In a campaign event, Barack Obama emulated a rapper. No, he didn't demonize women, shoot a gun, or smoke cannabis. Rather, in response to the vicious political attacks thrust at him by his opponents, Mr. Obama simply brushed it all off.
Mr. Obama's wordless gesture during his speech - brushing imaginary dirt off of his shoulder - was an admitted allusion to rapper Jay-Z's popular single "Dirt off Your Shoulder." The song emphasizes that the best response to life's obstacles is optimism, perseverance, and the happy transcendence of the "haters" who seek to bring one down.
Now, Mr. Obama is cruising toward the Democratic nomination. (If only Hillary Clinton had listened to more Jay-Z.) But of course, the pundits' reaction to Mr. Obama's iconoclastic act was expectedly absurd.
MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough admitted, in an unwitting display of his own woeful cultural IQ, that he had no idea what the gesture even meant. Scarborough's guest, Richard Cohen, went even further, saying that Mr. Obama's calm disregard of his opponents was "contemptuous and aloof" and "not smart."
Even Obama's defenders missed the point. Maureen Dowd gushed in the New York Times that Obama's behavior was admirable because it secured him as the "cool" candidate in the presidential election.
Well, as a member of the millennial generation - for whom hip-hop is a generational anthem - I can say with certainty that both sides badly missed the point. Obama's implicit endorsement of rap is indeed a step forward for American democracy, but not just as a slick campaign stratagem. Rather, it is a welcome recognition that American politics can actually learn something from hip-hop music.
Rap music has profound implications for American democracy that reverberate far beyond Obama's gesture of personal resilience. The genre is so much more than the political keys to a young voter's heart or a mere lascivious diversion; it is a vivid dispatch from the heart of inner city America, teaching us important lessons that we ignore at our peril.
Rap is the most entrepreneurial genre of music to date, lionizing the boot-strapping individual and the upward economic mobility that defines the American Dream. For example, as the late Tupac Shakur famously wrote:
Full grown, finally a man
Just schemin' on ways to put some green inside the palms of my empty hands
Just picture me rollin'
Flossin' a Benz on rims that isn't stolen.
If only John McCain would realize that hip-hop music is the most passionate artistic defense of free market capitalism in popular culture, perhaps he could enhance his appeal to those voters 50 or more years younger than he. Or perhaps he would help to extend the due recognition to an art form that has done more to encourage and glorify self-reliance and the American Dream than any other in history.
Of course, rap has its surly elements, as Bill O'Reilly repeatedly reminds us. But there is far more to gain from open discussion of these issues than avoidance of them.
As hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons brilliantly stated recently, "I'm not saying all rap is good. But most of what I hear from rappers is an honest depiction of what they know. The poet is just reflecting the truth of society."
If only George W. Bush would listen to rap's damning indictment of our government's failed social policies. Rap provides visceral depictions of the towering economic incentives in the inner city - created by failed policies in education, gun control, the war on drugs and more - that encourage criminal behavior in those forgotten areas of the nation.
It's better to hold government accountable for its failures than to close our eyes to the uncomfortable realities depicted in the music. Who knows more about inner city life - Cam'Ron or Bill O'Reilly?
However, despite his recent pro-rap inroads, Mr. Obama himself has been largely guarded in his political endorsement of rap music overall. In his book, the Audacity of Hope, Obama encourages community leaders to criticize rappers with the same moral vigor with which Obama criticizes "overpaid" CEOs. Such half-hearted political maneuvering is unfortunate, and only lends credence to rapper Nas' observation that "most intellectuals will only half-listen" to their insights.
It's not surprising that Mr. Obama the economic liberal is reluctant to embrace the true message of rap. It's about social AND economic freedom. For more on that topic, read this
Forget about being "cool." We need more talking heads to listen to rap for the sake of our nation's future.