"Do dope. Fuck hope."
—Killer Mike, ‘DDFH’ (2013)
Killer Mike lost love for President Obama before he even won re-election. And while folks like Young Jeezy and Nas were full of patriotic black pride during his ascendancy in summer 2008, the president’s second term is hardly so celebrated among rappers old or new.
What's got Lupe Fiasco and Dead Prez and Inspectah Deck so disillusioned?
In a legacy-setting profile of the president published last week in the New Yorker, editor David Remnick pressed Obama for his personal take on recent marijuana legalization strides in Colorado and Washington state. From the interview:
"As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol."
And on criminal prosecution for weed possession and distribution:
"Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do. And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties."
Likewise, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last year summarized his objection to current federal sentencing guidelines:
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. . . . Widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.”
Not that any of this precludes the feds from running up in your spot, though the U.S. Justice Department has said that it will limit its anti-drug enforcement efforts in some states to major trafficking cases and policing distribution to minors.
Obama’s personal indifference to cannabis aside, consider that the highest office-holder in the land doesn’t think weed is all that bad for you. And yet apart from the few states that have liberalized personal marijuana use—including Colorado, Washington, California, and Vermont—federal law still regards marijuana as a “dangerous substance” with “a high potential for abuse.” So you best believe: the feds are still watching.
Since the culture’s dawn, hip-hop has almost always been split between moguls and revolutionaries. Jay Z, the nation’s First BFF, doesn’t seem the likeliest gadfly, despite his frequently-hyped access to the West Wing, and his perspective as a reformed dope-boy, it’s not publicly clear whether Pres. Obama and Mr. Carter discuss much other than ESPN and violations of diplomatic protocol.
The question remains in 2014: whether hip-hop, given its mainstream validation through the past decade, might ever prove a credible, effective platform for advocacy in major public policy discussions.
the question remains in 2014: whether hip-hop, given its mainstream validation through the past decade, might ever prove a credible, effective platform for advocacy in major public policy discussions.
Certainly that’s been the genre’s aspiration at various turns. From the insurrectionist rhetoric of Public Enemy and Goodie Mob, to the formal petition put together by major rap industry talent in 2012 requesting a meeting with President Obama to discuss drug use, juvenile incarceration, and the imperial scale of America’s prison-industrial complex.
No, Weezy never did break buds with Barack in the State Dining Room.
Meanwhile, among 12,196,959 total arrests made in 2012, the largest criminalization category (1,522,432—about 12 percent) was drug abuse violations. Six percent of these arrests having been made for marijuana distribution; 42 percent for marijuana possession. And nationwide, blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to be swept for marijuana possession, according to the ACLU. (Note: FBI/UCR does not identify Latinos as a distinct racial group in its data, thus making a likewise comparison difficult.)
So when Killer Mike suggests that Obama, Bush, and even Reagan have all, wittingly or not, perpetuated a form of oppression that stretches back to the Nixon administration, he’s not quite wrong.
Beyond these hip-hop streets, even, paranoia abounds. It's easy to see why: vast NSA taps, fear and loathing of military drones, racial profiling-while-styling, not to mention all the local tragedies of vigilante justice. But in 2008, rap placed a hopeful bet on Obama. And, hey, change happens slowly sometimes. In the grand scheme of things, when all is said and done, the effect of his two terms might leave us all breathing a little easier. But as it stands now, the F.B.I., D.E.A., D.O.J., and the ghost of Rockefeller have yet to ease up on the million or so gratuitous lock-ups hampering, if not ruining, lives, annually in this country.
French Montana aside, the streets still need a hero. Keepin hope alive is hard. It’s not enough, just having a black president.
Justin Charity is a writer in Brooklyn, NY who shouts out Richmond and D.C. He has a website here and you can also find him @BrotherNumpsa.