Most people are longing to completely close the door on 2020. It’s a good idea for us to leave some things behind, but let’s not forget the madness some of our favorite rappers put us through during the 2020 political season. They disrupted the political system, but not in the way most of us would have wanted.
Some of the lowlights include Kanye’s ill-fated presidential campaign, which was an ego ploy aided by Trump allies. Then Ice Cube allowed himself to be used as a pawn by the Trump administration when adviser Katrina Pierson announced that he met with them about Trump’s Platinum Plan. Diddy’s Our Black Party political party, which was announced three weeks before the election, remains confusing in its purpose. 50 Cent fanned flames by joking about voting for Trump because of tax cuts, while Waka Flocka implied that Trump was a better president than former President Barack Obama. Once Trump announced his Platinum Plan, which promised $500 billion dollars to the Black community, Lil Wayne, Gunplay, Asian Doll, and others unabashedly endorsed Trump, with Wayne even heading to the White House for a photo op.
It’s fitting that a Trump election was defined by noise. But we didn’t expect so many artists to help him pump up the volume. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. Last year reaffirmed how some mainstream rappers have alarming parallels to the GOP as rich egoists who promote misogyny, LGBTQ-phobia, and capitalistic excess at the expense of others. Trump’s wealth had him celebrated in rap lyrics before his policies necessitated “FDT,” and artists have taken cues from him by preserving the oppressive American empire in pursuit of their own personal fortunes.
Last year was an exhausting cycle of facepalm-worthy headlines that led most onlookers to condemn the genre as a whole. But that’s not fair. Acts like Lil Baby, DaBaby, Roddy Ricch, Trae Tha Truth, and The Roots participated in voter drives. Cardi B and Killer Mike amplified the leftist-supported Bernie Sanders, while artists like Noname and Lupe Fiasco promoted political education of all scopes. St. Louis-born rapper-activist Tef Poe helped start Black Men Build, an organization that runs food and clothing drives and protected voters at the polls last November.
There are existing examples for artists to productively use their platform going forward. But instead, too much attention was given to acts who misused decades of cultural equity. They didn’t just demonstrate their lack of political education, they also showed that their privilege disconnected them from the pulse of the people, especially those who aren’t Black men.
Both political parties have long sought out the Black vote through hip-hop, which has become the lowest common denominator for politicians with no actual connection to Black communities. In 2020, that dynamic manifested for Democrats in a pro-Biden URL rap battle, as well as Biden-Harris rally performances from Common, Offset, and 2 Chainz. While those moments sparked some annoyance because of Biden and Harris' carceral politics, there was a feeling among most Black voters that at least Biden was the lesser evil in the election. If these were the rap world’s only endorsements, it would have been business as usual. Unfortunately, they weren’t.
The danger came from artists who committed actions that helped President Trump’s fascist agenda. Trump has helmed an administration that’s infringed on the rights of every marginalized group over the past four years. We saw the way he galvanized members of his base to breach the US Capitol yesterday, an occupation that cost four people their lives. While some feel like an artist supporting Trump is a harmless difference of opinion, the reality is that any endorsement of him is an endorsement of white nationalism and the suffering of millions. He “courted” the Black male vote, because he figured that some of us were easier to win over due to priorities that dovetail with his.
Kanye directly affected votes with his “presidential campaign.” He reaffirmed that he was wholly unqualified for any public office with missed filing deadlines and a lack of a platform, and his Charleston, South Carolina, campaign stop was marred by an unfocused speech and tearful anti-abortion rhetoric, leading many to worry that the entire campaign was a manifestation of a manic episode. That may have been the case, but it’s also worth noting that he hasn’t expressed any regret about it since, and perhaps this is a choice he was 100% in on. If this was a lucid, focused decision, then he had no business making it. Last year’s election was a life-or-death moment for many. There were women trying to maintain their abortion rights, and trans people seeking to keep their reproductive rights. There are millions of undocumented people, including some at ICE detention camps, that deserve better than for someone to trivialize their humanity like Kanye and his enablers did. It’s OK to turn award shows into public spectacles; it’s a deplorable move to do that with public office.
The circumstance became even more infuriating when CNN reported that there were “Trump-orbiting GOP operatives” helping his campaign. This news became public after he told Forbes that he still had plans to talk to members of the Trump administration and wouldn’t deny that he was seeking to damage Biden’s chances in the election. Somehow, Kanye’s multitudes of supporters miss the reality that he spent the last four years intent on maintaining proximity to fascism for his ego. While his fans still love him, many agree with Chuck D that his actions were “absolutely the worst epitome of narcissism.”
Another artist who tarnished their name is Lil Wayne. He’s well-known for being out of touch with politics and popular culture, but he crawled out from under a rock just in time to endorse Trump five days before the election. Some people were surprised to see Wayne taking a photo with Trump in the White House while extolling the Platinum Plan, noting the way he railed against the Bush administration. But songs like “Georgia Bush” were a result of how the then-President’s ineptitude affected Wayne’s home of Louisiana. As Wayne makes clear in almost every song, he hasn’t known anything about being broke in a long time, which means he couldn’t care less about our trials—especially while facing up to 10 years in a federal gun possession case. There’s rampant social media speculation that he may be seeking a Trump pardon. Wayne opens every concert telling fans, “I am nothing without you.” His actions, like Kanye’s, didn’t indicate that.
