Rapper Killer Mike talks about the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary at Stroy's Barber Shop Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 in Columbia, S.C.
Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty

Is hip-hop sitting on the sidelines this election season?

Updated

It’s been said ad nauseum — 2016 is not like other election cycles. Certainly, when it comes to activism on the part of the hip-hop community and its stars, this year pales in comparison to the recent past. With a stark general election contest and a leading candidate in Donald Trump, whose positions on issues like gun control, Black Lives Matter and even the president’s birthplace have antagonized many African-Americans, it’s curious how little pushback there’s been from the rap community.

Hip-hop historically hasn’t played a major role in presidential politics, especially since — at least initially — the federal government appeared to have nothing but antipathy for the genre. That began to change in 2004, when Puff Daddy launched his occasionally maligned Vote or Die campaign to motivate hip-hop fans to register to vote. Eminem released a fairly partisan call to arms that fall, rapping in “Mosh”: “If it rains, let it rain, yeah the wetter the better. They ain’t gon’ stop us they can’t, we’re stronger now more than ever.”

The rise of Barack Obama in 2008 only broadened hip-hop’s political influence. As the first national candidate to truly embrace the hip-hop community, Obama boasted prominent surrogates from the rap scene, inspired countless lyrical nods and capitalized on a popular viral video headlined by Black Eyed Peas star Will.I.Am which used one of his primary campaign speeches to energize voter turnout. Later, after he won the White House, the first African-American president continued to inspire hip-hop anthems like Young Jeezy’s “My President” and Nas’ “Black President,” just to name a few.

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This year, without Obama on the ballot, it appears that there is a hip-hop constituency without a home. Puff Daddy abandoned his Vote or Die crusade last year, declaring voting a “scam.” Politically charged rapper Killer Mike has been one of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ most prominent celebrity surrogates on the campaign trail, but most hip-hop stars have largely stayed silent this election cycle even when it appears that the GOP nominee will be Trump, a man whose penchant for racially-charged rhetoric and conspiracy theories has in part led to an 86 percent negative rating among African-Americans, a core audience for hip-hop.

But Donald Trump has been nothing short of an icon in hip-hop for decades. Back in 1989, the same year Trump was publicly calling for the execution of five minority teens accused of assaulting a white woman in New York’s Central Park (the teens were all later exonerated), the hip-hop group Nice and Smooth was lamenting the fact that they were not “rich like Donald Trump.” Today, modern rap stars like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West (who Trump professes to “love”) still reference him, despite his widely condemned birtherism and the strong attraction apparent white supremacists have to his campaign. 

“This guy has been sort of a code word for ‘I’m rich’ for a very long time in rap music. That’s something that is sometimes admired uncritically,” Shawn Setaro, a contributor to Forbes and host of the hip-hop podcast “The Cipher,” told MSNBC on Tuesday. “It can be tough to switch to being more critical of an actual person.”

According to Huffington Post, in the last 25 years alone, Trump has been mentioned at least 67 times in rap songs (Genius.com puts that number in the hundreds) — almost always in an aspirational context:

As rap icon Ice Cube recently put it in an interview with Bloomberg“Donald Trump is what Americans love. Donald Trump is what Americans aspire to be — rich, powerful, do what you wanna do, say what you wanna say, be how you wanna be … That’s kind of been like the American dream. He looks like a boss to everybody, and Americans love to have a boss.”

And while Ice Cube conceded in that same interview that Trump was still viewed largely as “a rich white guy” who could never relate to the challenges of low income people or those who face discrimination, his ubiquitous presence on the pop culture stage of a symbol of financial success has endured.

“There has definitely always a strain in hip-hop of aspiring to wealth or saying we have wealth and that is very tied to that fact that a lot of the performers who advocate that do not come from wealth, so getting there or imagining you are there is very powerful,” added Setaro. And while he believes that most people who consider themselves members of the hip-hop community see Trump as a “bad guy” and “racist,” they also can’t avoid the fact that he has long been useful as a symbol.

“Hip-hop has always used everything around it – musically in terms of taking records and re-purposing them – and I think that’s true culturally as well,” Setaro said.

Trump’s trademark braggadocio and branding have also led many to compare his persona to that of a hyper-confident hip-hop star:

Still, some hip-hop artists, including those who once rapped affectionately about Trump (like Mac Miller, who now says he “hates” the real estate mogul) have started become increasingly vocal about their displeasure with him now that he is a divisive candidate for the presidency. Rappers YG and Nipsey Hu$$le released a song in late March entitled “FDT,” which stands for “F–k Donald Trump,” while rapper T.I. has posted a video on Instagram telling fans not to buy his music if they support Trump. Last month a group of Baltimore-based performers have crafted an anti-Trump protest song and music video entitled “CIT4DT,” which stands for “Choppa in a Trunk 4 Donald Trump.” In hip-hop parlance, “choppa” is a euphemism for a select-fire rifle. 

In addition, Setaro believes that many hip-hop fans, artists and producers are working hard behind the scenes, if not for a specific campaign, then to at least raise awareness about issues such as police brutality and income inequality that directly affect their communities. But without a particular candidate who speaks their language or one who they feel comfortable galvanizing behind, don’t expect songs rhyming Hillary Clinton with anything anytime soon.

“I don’t think anyone wants to do a song that reeks of sloganeering,” Setaro said. “You don’t want to do a campaign theme.”

Donald Trump, Hip-Hop and Pop Culture

Is hip-hop sitting on the sidelines this election season?

Updated