Cam­paign tap­ping into hip-hop

Stacey Abrams is try­ing to ex­cite the young, di­verse elec­torate Jeezy un­cov­ered 10 years ago

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY CHRISTINA LEE style@wash­post.com

In the video for “My Pres­i­dent,” Gabriel Hart wanted to honor and re-cre­ate the ex­cite­ment of Barack Obama’s his­toric pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. So on Nov. 23, 2008, Hart had trap rap­per Jeezy walk out of his blue Lam­borgh­ini’s scis­sor doors to a ma­jor­ity-black crowd cheer­ing and hold­ing “My Pres­i­dent is black” picket signs in At­lanta’s Sweet Auburn neigh­bor­hood.

It was un­usual for a rap­per — es­pe­cially a rising trap rap power player — to make an ode to a politi­cian. Rap mu­sic is more likely to sound weary of po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions than to show trust in them, says Lakeyta Bon­nette-Bai­ley, author of “Pulse of the Peo­ple: Po­lit­i­cal Rap Mu­sic and Black Pol­i­tics.”

Be­sides Grand­mas­ter Flash and Melle Mel’s “Jesse,” a song in sup­port of 1984 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Jesse Jack­son, rap­pers have used mu­sic to chan­nel their dis­sat­is­fac­tion with so­ci­ety, singing “F--- Tha Po­lice” and “FDT,” as in “F--- Don­ald Trump.”

“My Pres­i­dent,” on the other hand, swelled with pride.

“Jeezy was rep­re­sent­ing for those who have been alien­ated, who usu­ally say they do not par­tic­i­pate in the po­lit­i­cal process,” Bon­nette-Bai­ley says. “These seg­ments feel that they do not have the po­lit­i­cal ef­fi­cacy, their voice does not mat­ter, their voice does not count. Jeezy was one of the first to rep­re­sent that seg­ment.”

The video made a state­ment: The voice of the dis­af­fected was be­ing heard. But largely miss­ing in the video were pub­lic lead­ers, who have long failed to en­gage au­then­ti­cally with hip-hop. Ten years later, that ap­pears to be chang­ing in At­lanta — Jeezy’s home base and hip-hop’s cur­rent mecca — as lo­cal rap­pers like Jer­maine Dupri, Lu­dacris and T.I. have thrown their sup­port be­hind Demo­cratic can­di­date for Ge­or­gia gov­er­nor Stacey Abrams.

If Abrams wins in the up­com­ing midterm elec­tions, she’ll be­come the first black fe­male gov­er­nor in U.S. his­tory. The ques­tion is whether she’ll be able to gen­er­ate the same ex­cite­ment from a young and di­verse elec­torate that Jeezy tapped into 10 years ago.

Be­fore he made his way to Ge­or­gia’s left-lean­ing epi­cen­ter dur­ing the aughts, Jeezy grew up in Hawkinsville, a town where more than 20 per­cent of res­i­dents earned less than $10,000 in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. cen­sus. “I didn’t re­ally know no­body who paid taxes, be­cause no­body made that type of money,” he says. “Even now, be­ing a suc­cess­ful businessman, Un­cle Sam seems like a silent part­ner. He doesn’t have to put in the work to get paid on time.”

As Jeezy found his foot­ing as an artist, he rapped with that same cyn­i­cism to­ward the gov­ern­ment. In 2004, Jeezy, then 27, was driv­ing past At­lanta’s Fox Theatre when he scoffed at a passerby wear­ing a “Vote or Die” T-shirt. “Vote or Die ain’t got noth­ing to do with me,” he re­calls think­ing. Never mind that Jeezy was ex­actly the sort of voter that P. Diddy tried to reach, of any po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion, with that ini­tia­tive.

In­stead, Jeezy named his next mix tape “Trap or Die.”

When Obama en­tered the na­tional spot­light, Jeezy wanted to coax the can­di­date’s win into ex­is­tence. The rap­per sent shut­tle buses out for folks who needed to regis­ter to vote. He vol­un­teered at a Ge­or­gia Democrats phone bank at Austell (“Yeah, it’s me,” he told one caller). He reg­is­tered to vote for the first time that year.

On June 3, 2008, when Ge­orge W. Bush was still pres­i­dent, Jeezy left his house in a rush be­cause he came up with a hook that he wanted to record im­me­di­ately: “My pres­i­dent is black, my Lambo is blue.” It was the fi­nal song on his No. 1 al­bum “The Re­ces­sion.”

“We were just hop­ing and pray­ing for the cul­ture,” he says, “not just be­cause [Obama] was black; be­cause it would be a new regime, a new wave.”

Still, Jeezy met re­sis­tance be­hind the scenes — a chal­lenge that could be chalked up to a gen­er­a­tional di­vide, mis­un­der­stand­ing over hip-hop’s in­flu­ence, or both. In his “My Pres­i­dent” video, he was sur­rounded by land­marks from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life: his two-story birth home, the non­profit King Cen­ter; Ebenezer Bap­tist Church, where King and his fa­ther were co-pas­tors; and his and Coretta Scott King’s shared Ge­or­gia mar­ble crypt.