Trump was able to use Wayne as a trinket in his attempts to appeal to Black male voters. At the time, MAGA supporters had already adopted 50 Cent and Ice Cube after a pair of ill-advised actions. Trump adviser Pierson tweeted last October that Ice Cube had talked with the Trump administration about their Platinum Plan, creating the misconception that he was endorsing Trump. Soon after, 50 Cent jokingly posted on Instagram that we should vote for Trump because of Biden’s tax plan. Cube clarified that he hadn’t endorsed anyone, and 50 walked back his comments as a joke. But for many gullible Trump supporters, and those mulling voting for him, it was too late to shift the narrative.
The American political arena is about optics; that’s why both men ended up being Photoshopped with MAGA hats even after clarifying their positions. It’s not surprising that neither politically inexperienced artist understood that mere proximity to Trump could be manipulated into the perception of endorsement. And given that they and their loved ones would be rich regardless of the election results, they don’t have much personal impetus to give a damn about the consequences of their actions. This is yet another example of how rappers’ newfound privilege, borne from the people’s support, works against the people.
If the 2024 election season is going to be better than 2020, it’s going to take learning and unlearning from everyone. And part of that process is revoking power and authority from entertainers who believe they deserve political platforms and political positions just because they’re famous.
Last year’s maelstrom is a consequence of the 2010s era convergence of politics, activism, and celebrity. Obama embraced celebrities and hip-hop unlike any previous president. Fans begged for entertainers to talk about police brutality and other injustices. And as those issues reached the fore of public consciousness, it eventually became unclear whether stars were bringing light to them out of genuine agency or a desire for positive PR. Black Lives Matter-affiliated activists became celebrities. So naturally, celebrities felt they could, in turn, usurp grassroots movements and become the predominant voices for Black liberation. Many people, eager for their celebrity fix, allowed them to. The predicament has gradually led to Ice Cube putting together a Contract With Black America (with questionable insight from activists) and Diddy’s Our Black Party, which seems like more of an attempt to treat politics like branding than a genuine political party.
While artists should promote grassroots organizations and start book clubs to educate their fans, the overwhelming majority of them aren’t qualified to actually become political figures. Even Tupac, an artist beloved for his political voice, only spoke on his efforts to create a political party as a future goal. The then-25-year-old knew he had more learning and growing to do to be worthy of leadership. Why can’t these artists accept the same reality? Perhaps their against-all-odds comeups make them think they’re all-powerful.
Another undeniable link in all of these situations is Black manhood. This may be where some Black men groan and begin to feel “attacked,” but facts are facts. Black male rappers led this circus. It’s undeniable that straight Black men are victims of racism and face abuse at the hands of the state, but we don’t also face oppression for being women, or being gay, or being trans on top of racism. We want racism and police to go away, but so many of us are fine with capitalism, because we benefit from wage disparity and employment rates on the hierarchy of Blackness. For instance, neither the Contract With Black America or Our Black Party proposes any pro-woman or LGBTQ-specific policies. They vie to be unilateral, patriarchy-prioritizing corollaries of previous movements. But we can’t have freedom until everyone is free. And that means making major social and societal sacrifices that centrist, egotistical, tax-conscious male celebrities don’t seem to be willing to make.
In 2018, Trump asked Black voters to “honor us with their vote” in the midterms a day after taking a meeting with Kanye in the Oval Office. In 2020, he brought along more rappers and the Platinum Plan, a platform with a name that speaks to the racist perception that Black people are blinded by shine. Perhaps that’s a consequence of the GOP’s observation that many of our richest figures prioritize Black capitalism over Blackness. That’s why Diddy’s first message of 2021 was “if 2020 didn’t bring the hustle out of you, it ain’t in you.” The same could be said of radicalism.
Malcolm X once censured Black entertainers for their propensity to “step away from the coffee table [with politicians] telling you and me that this man is all right.” Kanye was all right with Trump because he empowered his manhood. Trump was all right with Asian Doll “because the n***a giving out a lot of money right now.” If that’s all Black entertainers are asking for, which amounts to Black access to white supremacy, that’s not enough.
Voting isn’t the end-all of activism. Political education is a daily, lifelong process. If the 2024 election season is going to be better than 2020, it’s going to take learning and unlearning from everyone. And part of that process is revoking power and authority from entertainers who believe they deserve political platforms and political positions just because they’re famous. Entertainers are best served amplifying radical voices and offering money to their causes—not trying to step over them. There will always be artists who side with the establishment in their privileged self-interest, and come out endorsing controversial candidates, but that’s when it’s time for people to ask themselves, “Why do I care what they have to say?” If we can’t think of a good reason based on a track record of contributing to Black movements, then maybe we shouldn’t care.