Cruel Summer: Kanye West and Nicki Minaj Make Headlines, But Not Political Music

As our country’s presidential election nears, odd political commentators have started to show up in headlines — actors pledging their political allegiances on the internet or at large political conventions, athletes espousing moral absolutes, TV personalities hosting fundraisers, and pop rappers setting aside their usual bling-and-swag lyrical fare to make political commentary.

I could write articles on any of these celebrity groups and discuss how odd it is that the campaigns and the media think these people have political authority and find it necessary to broadcast their opinions as front page news. But I find the last group on my list — pop rappers — one of the least fitting groups to do so. Why are journalists suddenly so concerned with rappers’ political opinions, and why are rappers so eager to declare them?

Snoop Lion (formerly known as Snoop Dogg), proclaimed his endorsement for Obama at a press conference. Nicki Minaj and Kanye West have both made headlines with lyrics knocking (or praising?) Mitt Romney. And, in turn, articles dissecting these two rappers’ throwaway lyrics have run in news outlets across the web

The rappers’ political commentary has been half-baked at best. The lyrics in question are striving mainly for shock value; they are trying to attract publicity more than actually spark legitimate political discussion. This new fascination with politics in popular rap music seems out of place and very strange for the genre.

Pop rappers and pop musicians in general usually try to provide as little problematic content as possible for their listener. Anyone who has listened to any pop radio has heard the typical examples: Maybachs, champagne, women and men who are skilled at lovemaking. It is hard to debate that any of those are bad things, in and of themselves. (Plenty of argument to be had over whether or not these are important things for us to be focusing on as a culture, like consumerism, objectification of women, blah blah. We’re not talking about that here.)

However, a Nicki Minaj lyric: “I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney/You lazy b*****s is f*****g up the economy” is much more contentious. The satire (if that’s what is) is underdeveloped, confusing, and discordant — qualities that by definition, pop music usually avoids.

The reason why these lyrics are making headlines is that news outlets are mistaking the mention of political figures and political concepts as actual political commentary.

Associations drive the flow of ideas in rap music — I am like this, you are like that; my rap’s like this, your rap is not. Pop rap often uses pop culture icons or popular concepts to make these associations. What two people are more popular in the news right now than Obama and Romney?

Kanye uses the mention of Romney in his rap in order to describe ways that Kanye is trying to protect his “stacks” (of money.) Romney tried to protect his stacks by not paying taxes. Kanye is trying to do something similar by investing in new houses or something. It’s hard to parse exactly.

Either way, Kanye is not making a definite point about Romney or his campaign. Kanye is merely mentioning something of which Romney has been accused. He doesn’t pass any judgment on it. He just says it and then goes back to talking about his own wealth and his city. This is not political music, though it is as close to being political as popular music gets nowadays.

The definition of political music has changed so much over the past half decade. The folk Vietnam protest songs of the 1960s and '70s gave way to the punk rock and golden age rap of the '90s. The last time that any real political music was popular was during the days of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Political music has to make a statement, and make the listener think. Listeners had to unpack these folk songs’ thinly veiled political messages; they were forced to think critically about them. 

Folk music is not popular anymore, probably because there is more unexplored territory in electronic synths and sampling. The folk sound and folk spirit has been absorbed into indie music, and little of its political disposition remains. Political music is not popular anymore, probably because most of the proactive politically conscious spirit of the '60s is gone as well.

Historically, rap music has been an unflinching politically minded genre. It is only recently, now that the genre has been accepted in to the mainstream, that its political fervor has been tempered. Tupac, Black Star, Public Enemy, N.W.A., and KRS-One, some of the founders of modern hip-hop, wrote very political music.

None of it was very popular. None of it got the wide radio play that Kanye’s or Nicki’s music gets today. The genre was young and widely thought of as threatening and non-musical. The only overtly political rap song I’ve heard get wide radio play is Tupac’s “Changes," and that may have been because it was a posthumous release, or because the emotions in the song hid its true political nature.

Popular music tries to stay away from making overtly specific political statements because politics divide fan bases. Popular music seeks to please the widest audience of people that it can. The only real political song I’ve heard come out this year is Killer Mike’s “Reagan." He raps: “Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor/ Just an employee of the country's real masters/ Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama/ Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters." That is real political rap, but we will never hear that on our radios. 

The attention that being paid to pop rappers and their politics is ridiculous. Kanye and Nicki are not making legitimate political commentary, and they have no desire to do so. They are merely shouting out popular cultural icons as ways to attract attention and talk about themselves. They’re just taking advantage of the election fever to make headlines.

Also, these rappers know that their president is listening. Obama has remarked time and time again in interviews that he likes rap music, and that he is a big fan of Jay-Z and Ludacris. He invited Common to the White House, causing a good deal of controversy. Obama commented on Nicki Minaj’s lyrics directly in an interview on Power 953.

Rappers should use the president’s and the country’s attention to make some actual political statements, instead of spitting throw-away lines rhyming “tax” with “stacks." Or they could stop speaking about politics all together, cease exploiting the media's incredibly short attention span, and go back to making their club bangers.

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Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is a senior staff writer at Mic focused on music, activism and the intersection between the two. He's based in New York and can be reached at tom@mic.com.

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