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Music, race, and the White House

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Hip-​​hop in Amer­ican cul­ture and its con­nec­tion to Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency set the stage for a stim­u­lating panel dis­cus­sion on Wednesday night with experts in race, music, gender studies, pop cul­ture, and politics.

Titled “Hip-​​hop in the Age of Obama,” the event drew more than 100 atten­dees to the Amilcar Cabral Center. The event was pre­sented by the North­eastern Center for the Arts, North­eastern Black Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tion, and the John D. O’Bryant African-​​American Insti­tute. It was held in con­junc­tion with the center’s week­long res­i­dency with the cast of Word Becomes Flesh, which will be per­formed Sat­urday night at Northeastern.

The panel included Mark Anthony Neal, an author and pro­fessor of black pop­ular cul­ture at Duke Uni­ver­sity; renowned per­former, artist, and edu­cator Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who wrote and directed Word Becomes Flesh; and a trio of North­eastern faculty—assistant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies Sarah Jackson, asso­ciate pro­fessor of music Emmett G. Price III, and asso­ciate pro­fessor of media and screen studies Murray Forman.

Neal opened by dis­cussing black mas­culinity, which he said is more vis­ible today than it’s ever been in Amer­ican culture.

“You can’t turn on the TV or your com­puter without coming face to face with images of larger-​​than-​​life black men,” he said, noting people such as Pres­i­dent Obama and NBA super­star LeBron James. How­ever, he said many Amer­i­cans are still afraid of black men on an inter­per­sonal level, pointing to Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager fatally shot in 2012 by neigh­bor­hood watch cap­tain George Zimmerman.

“These are the kinds of things that happen for black men up close and per­sonal, and there’s an odd dis­con­nect between that dynamic and the fact that everyone loves Jay Z, LeBron James, and Will Smith. But that doesn’t trans­late into our everyday rela­tions with black men,” he said.

Joseph said that Martin’s shooting death also brought the issue of account­ability into focus.  “After the ver­dict, the most pow­erful and poignant symbol of account­ability was the Pres­i­dent of the United States,” he said, noting how Obama com­mented that if he had a son, he might look like Martin.

“Hip-​​hop being the music I grew up with, there’s no better instru­ment, I think, than the music,” Joseph con­tinued. “Unfor­tu­nately, we often fail to use the music in that way. Using his bully pulpit, I think Pres­i­dent Obama dra­mat­i­cally brought us to a place of compassion.”

Throughout the evening, the pan­elists debated topics ranging from hip-hop’s use for social good to whether Obama’s inspiring ora­tory aligns with the policy of his administration.

Dahlak Brath­waite, a cast member of “Word Becomes Flesh,” which will be per­formed Sat­urday night at North­eastern, gives a pre­view of that per­for­mance prior to the panel discussion.

Dahlak Brath­waite, a cast member of “Word Becomes Flesh,” which will be per­formed Sat­urday night at North­eastern, gives a pre­view of that per­for­mance prior to the panel discussion.

The dis­cus­sion also often cir­cled back to the issue of account­ability. Price, an ordained min­ister and a leading expert on African-​​American music and cul­ture, noted that hip-​​hop has his­tor­i­cally taken other U.S. pres­i­dents to task over var­ious issues, but this hasn’t been as preva­lent in the main­stream media during Obama’s presidency.

Joseph acknowl­edged he was con­flicted over whether hip-​​hop should play a role in holding Obama’s account­able for his policies—such as the use of drone strikes over­seas, a topic that came up sev­eral times throughout the evening—or whether those con­ver­sa­tions should instead occur at church or the dinner table.

Jackson, whose research and teaching inter­ests revolve around how social and polit­ical iden­ti­ties are con­structed in the public sphere, coun­tered that cri­tiques can be nuanced—that is, a person or the hip-​​hop com­mu­nity can sup­port Obama and still be crit­ical of him.

For his part, Murray, who studies media and cul­ture with a pri­mary focus on pop­ular music, race, and age, noted that during trips to Europe, he’s encoun­tered graf­fiti that is both sup­portive and crit­ical of Obama. He also com­pared Obama with former Pres­i­dent Bill Clinton, whom the African-​​American com­mu­nity largely sup­ported. “That’s white hip,” Murray said, “and Clinton can be that, but he’s never going to have what Obama has,” which he said has been described as a “soulful style.”

This article was originally published by news@Northeastern.