggs, Obama). What they all have in common is that they were more often than not directed at American presidents. The list of examples is long and even dates back to the Reagan-era, but especially George W. Bush was a very prominent target.

It can be assumed that this list will soon also include Barack Obama, whose race for the presidency and his election as the United States of America's 44th president have created a lot of controversy. Many different conceptions and notions have come into existence around the person Obama and his political career - before and after the Inauguration. His views on critical issues, his aims as a president, his whole philosophy have found a broad response across any social and intellectual boundaries. Especially in mass media, the presence of Obama is enormous and has contributed a lot to his pop- star-like-status. A comparison that holds even more truth if uttered in regard of the many songs inspired by and dedicated to Barack Obama. His impact on music is unprecedented and the effects it had on the various genres are manifold. While he was embraced with little question from the mainstream, giving some a new audience, while providing others a new word to rhyme with, it have been such non-primarily mainstream genres like Hip-Hop music[1] that made their critical voice heard.

The aim of this paper is to give an impression of the wide range of different opinions on Obama within rap music and to analyze whether there are some common notions among them. The corpus consists only of songs that are at least to a certain

degree critical, campaign songs or other, however motivated, tributes are left out. First and foremost, those utterances made in songs are taken into consideration, for it is primarily rap music as a way to express political views that is of interest here. Comments and notions made in a non musical context are used solely to further substantiate and elaborate similar lyrical expressions.

2. KRS-One

More often than not the title 'The Teacher' is used when referring to the Bronx-based musician KRS-One. And it holds a lot of truth, for Lawrence Krisna Parker, whose stage name is an acronym of the phrase “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone”, is known to address social issues in his music since as far back as 1987, when he released his first record[2] together with Scott La Rock. The account of his opinion on the new president was largely confined to interviews, but KRS-One also made use of the possibility to express his views at shows and on stages, like for example in Austin, Texas, where he played in late January 2009 and where he asked the audience

but in four years, will we still like him /
in eight years, are we gonna still hype him? /
what if he says we've gotta go into Iran /
and kill a million people /
will you still be down with the man? (Infowars).

The implication of these lines is that only because a new face is leading the nation it does not necessarily mean that things have to change, and that Obama, just like his predecessor George W. Bush, could as well support the war in Iran. KRS-One sees danger in such an unquestioning attitude and warns that “just because we got a black president don't mean you need to sit down and be hesitant”(Infowars). The musician makes clear that people should not let their enthusiasm about the end of the Bush-Era and the start of a new chapter in American history win over common sense. This point is of great importance to KRS-One. After the show, he elaborated his position in an interview for Alex Jones' documentary, warning not to “get caught up in emotional politics” (Jones). Even though he admits to understand the people's emotions towards “having a black first family in office” and even though he is also “ecstatic about the fact that at least the racial barrier in the White House has been broken”, his optimism has its limits: “Just because we have a African-American president doesn't mean that he's not going to continue the Bush-agenda. I'm not dissing anybody, but a politician is a politician” (Jones). The last sentence gives a glimpse of what little faith KRS-One must have in politics. As a supporter of the ideas as displayed by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, to name only a few of his influences, and as a musician concerned with issues of internal politics in general and those of the black community in particular, he is someone rather unaffected by the trend to believe in a great change. His expectations are of a more concrete nature:

[I]f my president frees Mumia Abdul Jabbar, maybe he'll get my eye up. If my president can release political prisoners, maybe my eye will go up. If my president can stop ignoring police misconduct, maybe my eye will go up. But I'm not hopeful on that one (Jones).

Yet the hopelessness towards the end of this quotation is not limited to those issues but can also be found when KRS-One talks about the economic situation of the country: “Americans / you are in the process of globalization / you are in the process of a New World Order / just because it has a black face don't mean a motherfucking thing” (Infowars). Once again this is a warning not to get too enthusiastic about having a new president and first and foremost not to get disillusioned by all the hype about an economic boom, because the “the president is really a manager / don't let the new world order grab ya” (Infowars). The metaphor that the president only manages the company U.S.A. and is far away from being able to profoundly change any of this companies' underlying principles is further extended in “The Obama Deception”, but also brought down to more rational grounds during this interview, with KRS-One saying

I start with the fact that everyone is pointing to Barack right now, President Obama, and saying 'You gotta get the economy together, you gotta get the economy together' when in fact the president has very little to do with the economy. It's the Federal Reserve Chairman that at least sets the policy. The president can appoint .. the president does appoint the Federal Reserve Chairman, but after that, that's a privately owned company (Jones).

The rapper's basic attitude, and the source of his skepticism, is probably summarized best with another line from one of his stage appearances where he said that “KRS got knowledge, he don't need hope” (Davey D). Having dealt with 'The Teacher' in detail, the next views on Obama are brought forward by someone who does not claim to be the one teaching but rather the one taught.


[1] A term that is used not as an acronym but as a synonym to 'rap music' in the course of this term paper .

[2] Scott La Rock & KRS-One. Memory Of A Man And His Music. Westside Records, 1987.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Critical Reception of Barack Obama in American Rap Music
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
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Barack, Obama, Rap, Music, Hip Hop, United, States, America, USA, KRS One, Dead Prez, Nas, Mir Lif, Brother Ali, Critical, Reception
Quote paper
Florian Arleth (Author), 2009, The Critical Reception of Barack Obama in American Rap Music, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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