Election week special: An Obama mixtape to celebrate

    First, the shameless self-promotion. A couple of months back, I was asked to select some background music for a politically themed life drawing session for teens. The event would take place on Halloween and allow teens to use live models dressed as various political figures as drawing subjects. The political angle was appropriate considering the event was a weekend away from Election Day. And for some of the teen participants, this year would be their first opportunity to vote (more information about the program can be found here). Needless to say, I jumped on the opportunity to participate and have since been culling a patchwork playlist of voices, anthems and opinions.

    In reviewing the abundance of political music available, I have been especially struck by the variety and volume of music that has emerged during the current presidential election season. Yes, the Internet has played a large role, particularly in distributing homemade efforts — most admittedly range from the maudlin to the novel. But the Internet has also premiered, “debuted” or leaked a number of this season’s notable efforts. No longer do you have to sift through various CDs (or your folks’ LPs) to hear the retro campaign joint of your preferred candidate. Now, a simple YouTube search yields the full spectrum of the traditional “pistols, guns and knives are comin’ “ diss song and the contemporary stadium/convention anthem.

    To date, Barack Obama’s pop-culture savvy has been well documented, so I’ll spare any more analysis of this phenomenon. However, it is worth noting that Obama’s open engagement with pop culture has seemingly spawned a music community or at least reactivated a long dormant one. As of Sunday, Nov. 2, a search on YouTube for “Obama Music” yields 43,000 hits. Contrast with “McCain Music”‘s 13,000 hits, and it’s little wonder that most every pop celebrity has thrown Obama an endorsement.

    With this wealth of Obama-related music, I naturally started to make a blend. The goal was not to select my favorite joints but to document a chunk of this online music activism. Being grounded in hip-hop mixtapes, I favored the ones with beats (with the notable exception of will.i.am’s emo-all-star “Yes We Can” campaign and John Legend’s Cirque du Soleil-meets-Bono “If You’re Out There” love-fest), but otherwise I simply sought to highlight the variety of ways artists have shown political love in 2008.

    So, enjoy this modest blend — please go easy on the mixing criticism, as this was done on the first take with no edits. The track list is after the jump. And let us know if you think the U.S.A. is really ready to see a black president.

    Download here (.zip)

    “Intro from our sponsor”
    All of the interludes are taken from Angie Martinez’s interview with Obama on Hot97 in June 2007 while the Senator was campaigning in New York City. The interview is pretty fluff, but this is Hot97, not Edward Murrow’s Hear It Now. The full interview is available on Hot97’s site here.

    2Pac: “Changes”
    The idea for the tape came from Nas’ “Black President” cut, which samples a line from this posthumous 2Pac song (for more beyond-the-grave music, check out this feature). Aside from providing the hook in Nas’ song (and the title of this mix), the song’s overarching call for change made it a natural shoo-in for inclusion. However, its release roughly ten years ago provides a nice starting point for this conversation: Back then, the prospect of a black president seemed dim. Now, the proverbial game has changed significantly.

    will.i.am: “Yes We Can (Obama Song)”
    Truthfully, including this song in aural format only does it no justice. “Yes We Can” is a media phenomenon built around a viral video that plays on mainstream “alternative” sensibilities. Personally, seeing Gabe from Six Feet Under emote a sentence from this transformative speech feels contrived. But “Yes We Can” has to be acknowledged as the pink jackass in the room.

    John Legend: “If You’re Out There”
    This Legend joint actually explodes even the largesse of his latest Evolver by filling stadiums with its creamy synths and pounding Olympics-anthem drums. A rather bizarre turn from a singer whose increasingly raspy voice sounds more at home with simple piano and brass, but when a presidential candidate calls…

    Janelle Monae: “Mr. President”
    I actually didn’t realize Monae was singing “This song is for my mama,” not “This song is for Obama,” until I made this blend. That said, the song captures one of several frequently used devices in the Obama discography — the personal plea. Monae starts small by focusing on domestic matters but quickly expands by weaving in health and foreign policy concerns. She grounds these concerns by repeating, “Quit slowing me down,” which recalls a familiar theme in American politics and Obama’s view of intervention: The government should enable people to help themselves. Maybe if Janelle starts making Oprah money, she can write some anthems for Rosa Clemente.

    Joell Ortiz: “Message to Obama”
    Ortiz nails the letter-writing device in this a cappella version by detailing his world and the affects of the current administration’s policies on it. His conclusion, rhyming “Yowah” with “Obama” is strangely awkward, but you get the point.

    “Words from our sponsor”
    Obama’s nuanced response covers a lot of familiar ground but also reveals a significant attitudinal shift from Reagan’s PR trip through the South Bronx nearly 30 years ago.

