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Dabs for Votes: Does Using Hip-Hop Culture Help Candidates Win Elections?

Hip-hop culture is more prevalent in our politics than ever before, but it's unclear how genuine that connection really is.

by Lawrence Burney
Nov 4 2016, 6:54pm

In the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton accused her then fellow candidate Barack Obama for being an elitist and out of touch with America's working class. That criticism inspired a speech from President Obama in which he flipped Clinton's argument, urging that her attacks were political tactics of the old guard that needed to be changed. He retorted, "You just kind of gotta let it…," before brushing his shoulders off, right-to-left, giving a nod to Jay Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" single from 2003 and effectively sending the crowd into a craze of approval.

"What people who knew the cue could do is simply fill in that gap with their own information, and he didn't have to say a word," Lester Spencer, Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, remembers the speech in a phone conversation as he drives from Baltimore to Washington, DC, for a speaking engagement at Georgetown University. "The thing that's interesting is it ends up really being an insiders joke. Because if you look—I looked at the Sunday talk shows afterwards—and the Sunday talk show hosts, who are all white and all male, had no idea what he was doing. They were like 'Oh my God, he is so arrogant .' They had no clue." In his 2011 book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics, Professor Spence used that event to anticipate how hip-hop in politics would soon become a norm due to the ascension of rap as the language of American popular culture.

A look at the current political landscape of America and how black culture has played a role in it shows this to be true. Last March, Ben Carson announced his entry into the presidential race by having his hometown Detroit's Selected of God choir sing Eminem's "Lose Yourself."  In early October, California congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who is running for US Senate against fellow Democrat and current state attorney general Kamala Harris, capped off a debate by randomly hitting the dab. Particularly egregiously, Donald Trump appeared on Saturday Night Live just before the Iowa caucuses to do a parody of Drake's "Hotline Bling" dance. Yet over the past year, Hillary Clinton has outdone them all: She's dabbed and done the Nae Nae on Ellen, sold a shirt in her official campaign store that reads "Yaaas, Hillary," and taken a selfie with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Hip-hop stars like Pusha T, DJ Khaled, and Jay Z have been campaigning to help ensure her election into office on November 8. Most recently, a meme comparing Clinton's pantsuits to the style of Death Row Records rap artists generated enough buzz online that she had to jokingly admit that her look has been influenced by a label that housed 2Pac and Snoop Dogg in the 90s.

Yet even with seemingly strong support from the black community, Clinton's overtures to black pop culture have been treated as pandering and met with backlash, especially across social media, where she's been turned into a daily source of running jokes communicated through memes and GIFs. An effort to "raise the roof" at the Apollo Theater in Harlem earlier this year was widely mocked. In an interview with The Breakfast Club in April, Clinton stated that she carries hot sauce in her bag, like Beyoncé says in "Formation." Even though people quickly dug up evidence of Clinton publicly professing her love of hot sauce as far back as 1992, the statement was convincingly cast off as inauthentic when packaged with the handful of cultural references she'd already made up to that point—TMZ called it " a clear attempt to snag New York's black vote." With such perceptions pursuing politicians like Clinton even as these theatrics and tactics become a common occurrence, it's worth asking: Do cultural references actually result in votes?

"There is no real metric to prove that dancing or references to pop culture helps gain young voter approval. It's probably more important to be authentic," is what Leah Le'Vell tells me through an email conversation. Le'Vell is a 21-year-old college student working on the African American & Millennial Initiatives and Urban Media team for the Republican National Committee. Initially drawn to the Trump campaign by his promise of restoring jobs in the country, she sees better options for attracting voters than the use of rap, dance, and pandering. "You always try to make sure everything happens according to plan but it's important to be natural, and not always saying things that are poll-tested or fake, which is one of Hillary Clinton's biggest weaknesses. Authenticity matters and so does trustworthiness."

A 69-year-old white woman's affinity for hip-hop is appropriate to challenge, especially considering that in 1996 Hillary Clinton made a comment about urban youth being "superpredators" with "no conscience, no empathy"—the same youth that is largely responsible for the creation and success of rap. On the other hand, Trump, who boasts of his many black friends but is openly discriminatory and has earned the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, is hardly a more appealing choice for young people of color to relate to. But that doesn't mean that the Republican Party isn't interested in winning the sympathy of the hip-hop audience. Some in the party have long maintained that the hip-hop tropes of focusing on money and making it on your own are in line with their vision of free market economics and individual responsibility. Last November, Aspiring Mogul, a rapper from Georgia who wrote a rap radio ad for Ben Carson that went viral, told Esquire about his attraction to the Republican Party: "I think for me, what I want to inspire is more conversation," he said. "Republicans are about the free market, competition, education. My Republican friends are always pushing me to do better." The ad rap, however, which didn't sound much different than South Park's 2004 parody music video for Diddy's Vote or Die campaign, permeated through social media but didn't result in many votes for Carson.

