Election Day brings to mind two artists who have endorsed candidates in the past. One of them had a tremendous impact on the 20th Century, the other on the 21st. The first one helped to lay the groundwork for the second. We’re talking about James Brown and Jay Z.
James Brown endorsed Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 Presidential election. As a result, he was called an Uncle Tom by many; the Black Panthers dismissed him as a capitalist and as Sold Brother Number One. In 1972, James Brown endorsed Richard Nixon even though, just before the two men had their photo op meeting, Nixon told an aide: “No, no, no, no. No more black stuff. No more blacks from now on, just don’t bring ’em in here.”
In fact, James Brown’s social and political agenda went far beyond the politics of Humphrey or Nixon. After James Meredith was shot in Mississippi in 1966, Brown flew to his side. He did benefits for both the NAACP and for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the latter after having a brutally frank discussion of political strategy with SNCC’s H. Rap Brown. James Brown was anti-nuke. His early tours featured a critique of a criminal justice system he knew all too well. George Haines, the prosecutor who sent a teenage JB to prison in 1949, would bring a suitcase into court and tell the judge: “Your honor, here’s my suitcase! If you let this man go free, I’ll pack up and flee this town!”
“That suitcase became a signature in the paroled entertainer’s late 1950s show,” author Cynthia Rose writes, “a red prop emblazoned on one side with Please Please Please and on the other with Baby Take My Hand. Brown would use it to close a set.”
Later, when Brown was doing six years in prison for traffic violations, more time than William Calley did for the My Lai massacre, he told the New York Times: “I think there’s a lot of money spent on housing people away from home that should be spent on building them a home so they won’t ever have to leave.” On songs such as “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and “Soul Power,” Brown advocates for the environment and for increased spending on education. On 1972's “Funky President,” Brown was an early proponent of reparations (“Let’s get together, get some land”►) and even called for people to own their own factories.
In both 2008 and in 2012, Jay Z famously endorsed Barack Obama. Their relationship went back to an April 17, 2008 press conference where Obama responded to a mudslinging attack by Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Presidential nomination. Obama referenced Jay Z’s song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” even though the song’s lyrics are raw and profane, and include the line “middle finger to the law.”► When a reporter asked if Obama was really using a Jay Z song to make a point, a campaign spokesman replied: “He’s got some Jay Z on his iPod.” This was the first time in American history that a Presidential candidate had embraced hip-hop. Such a breakthrough might have been expected to come via some pleasant backpack rapper, but Jay Z is an unrepentant former drug dealer from the hood.
Contrast Obama’s embrace of hip-hop to the actions of Bill Clinton who, while running for President in 1992, denounced rapper Sister Souljah, saying that she was the black equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. It would be extremely surprising to see Jay Z hook up with the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in 2016.
During the 2012 campaign, Jay Z raised $4 million for Barack Obama in one night by co-hosting a fundraiser with his wife Beyonce, charging $40,000 for entry to his 40/40 club in New York. Karma-wise, this was repayment for Obama’s endorsement of Jay Z the year before, when the President said the New York rapper exemplifies “what Made in America means.”
Obama didn’t make it clear what he meant by “Made in America,” so perhaps he was unaware that Jay Z used more than his music to make it to the point where he could raise enough money to affect a Presidential election.
At the very 40/40 Club where the Obama benefit was held, Jay Z was sued by wait staff who said they were paid below minimum wage. After reviewing the earning reports of several employees, a federal judge ruled that the club owners were violating New York labor laws.
Jay Z used sweatshops to produce hip-hop gear for his Rocawear clothing lines. According to the New York Times, “most urban consumers would be appalled if they knew of the horrendous conditions garment workers were forced to endure inside sweatshops to make hip-hop apparel… twenty workers who attempted to form a union said they were immediately fired, and subsequently smuggled Rocawear and Sean John labels out of the sweatshop as evidence.”
Jay Z expressed lukewarm support for the Occupy movement, but his concrete action was to sell “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts for $22 apiece.
So why wasn’t Jay Z damned as a sellout the way James Brown was? Other than a mild rebuke from singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, Jay Z has gotten a free pass. Cynics might say that nobody cares anymore and evidence for that argument could be found in a recent Pew Research Center study found that “a majority of black Americans blame individual failings—not racial prejudice—for the lack of economic progress by lower-income African Americans.”
