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What did hip-hop do for Barack Obama and what should British politics learn from it?

President Obama surfed to power on a hip-hop wave. Should British politics try the same thing to engage the youth vote?

There was once a time where hip-hop and the political mainstream seemed incompatible. Battles between "the vulgar rapper" and "the righteous politician" perfectly embodied the typical dichotomy of the rebel against society; the young versus the old; the free spirit versus the traditional.


Boris Johnson’s 2008 call for children to listen to less hip-hop is an example of what seemed to be, the almost natural, discordance between the two worlds. In America, battles between politics and hip-hop have been known to be more intense, with ex-vice president Dan Quayle once blaming a Tupac album for the murder of an American state trooper, demanding its ban from store shelves. For a long time, it certainly seemed the case that hip-hop hated the political mainstream and the political mainstream mutually hated hip-hop.

"I think the most vibrant musical art form right now over the last 10, 15 years has been hip-hop" - Barack Obama 

Dubbed the first "hip-hop president", Barack Obama has certainly embraced the hip-hop music genre like none other before him. Obama has broken incredible barriers between the two realms. Never in the history of American politics has a president held meetings with the likes of Ludacris, and I’m pretty sure Obama is the first president to have ever referenced both Lil Wayne and Jay Z in presidential speeches - not to mention the First Lady’s hip-hop album released to tackle obesity in America.

Christened ‘B-Rock’ by hip-hop magazine VIBE, Obama’s hip-hop love affair did wonders for his political career. And while this may seem humorous and perhaps trivial, there is in fact a tactical aspect to Obama’s embrace of hip-hop music. Since its genesis, hip-hop has become one of the most popular music genres in the world, with its influence being particularly strong amongst the youth.

You see, it is the hip-hop demographic that makes Obama’s marriage with the genre such a genius plan. Fundamentally, many young people love hip-hop. Obama embraced hip-hop and, by association, young people loved Obama. This simple blueprint greatly assisted Obama’s first election campaign. In 2008, his election saw the highest youth voter turnout in 35 years.

By 2008 Obama was the topic of hip-hop songs recorded by Nas, Will.i.am, Common and Busta Ryhmes to name a few. Jermaine Hall, editor-in-chief of VIBE magazine, claims that the unison between the US president and hip-hop "brought awareness to a group of young adults who probably would not have voted otherwise".

"Hip-hop played a big part in this, hip-hop is what encouraged the youth to get involved in voting - he was the first president to embrace hip-hop." - Dizzee Rascal

Obama’s embrace of hip-hop provided a subtle, yet significant, change in the cultural framework of music and politics, merging the two worlds. This new method made politics fashionable and exciting for the younger generation. With Jay Z communicating the importance of voter registration in interviews and speeches, as well as P Diddy’s campaign to encourage 18-24 year olds to participate in the voting process, it not only transformed the appearance of American politics but also ensured an effective method to capture the attention of young voters, far more effective than any politician making a speech on the same issue.

‘"When people talk about politics within the existing Westminster framework, I feel a dull thud in my stomach and my eyes involuntarily glaze." Russell Brand

In the UK, however, politicians are yet to grasp an effective approach to engage younger voters. Voter apathy is far too common within UK politics; this is particularly the case amongst young voters. Painted as this highbrow edifice that the youth cannot comprehend, politics is, as Russell Brand put it, "utterly disenchant[ing]" for the youth of today.

When Paxman asked UK rapper Dizzee Rascal "do you believe in political parties in Britain?", he confidently replied "I don't know if it makes a difference". Whether he knew it or not, Dizzee Rascal’s sentiment represented the voice of many that night, just as Brand’s did more recently. This sense of disbelief that young voters hold in the UK political system runs very deep and is extremely damaging.

Though Brand’s bashing of the UK political system faced much criticism, what Brand did get right is the sense of urgency that the issue of political apathy holds amongst voters. Now, I doubt David Cameron will ever go as far as Obama in embracing hip-hop to reach out to younger voters and hoping so is certainly wishful thinking, but somebody in the political mainstream needs to effectively tackle political apathy amongst the youth.

The saying goes "birds of a feather flock together". Perhaps our leaders should exercise the use of this "special relationship" between the UK and US and take a leaf out of Obama’s book. Just like there was in America in 2008, it is essential that there is a fusion of mainstream politics and the youth in the UK. It is in the interest of everyone that this gaping generation chasm be closed once and for all.