Rap stars have long been in the business of name-dropping. Louis Vuitton. Escalades. Dom Perignon. Even Holiday Inn gets its share of attention.
But more and more, hip-hop artists are doling out shout-outs of a different kind: presidential endorsements.
It all hearkens back to rap's roots – and suggests that an epic change could be in the making.
Hip-hop music was born out of racial and social unrest, and its earliest pioneers took seriously their roles as the pundits of the streets, addressing real-life issues such as racial profiling, political corruption, and poverty. Rap groups such as Public Enemy and NWA showcased the gritty, rebellious perspectives of an oppressed community.
Yet as the genre gained mainstream attention and began raking in Grammys and record sales, some of its biggest stars reduced themselves to touting bling, belittling women, and not much else. This year has been especially rough for rap music, thanks to Don Imus. The radio commentator's remarks had conservatives blaming rappers for creating an environment in which racist and sexist remarks are casually tossed around.
With all the finger-wagging that the genre has endured, it's made it easy to overlook the fact that rap has taken the lead in acknowledging what is promising to become a monumental presidential race.
Many of today's more socially conscious rappers are putting the spotlight back on political issues and candidates – and their go-to guy has become Democratic contender Barack Obama, or "B-Rock" as he was recently dubbed by Vibe magazine. Rap artist Common, whose latest CD debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts earlier this month, brags that he'll "ignite the people like Obama." Talib Kweli echoes that on his latest release when he says, "speak to the people like Barack Obama."
This brand of socially conscious rap has become unique in that it still has incredible appeal with young audiences yet doesn't necessarily resort to a dumbed-down agenda. Aside from the blind flag-waving kind of patriotism that has become a hallmark of country music, most of today's popular musicians tend to sidestep politics altogether. And top-selling pop outfits certainly never mention specific politicians.
It's easy to see why the hip-hop community is so excited by Mr. Obama's ascent. In him they see not only someone who is young, black, and, for many rappers, a native son (from Chicago) – but someone who acknowledges the badly broken political process that still marginalizes minorities and the poor. Indeed, Obama seems to address a need to fix the very conditions that necessitated the genre's formation.
Instead of rappers urging people to fight the power, their shout-outs to Obama signify a collective sense that they could actually "seize" the power. Instead of fighting the man, a black man could "be" the man. With Obama having a legitimate shot at becoming the Democratic presidential nominee, there exists a hope that has at least temporarily replaced sentiments of constantly being given the short end of the stick.
As Obama tries to appeal to a wide swath of voters, he has been wary of embracing hip-hop too openly. Yes, he's met with rap stars like Ludacris, but he also had some harsh words for hip-hop after the Imus debacle, saying that rap music lyrics include the same offensive language that got the radio host in trouble.
Still, rappers' frequent references to Obama show what an extraordinary cultural-historic moment the politician's rise to prominence has created for the hip-hop generation.
Meanwhile, the growing popularity of politically conscious MCs has changed what it means to be a star rapper. In outselling artists like 50 Cent, they've proven that their audience is ready to embrace a return to social awareness and focus on community.
• Sara Libby is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.