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Inspired by Obama, hip-hop community braces for change

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Kidz in the Hall, Michael "Double-O" Aguilar (left) and Jabrai "Naledge" Evans (right) wear Obama t-shirts at a rally for the candidate at Spelman College in Georgia last fall. (Courtesy of Naledge Evans)

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Rapper DLabrie (Center) talks to fans at the 4th Annual Midwest Summit at the University of Michigan last February. He performed his song, "Vote for Barack," for the first time at the Summit. (Courtesy of DLabrie)

A year ago, the No. 1 song on the hip-hop charts was “Low,” by Flo Rida, a club anthem about “spendin’ dough,” and “boots with the fur.”

Now, things are different. With the economy in the gutter and an African-American president, rap songs are bursting with new material. “Tell him I’m doin’ fine, Obama for mankind/We ready for damn change, so ya’ll let the man shine,” sang Young Jeezy in his hit single “My President is Black” on his album “The Recession.”

Hip-hop music, which has long depicted the harsh reality of poverty and violence, has taken a more uplifting turn. During the 2008 presidential campaign, dozens of rappers— from community activists to high-profile performers like Jay-Z—wrote songs championing Barack Obama.

Now that Obama is in office, however, the hip-hop industry is waiting to see what’s next. Some artists are watching the president closely for inspiration for new songs, but others are unsure of whether they’ll continue to write about him. Obamamania may be over, but Obama may now stand for a new kind of power.

As Obama gained steam on the campaign trail, he inspired all kinds of musicians. But hip-hop artists turned their focus from money and violence to Obama, and wrote and sang about his success.

“Hip hop was going down the ‘bling’ road—about having fun, and experiencing things,” said Amy Andrieux, senior editor of The Source, a magazine on hip-hop and politics. “I don’t know if that’s ever going away, but such a big political figure like Barack Obama has encouraged people to speak about politics out loud in their music. They can be smart, they can be involved.”

Hip-hop duo Kidz in the Hall is an example of this trend. When they released their upbeat single “Work to Do” in late 2007, it became one of only a few songs officially endorsed by the Obama campaign. Tackling political themes, the Kidz were at the forefront of a trend that other performers followed.

Kidz member Michael “Double-O” Aguilar explained how this musical transformation is an expression of the country’s new politics. Americans felt a need to escape from reality during the Bush administration, he said, and much hip-hop music became known as “ringtone rap”—catchy, danceable songs that could be played on cell phones—which gave people that ability to escape.

“I would say that because of the Obama campaign and its success, people don’t necessarily want to hear about some of the same things they wanted to hear about a while ago,” he said.

For some rappers, it’s going to take a while until this Obamamania wears off. Darcel Labrie, known as “DLabrie,” is a rapper from Oakland whose song “Vote for Barack” became an Internet sensation during the campaign. Labrie said he is motivated to work on more songs about Obama’s political decisions right away. And he insists that it’s going to be a long time before the president ceases to inspire hip-hop and rap artists.

“All the rappers are really pumped,” he said. “It’s going to take the full eight years of Obama before the buzz dies down.”

For Bryan Gibel, a rapper in Albuquerque, the hip-hop community in New Mexico is closely examining its new president, ready to glean fresh inspiration. And if Obama doesn’t live up to his promises to improve public safety and repair America’s foreign reputation, Gibel is confident that the hip-hop community will air grievances in their music.

“We’ll come together and demand that he make changes that he promised,” he said.

No matter what Obama does in office, some believe he may have transformed hip-hop forever. Bakari Kitwana, author of “Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop,” said that the national hip-hop industry will now be political watchdogs—holding its hero to high standards and reverting to ridiculing him if it has to.

“If Barack Obama gets in office and starts doing the same thing that other presidents have done, they’re going to be talking about him just like they talked about everybody else,” he said.

Hip-hop music, which is traditionally grounded in the reality of poverty, will be fundamentally different only if Obama transforms life for the nation’s poor, Kitwana said.

“If the neighborhood changes, because of Obama’s economic policy, then the music will also change.” Kitwana said.

Some artists, however, feel that trend of dedicating songs to Obama has passed now that he is in office.

Jabrai “Naledge” Evans, a Kidz member from Chicago, believes that hip-hop artists will mention the president in songs and incorporate one-liners about the president. Obama will become a backdrop for a new metaphor in rap, he said, explaining that rappers will use him “almost the way they reference ‘Scarface’ and Al Pacino.”

Obama’s name “has become synonymous with power,” Evans said.

E-mail: icw2104@columbia.edu