    Mavado: “We Need Barack”
    Living on the right coast has helped me become more sensitive to the States’ long-standing and complex relationship with the Caribbeans, but it is no longer a surprise that the artists from the islands take such an interest in American affairs. So, dancehall artist Mavado uses the first-person plural intentionally to emphasize that the interest in a change in America’s fundamentalist-guided, opportunistic disaster capitalism policy is international.

    Ludacris: “Politics As Usual”
    Another song from the current campaign that is impossible to ignore, though for completely different reasons. Despite being a mixtape cut, Ludacris mystefyingly showed no restraint with this song. For an artist who has made strident efforts to break out of the hip-hop mold and into the American mainstream, particularly through acting, he demonstrated a remarkable blindness to the fact that his celebrity, not to mention his past meeting with Obama, would bring wide attention to this song. Sure, the word “bitch” and “Hillary” had been used in the same sentence numerous times before. And pundits seriously discuss McCain’s precarious health. So, why Luda? Because as Chris Rock so eloquently summarizes, “White man makes gun… no one gives a fuck. Black rapper says ‘gun’ — Congressional hearing!”

    Young Jeezy: “My President Is Black” ft. Nas
    As much as I want to read double entendre into Jeezy’s Lambo (and its rims) being “blue,” the truth is this song simply uses Obama as a positioning tool. Meaning, Obama becomes a chest-beating point of reference in the same way past rappers compared their selves to Ali or Malcolm and so on. Sure, Nas goes into more detail about his conflicted feelings about elections, but this song is characteristic Jeezy: glorifying the act or the person, in this case Obama, to put himself on.

    Prinz: “Barack Obama Freestyle”
    Another song that references Obama, yet has absolutely nothing to do with him. Truthfully, I should have put some Crooked I joints on here instead, particularly “Hood Politics.” That entire mixtape is an extended, gross appropriation of the broadest Obama campaign motto, “Change.”

    Cocoa Tea: “Barack Obama”
    Reggae and dancehall singer Cocoa Tea has frequently railed against social injustices in the States, from his “Me No Like Rikers Island” to “New Immigration Law.” This bouncy paean is thus hardly a novelty and instead fits comfortably with the rest of his ouevre. Extra credit for taking shots at Chuck Norris (presumably for his endorsement of Mike Huckabee) and “The Terminator.”

    Big Boi: “Something’s Gotta Give” ft. Mary J. Blige
    For those who thought 3K would be the one to go all in for Obama, the ever-industrious Big Boi came through instead with this lucid summary of the frustrations of today. Much like most folks I know, he doesn’t seem to have a grasp of why the world seems to be spinning out of control, but has a good hunch who can help bring back order.

    The Roots: “Masters of War” (Live)
    This live rendition of the Dylan composition made the rounds a couple years ago as indie gold: Hipsters will listen to a hipster-approved band covering a hipster-approved song by a hipster-approved artist of their parents’ generation. That said, the cover isn’t that bad — perhaps even one of the best reinterpretations of the American national anthem since Hendrix’s Woodstock performance or Marvin Gaye’s 1983 All-Star Game version. Considering the continuing muckery of the current administration, it seemed appropriate to throw the dart again.

    “More words from our sponsor”
    Another “duh” statement, but how many pols actually admit that race is still an issue?

    Kam Moye, Probz & Royce Da 5’9″: “Change”
    At the time when I recorded the mix, Green Lantern’s blend was still just a months-old news item, so I just threw on this leak. Again, another case of rappers appropriating Obama’s message of change for something more personally relevant — like the music industry.

    Nas: “Black President”
    Nas’ paranoia is usually articulated in terms of poetics instead of specifics, which can be immensely frustrating. However, his exploration here of expectations, doubts about hope, and assassination actually chart the history of race in American politics — call it a rap-up of political disconnect and voter apathy. The feint glimmer of hope at the end is what makes this song a remarkable moment for Nas.

    Common: “The People” ft. Dwele

    On the complete opposite end of the tone spectrum is the ever wistful Common. “Street radio for unsung heroes.” Need I say more?

    Kidz in the Hall: “Work To Do (Obama For America)”
    We close on a hopeful note. “Work to Do” again has little to do with Obama himself, but it promotes a brand of diligence and self-determination that aligns (in the broadest sense) with the Obama campaign’s message. Get up, get out and get something — especially on Nov. 4, assuming you haven’t voted early already.

    “Outro from our sponsor”
    Not sure if this is the interview that led every pundit to cite Obama’s love of Jay-Z, but please note the brother is more of a Stevie and Marvin fan. Ahem.


    Image Credit: Shepard Fairey