Hip-Hop Political Support

For Obama, celebrity endorsements can boost or back-fire

With such high-profile hip-hop celebrities as Russell Simmons, Sean Combs, and Jay-Z publicly supporting Sen. Barack Obama, many political watchers and hip-hop activists expect the appeal of a black presidential candidate to inspire a higher-than-average turnout among hip-hop supporters. But while celebrity endorsements can give Obama a boost, they also have the power to hurt him, particularly if a celebrity attracts controversy.

“The hip-hop community can play a huge roll in the 2008 election,” says Shamako Noble, president of the Hip Hop Congress, an organization that encourages social, economic, and political involvement among hip-hop generation youth. “Obviously Barack Obama is the candidate that the hip-hop community and the black community relates to the most,” says Noble. “We’re finding that there are a lot of people who are very excited about the possibility of the senator as a candidate.”

Indeed, young people in general have taken an increased interest in this election, compared with previous years. According to Young Democrats of America, more than 6.5 million young voters – those between the ages of 18 and 29 – voted in primaries and caucuses this year, up 103% from 2004.

The celebrity appeal of hip-hop artists urging African Americans to vote is being credited for some of the increased interest among black youth.

“Using celebrities has always worked well, particularly in communities of color,” says the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, a non-partisan organization that mobilizes young people to vote. “Harry Belafonte was there with Dr. King and Ozzie Davis, and obviously Muhammad Ali was there with Malcolm X.” This month, the group kicked off its “Get Out the Vote” campaign, with recording artists T.I. and Keyshia Cole urging young people to get registered.

But celebrity endorsements can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help.

Most recently, rapper Ludacris released a song this month called “Politics: Obama is Here” in which he makes reference to Sen. Hillary Clinton being “irrelevant” and says Sen. John McCain shouldn’t be in “any chair unless he’s paralyzed.” The song also mentions the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s much publicized remarks criticizing Obama’s stance on fatherhood and calls President George W. Bush “mentally handicapped.”

Amidst a media firestorm, the Obama campaign immediately distanced itself from the song. Campaign spokesman Bill Burton told Politico.com, “This song is not only outrageously offensive to Sen. Clinton, [the] Rev. Jackson, Sen. McCain, and President Bush, it is offensive to all of us who are trying to raise our children with the values we hold dear. While Ludacris is a talented individual, he should be ashamed of these lyrics.”

The controversy highlights the fine line the Obama campaign must walk as it seeks to appeal to a diverse range of groups, says Marvin King, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Mississippi.

“They’re trying to galvanize the hip-hop community to vote. That’s something that people are generally going to support,” King says. “But it becomes a problem if those events where they’re trying to encourage the hip-hop generation to vote

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