Twenty-five-year-old Anré Washington, the outreach manager for Voices for Georgia's Children and former intern with the Congressional Black Caucus, says that while he's conscious of the ambiguity of where some politicians may stand in their public relations, the easiest way to gauge their actions is to grade on appropriateness of the situation. "I think it depends on the politician," he tells me over the phone. "It depends on the place that they do it. You know, for example, if you have someone like the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Marcia Fudge, at her regular cookout, wobbling and doing the electric slide, she's out there dancing and in her element. In terms of Representative Sanchez, I think she serves her district well. On a debate stage, with the seriousness and the type of issues that you are dealing with, you shouldn't dab."

To Washington, the politicians most successful at genuine youth outreach are former Newark mayor and current New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who has proven successful at engaging with the public on Twitter and Snapchat, and First Lady Michelle Obama. "Michelle Obama is one of the most powerful political voices in our generation, the most powerful woman in this country, and one of the most powerful women in the world," Washington says. "She has the ability to simultaneously shapeshift—from mom to powerful politician to policy thinker—but at the same time convey a sense of authenticity and do it with the pop culture references, doing the dances, and joking about things, and being in the spaces at the concerts and meeting the celebrities."

The Obama presidency has been fittingly at ease with reveling in black pop culture. At the 2012 White House Correspondents Dinner, President Obama shouted out Jeezy's music as a proper to kick off his second term; he's invited Kendrick Lamar and Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda to the White House to perform; this past August he released a summer playlist that included songs from Chance the Rapper, Method Man, and Common. Jay Z and Beyoncé have been longtime friends, with Queen Bey even singing the national anthem at Obama's second inauguration. In September, Michelle Obama invited Beyonce to spend her birthday weekend at the Presidential retreat Camp David. This attitude toward hip-hop culture has drastically changed the standard of what is normal in the political realm and has proved to be an effective way of winning the approval of young prospective voters. But it's not easy to replicate organically.

"Campaigns are incredibly unpredictable so some decisions have to be made on the fly," Rabiah Elisa, a 23-year-old digital strategist for the Democratic National Committee, tells me through email. Elisa, along with a team, is responsible for using metrics to measure how the public receives certain gestures made by politicians within the Democratic Party. Campaigns like the #IWillVote hashtag have proven to encourage voter registration and overall turnout. But these calculated moves are not always the biggest moments in the conversation. "No one expected Donald Trump to attack former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, in a series of tweets starting at 3:00 AM," she says. "No one expected him to assert that predominately black areas are 'ghettos.' We have to respond to those moments in real time. But we also try to make real data-driven decisions and think strategically for the long term."

Professor Spence traces the genesis of hip-hop culture being used for political gain back to Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, in which the candidate made a point to unambiguously push for racial harmony in the country. It was a stance so rarely taken by white presidential hopefuls up to that point that his target audience's eyes widened in gratitude. The move was pivotal considering that Jesse Jackson—who'd run in 1988 and who spoke specifically to black issues spanning from aid in inner cities to South African Apartheid to affirmative action—decided to not enter the primaries that year. Clinton won an impressive 70 percent of black votes in the primaries, and his election would eventually earn him a stamp of approval from many in the black community as well as the colloquial title of the first symbolic black president (albeit under a regressive rationale that considered his playing of the saxophone and allegations of weed smoking and adultery).

Yet Clinton simultaneously won the hearts of many white Americans with proposals of welfare reform, tax breaks for the middle class, and his 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a bill that would slice through the black family at unprecedented rates. What was especially contrary to President Obama's shoulder brushing was Clinton's pivot in the general election to distance himself from Jackson, which he did by locking in on Sister Souljah, the celebrated artist, author, activist, and film producer who used hip-hop as a vehicle to push her message of social change and who was, along with Clinton, invited to speak at a conference of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in the summer of 1992. In an interview with the Washington Post in 1992, Souljah was asked of her opinion on the black-on-white violence during the LA Riots, and she answered, "I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I'm saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?"

Bill Clinton compared her remarks to the extremism of Republican and former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, taking advantage of the moment to differentiate himself from Jackson, who was unpopular with moderate white voters. The concept of a Sister Souljah moment, in which a candidate publicly disassociates themselves from a perceived extremist person or statement tied to their party or personal life, is now embedded in American politics. These days, the equation has changed: Trump has refused to distance himself from the very same David Duke who was invoked as unconscionable in 1992, even as he dances to Drake, and Hillary has worked hard to distance herself from her superpredator comments. Playing to a youth vote via hip-hop culture has been a big part of that.

As we rapidly move towards a world of heightened transparency, not only in politics, but in our day-to-day lives, the capacity for duplicitous marketing will inevitably diminish amongst millennials and generations to come. And while, dabbing, doing the Nae Nae and aligning with popular rap stars are far from the most crucial elements of these, and future presidential campaigns, it's important that we as a society, have our antennas up to properly assess how such references and tools have been used to both hurt and help us throughout history. But as hip-hop continues to age and politicians who grew up absorbing it come of age, we're still in the beginning stages of the culture assisting political gain. "Jay Z is around my age, and in three years, I'll be eligible for AARP," Professor Lester Spence matter-of-factly states as he nears his talk at Georgetown. "As hip-hop increasingly becomes synonymous with American and popular culture at large, people are going to feel more comfortable using it."

Illustration by John Garrison

Lawrence Burney is a Staff Writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter