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From Obama to Trump and the State of Music

The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.

In 1981, Barack Obama transferred to Columbia University from Los Angeles’s Occidental College.  According to the Netflix biopic “Barry”, it would be in New York where he would go from Barry to Barack and begin to embrace the complexity of his identity. At the same time, only a couple miles to the north, a subway transfer away, a burgeoning musical force slowly crept into the national subconscious and emerged as a unique expression of American blackness in an era dominated by Reaganesque conservatism. 

While Barry became Barack, the Bronx became the home of arguably the most influential cultural force of the late 20th century: hip-hop. Obama’s ascent to the national stage paralleled this development; in 1987 Public Enemy released “Yo! Bum Rush the Stage”; in 1989 De La Soul dropped “Three Feet High and Rising”; in between, in 1988, Obama entered Harvard Law School, the same year P.E.’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” galvanized rap enthusiasts. He graduated in 1991 just as A Tribe Called Quest bequest upon the world “The Low End Theory”.  As Ta-Nahesis Coates recently pointed out, the Obama’s are “fervent and eclectic music fans”, that a younger incarnation of the President surely imbibed the new sound of the 1980s and 1990s. 

His rise from obscure undergraduate to Harvard Law Review and from Senator to President parallels hip-hop’s own ascent to cultural dominance. At the White House BET party in October, De La Soul, Janelle Monae, Jill Scott, Usher, Bell Biv Devoe, and other past and current stars of the genre attended; Obama danced to Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. Today, Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper stand among his favorite contemporary artists. “If Obama’s enormous symbolic power draws primarily from being the country’s first black president,” Coates noted, “it also draws from his membership in hip-hop’s foundational generation.”

Yet to limit the President’s musical taste to hip-hop does Obama a disservice. Tony Bennett and Bob Dylan have performed at the White House; Low Cut Connie, the Rolling Stones, Florence and the Machine, Nina Simone, and Justin Timberlake all found their way on Obama’s Spotify playlists. Following suit, the music service jokingly published a vacancy for a “President of Playlists”; a position that demanded the ability to craft a soundtrack that encompassed “shooting hoops with your friends to … addressing the nation about health care legislation that bears your name." A conduit for and reservoir of popular culture, Obama merged the arts and politics like no president before him. 

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Obama with B.B. King during the 'In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues' in 2012.| Photo: The White House/Getty Images

Musically, Trump seems to embrace classic rock, think Peggy Lee and the Rolling Stones, and music of the 1980s, but not exactly the cutting edge hip-hop that Obama embraced. More indicative of Trump’s taste are The Reagan Years, a cover band which plays only music from the Gipper’s two terms, and the B Street Band, a Springsteen ‘80s facsimile of the New Jersey artist and his E Street Band; both had been scheduled set to play on January 19th, but the latter backed out due to protests by fans of the New Jersey musician.

Nor does Obama’s cultural acumen confine itself to mp3s and vinyl. Obama welcomed the cast of Hamilton to the White House in March of last year where he described the musical as a “cultural phenomenon” that tells a “quintessentially American story.” Through every song, he told listeners “we hear the debates that shaped our nation, and we hear the debates that are still shaping our nation.”  Trump has not seen the musical but noted he thought it “highly overrated.”

He also embraced the literary. As evidenced by countless White House events with the likes of Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, and Jhumpa Lahiri among others. Few presidents since John F. Kennedy have embraced the arts like Obama argues Rutgers University English Professor Jeffrey Lawrence. From all accounts, Trump prefers cable news to the written word. 

At times, the 44th President has even combined culture and policy. Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, advocated for a controversial Obama-backed bill, PROMESA, that looked to create a fiscal control board to manage Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. His My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, an effort to address obstacles facing young men of color and to create new opportunities for them to succeed, enlisted the help of high-profile musicians; Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Pusha T, Busta Rhymes, J. Cole, Common, and others. Anxious over the reluctance of young people to sign up for Obamacare, the President appeared on Zack Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” to stump for the health care plan. The next day enrollments jumped 40 percent. The man may have been educated in ivory towers, but he always kept his prodigious ears firmly planted to pop cultural ground; perhaps more importantly, he understood how to deploy it effectively for larger ends.

What Comes Next?

President Donald Trump ushers in a very different connection to popular culture and the arts. A reality television star, Trump embraces the “I’m not here to make friends” divide and conquer ethos promoted by a thousand episodes of Survivor, The Real World and countless other examples. A master of social media, Trump provokes where Obama cajoles. The former New York City real estate magnate traffics in grievance and outrage. 

As a black man, Obama never had the luxury of using anger as a cudgel; African American politicians rarely have such an option. The closest Obama would come was via proxy. Comedy Central comedians Key and Peele channeled the President’s frustrations through his Anger Translator, Luther. Trump on the other hand, needs no conduit for his fury other than twitter. In terms of humor, Obama always seemed to grasp the absurdity of it all, smiles and laughter were not foreign to him; Trump as Chuck Todd noted recently never laughs.  Though in the past Trump touted Saturday Night Live as a favorite, recent impersonations by Alec Baldwin have not tickled his elusive funny bone. 

Yet, if the laughter stops, that doesn’t mean popular culture will. When Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1981, the same year that Obama enrolled at Columbia, rap took off while punk and indie rock pushed back. In addition to the kind of foundational hip-hop already mentioned, SoCal’s Black Flag, Bad Religion, and the Minutemen offered sharp rebuttals to what they saw as political retrenchment. Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat and Bad Brains caterwauled into the void. In the Midwest, the Replacements and Husker Du took less political but not less oppositional stances.  More recently, during the George W. Bush presidency, Green Day released the widely acclaimed “American Idiot”; they’ve updated it in response to the incoming president. 

Such examples have been cited by The Guardian, a tone deaf Amanda Palmer, and others to argue that a politically active musical renaissance lay before us. Already, the Black Lives Matter movement has found numerous vocal supporters such as musicians, Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper along with newer voices like Jamila Woods and Noname. 

Regardless, whatever pop culture treasures we experience in the coming four years, they will probably be in response to rather than intertwined with the occupant of the White House. I find it unlikely T.I. will pen an ode to Trump as he did Obama. Obama is and will remain a singular physical and symbolic intersection of pop culture and politics. Even a nation of millions could not hold him back. 

Banner Photo of US President Donald Trump at the Chairman's Global Dinner. | Photo: Jim Watson/Getty Images

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