Obama’s musical legacy

I THINK IT IS OVER. The most recent typhoon of Buzzfeed articles, obnoxious blog posts, and other means of starry-eyed ill-educated virtual professions of admiration seem to have passed in the wake of Obama’s recently released workout playlist. Is everyone OK? It was a tough couple days for me as well. And to be frank I’m not entirely sure I made it through unscathed – to a large extent because I have some pretty fundamental reservations with one or two of the song picks. But more troublesome than even the sad truth that our president listens to Sting is that there may be nobody to continue guiding the trajectory of socially aware and socially inflecting music which Obama has given such freight and such direction in the past eight years. I have learned to live with Sting and his woeful popularity, but not with the ills that could be done in today’s political climate and in the right – or wrong – conditions to the progress and productivity Obama has helped to cultivate in contemporary musicians.

President Obama has paid specific attention to hip-hop throughout his presidency. Given the careful attention he has given music during his incumbency it seems as if he might be tailoring ideals and values in order to propagate reform; scattering political influence in contemporary music. Likewise, the famously political soul jazz and spoken-word poet, author and musician, oft-argued the generator of modern hip-hop, Gil Scott-Heron had a clear orientation for his music. Heron sang and proto-rapped with brazen eloquence about social responsibility and, with a firm and steady voice in the face of dissent, without a crack or correction, about social equality. He said once, “I’ve always had questions about what it meant to be a protester, to be in the minority. Are the people who are trying to find peace, who are trying to have the Constitution apply to everybody, are they really the radicals? We’re not protesting from the outside. We’re inside.” And since his time such ideas have worked themselves deeper and deeper inside – into the very belly of the beast. The sentiment has been developed throughout President Obama’s tenure in his use of music and musical references. The purpose: to water the seeds of America’s gestating social awareness and haphazard social justice organization through music. The revolution may not be televised – the song and idea for which Heron is best known – but, 46 years later, it is being broadcast on different streams: the radio. President Obama’s categorical promotion of socially aware and socially progressive artists has in effect catapulted their social freight.

And musicians with a message has had a pretty permanent seat at the White House over the past eight years. Besides even Obama’s famous admiration of Kendrick Lamar, who has been invited several times to meet with the president and perform for him, Obama has given a sidelong wink in his recognition of Killer Mike, longstanding political activist and social egalitarian with hip-hop as his medium; or with Macklemore, who, despite an apparent lack of any musical talent, does streamline his thematic focus to educating youth against addiction, and has also been honored with personal invitations from our president.

In a similar vein, over the past two years Obama has spearheaded the My Brother’s Keeper initiative program to aid disadvantaged and malapportioned youth, which seeks to achieve equilibrium from the imbalances generated and propagated by racial injustice. Enlisted as his musical and lyrical sentinels in this, Obama hosted A$AP Rocky, Rick Ross, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, Alicia Keys, Pusha T, Common, Nicki Minaj and more at an unannounced White House meeting. These are artists whose voices reach far, who inhabit the ivory Olympian summit of the current hip-hop hierarchy. Though they do not necessarily have a responsibility, they do operate in positions capable of making a significant, if not imperative, influence on how our society considers rappers and even more importantly the disadvantaged and malapportioned communities they represent. For Rocky, that community is Harlem; for Pusha T, it is Norfolk, Virginia and other lower socioeconomic southern communities; for artists like Common and Killer Mike it is the socially disadvantaged at large. In venerating artists as such, and ostensibly taking under wing artists with the capacity to do the same, Obama seems to have his eyes set on extending his influence far beyond his presidency. He has and continues to generate a social movement from the voices with the most power to direct the socially disadvantaged. Such guidance can intercede anger and rancor with the leadership and organization inseminate a real positive change.

President Obama has aptly picked music as a medium for social influence. Music negotiates a response which transcends social categories, and produces a reaction at the most basic human level. Philosopher and misanthrope Friedrich Nietzsche professed in his first major essay, The Birth of Tragedy, “the cosmic sybolism of music resists any adequate treatment by language.” He is right, we will never be able to express, in any media besides music itself, in what ways and with what emotions music involves the listener; it is the most poignant and evocative human expression.

Obama has indicated as such himself in his own musical performances. In 2012, he sang a snippet of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”; and in 2014 he sang “On the Road Again” with Willie Nelson on a PBS broadcast to the troops; or again in 2014 Obama sang a tear-choked “Amazing Grace” in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney after he and his bible studies group were slain in their sanctuary during the Charleston shooting. In moments or circumstances when words do not seem apt our president has turned to music to doctor a reaction, to garner a following of sustainable and productive passions. Obama’s continuous use of music throug his presidency suggests that he perceives music as a mode of influence, a means by which fervors and fanatacisms can be either placated or radically incensed – and has continually used it to pacify social unrest and harness from that unrest a productive voice.

President Obama has made music a part of his presidency by releasing inclusive and diverse playlists such as this workout mix; he has made music a part of his legacy by categorically endorsing the politically active voices of contemporary music. In so doing, he is maneuvering the resolution and relief of a long-standing and weighty social discontent. In one of his essay collections, Going on the Territory, Ralph Ellison in characteristic silver-tongued agility puts the sentiment quite well. He narrates, “while he laughed in bright major chords I responded darkly in minor-sevenths and flatted fifths, and I doubted that he was attuned to the deeper source of our inharmonic harmony.” Music of all sounds and demographics, of universal harmony, has been a part of Obama’s legacy from its genesis and seem to have been used in order to placate racial discord. In 2012, Obama famously interrupted Jay-Z’s America Festival performance in form reminiscent of the great spectral head in The Wizard of Oz with some advice for the audience. In his short speech he said, “To me, the idea of America is that no matter who you are, what you look like or where you come from, you can make it if you try. Take a minute to just enjoy what’s possible when people from all walks of life have the freedom to go as far as their talents take them… That’s the promise of this country. All of us have the obligation to keep that promise alive.” President Obama seems to be ensuring that that obligation be met, providing some structure, some safety net, some general direction for the way we engage with music as a country and direct the social inflections which follow from it. He is decorating our future with his euphonic legacy. More and more, we as a country grow to like more or less the same music, and the music speaks to us in new ways, depending on its presentation. In the course of his presidency, Obama has inculcated our contemporary music with a greater political message and with a presidential stamp. That is a legacy far greater and far less

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