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,â€ 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,â€ 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.â€
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,â€ 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.â€ This month, the group kicked off its “Get Out the Voteâ€ 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 Hereâ€ in which he makes reference to Sen. Hillary Clinton being “irrelevantâ€ and says Sen. John McCain shouldn’t be in “any chair unless he’s paralyzed.â€ 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.â€
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,â€ King says. “But it becomes a problem if those events where they’re trying to encourage the hip-hop generation to vote