Because each artist emerged from a different historical moment, to compare the eras of James Brown and Jay Z is to compare apples and oranges. When James Brown made his Presidential endorsements, America was in the midst of huge and highly-visible civil rights and anti-war movements. Urban rebellions and campus takeovers were the order of the day. If you weren’t part of the solution, which Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon clearly were not, James Brown was considered part of the problem when he endorsed them.
When Jay Z staged his four million dollar endorsement of Obama in 2012, there had been plenty of movement-related activity, but it was either underground or popped up for a minute and then disappeared—the immigration marches, Occupy, September’s climate march in New York. Today’s movements are sporadic and disjointed and haven’t put forth commonly accepted standards of judgment the way the freedom and anti-war movements of the 1960s did. As a result, Jay Z went unchallenged when he said: “Whether Obama does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America, is enough. Just being who he is. You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything, he should be left alone.”
Jay Z’s free pass for Obama might have been understandable in 2008, when we were all caught up in the euphoria of a black man being elected President in a country still so disfigured by its history of slavery. But by 2012, after the bank bailouts, a massive increase in deportations, and escalating military adventures around the globe, Barack Obama seemed to be on the side of the one per cent, not the ninety-nine.
Jay Z would certainly agree that we need to ensure the right to vote, and he proved it when he went out on the campaign trail for Obama in 2008, accompanied by Mary J. Blige, P. Diddy, and Beyonce, urging young people to get out and vote. Today, the right to vote itself is in danger. Election officials in 27 states are now linked to Interstate Crosscheck, a project that has already purged tens of thousands of voters from the rolls after being accused of voter fraud, despite a lack of evidence. One in seven African-Americans are listed as under suspicion of having voted at least twice, as are one in eight Asian American voters, one in eight Hispanic voters, and one in eleven white voters.
Crosscheck could mean that many whose first vote came for Obama in 2008, a vote perhaps inspired by Jay Z, might be knocked out of the electoral game.
Crosscheck is an attempt to suppress the voices of voters who may have at least begun to talk to each other, doing so on the heels of a few decades of music working its magic to reduce barriers among the people. The most significant of those barriers is race. James Brown crossed over on his own terms and took his music from the segregated South to all who could feel a beat, symbolized by the fact that on “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the children’s chorus was made up entirely of whites and Asians. Country stars waged a lengthy and ultimately successful campaign to bring James Brown to the stage of the Grand Ol Opry, where he received a warm reception. Brown’s mere presence that day served as a precursor to the current wave of country/rap duets.
Similarly, Jay Z has not only has helped to expand the electorate, but also to greatly expand the hip-hop audience, which he explains as due to “This generation right now, they…. are a bit removed from those racist feelings because again, it’s hard to teach racism when your child is out at clubs. It’s integrated and the music we listen to is the same.” When recently interviewed by Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson, Jay Z added that “all our feelings and anxieties and all that thing are more similar now.”
The right to vote must be defended and expanded. But we vote not just to vote but to push for specific changes. Artists who want to help make those changes should follow the example James Brown set in staying connected to his roots. He did it not just by flying into hostile territory to support James Meredith. Not just by getting into the thick of movement politics with H. Rap Brown. And not just in his lyrics and who he performed for, but in the way that he held court every night in his dressing room and in rib joints, hair salons, and private homes. Pirate radio pioneer Black Rose told me he was at one such gathering at a house in Oklahoma City and that Brown was tireless in expounding on his vision of freedom.
Rapper Talib Kweli followed James Brown’s example of flying into hostile territory when he went to Ferguson, Missouri in August to support a community which had seen one of its own, Michael Brown, killed by police. “The people in Ferguson had a right to protest the excessive force used to execute Mike Brown.” Kweli wrote on Medium. “We can change things by attacking the root of the problem, not the symptom.”
If Talib Kweli’s actions become standard operating procedure for the many artists who do want to see positive change, this can have a powerful impact on our electoral system. It is at ground zero of our struggles that the right to vote can be most effectively defended, because that is where a disproportionate number of people are being disenfranchised. And it is at the grassroots where voters can be most effectively mobilized around issues, instead of being treated as mere election-day fodder by candidates with weak track records and vague promises.
Lee Ballinger is an associate editor at Rock & Rap Confidential
He can be reached at email@example.com