Yet Hart says that nei­ther the Na­tional Park Ser­vice nor Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer’s pas­tor since 2005, al­lowed him to show that con­nec­tion on screen. Hart had to send the “My Pres­i­dent” lyrics with his ini­tial per­mit re­quest. Warnock never said why he de­nied that ap­pli­ca­tion, though when Hart called, he found him­self ex­plain­ing hip-hop’s im­pact in the po­lit­i­cal arena. “You may not agree with the way we’re say­ing what we’re say­ing, but we’re con­nect­ing,” Hart re­calls telling Warnock.

In the end, only the sleek lines of the new Ebenezer’s bell tower made the frame. “The stip­u­la­tion was this: ‘Do not show any of our prop­erty,’ ” Hart says. (Warnock did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.) Hart says his for­mal re­quests to have Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) ap­pear in the video went unan­swered. The civil rights leader popped up only by chance, af­ter Hart caught him out­side his At­lanta of­fice and asked whether he could cheer for the cam­era.

Jeezy wasn’t privy to what Hart went through to se­cure the “My Pres­i­dent” lo­ca­tion, but he ex­pected more sup­port from Obama than he re­ceived. While Obama joked of lis­ten­ing to Jeezy’s mu­sic dur­ing the 2014 White House cor­re­spon­dents’ din­ner (“My first term I sang Al Green. In my sec­ond term, I’m go­ing with Young Jeezy”), the rap­per says he wasn’t among the dozens of hip-hop artists who got in­vited to the White House.

“I kept think­ing, man, all the s--I did, he didn’t even ac­knowl­edge it,” he says.

Jeezy hasn’t felt con­nected to the po­lit­i­cal process since 2008. He didn’t vote in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, which saw a de­cline in black votes for the first time in 20 years, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. (Hil­lary Clin­ton en­listed Bey­oncé, Jay-Z, Chance the Rap­per and Big Sean to per­form a con­cert the week­end be­fore Elec­tion Day. But Bon­nette-Bai­ley and Hart ar­gue that those artists don’t quite con­nect with the same alien­ated vot­ers as Jeezy.)

Two years later, At­lanta’s hiphop com­mu­nity is hop­ing to reach folks who would oth­er­wise feel dis­in­clined to vote, in sup­port of an­other po­ten­tially his­toric can­di­date. In Septem­ber, only a few miles north from where Jeezy’s “My Pres­i­dent” video was shot, Abrams ap­peared at One Mu­sicfest in the nearby Old Fourth Ward neigh­bor­hood, be­tween T.I. and 2 Chainz’s head­lin­ing sets — a cameo that was a month in the mak­ing, says fes­ti­val founder Ja­son “J” Carter.

The event, an ur­ban mu­sic fes­ti­val in­spired by Wood­stock with the tagline “Unity Through Mu­sic,” was among Abrams’s high­est­pro­file stops dur­ing her cam­paign trail, at least un­til half­way dur­ing early vot­ing. (T.I. had al­ready en­dorsed her on In­sta­gram, af­ter he and Abrams ap­peared in a panel dis­cus­sion in July. He also re­posted re­ports of al­leged voter sup­pres­sion.)

“In a lot of ways, my story is like the story of One Mu­sicfest,” Abrams said on stage. “It’s about go­ing be­yond the odds. It’s about see­ing the com­mu­nity. It’s about un­der­stand­ing the com­plex­ity of who we are and find­ing a way to bring us all to­gether.”

On Oct. 21, Abrams went with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to a meet-and-greet that fea­tured a per­for­mance by Ge­or­gia rap vet­eran Pas­tor Troy. She at­tended a fundraiser co-hosted by Lu­dacris and film pro­ducer Will Packer (“Girls Trip,” “Night School”). And she ap­peared on stage with Dupri dur­ing the 25th an­niver­sary con­cert for his la­bel So So Def.

“The hip-hop com­mu­nity is 100 per­cent be­hind her,” Pas­tor Troy says. “She has my vote be­cause I love her be­ing tan­gi­ble.”

Abrams’s cam­paign even got a song of its own. When Mo Ivory joined Abrams’s team in Au­gust as di­rec­tor of sur­ro­gates and me­dia, she caught Jay Rock’s hip-hop chart hit “Win” on the ra­dio and thought it would make a fit­ting cam­paign song. A few weeks af­ter Ivory reached Rock’s la­bel Top Dawg En­ter­tain­ment, Rock sent over his new ver­sion.

Rock may be from Los An­ge­les, but the logic be­hind the remix is all At­lanta hip-hop savvy: In­stead of “You with me or against me,” he raps, “Stacey / you ei­ther with her or against her.”

“She es­pe­cially wanted to reach out to young vot­ers who might not nor­mally vote,” Ivory says of Abrams. “We all know what an im­por­tant bloc they are and how im­por­tant mu­sic is to them.”

Ac­ti­vat­ing the folks who ab­stain from vot­ing, T.I. says by email, will re­quire “cre­at­ing a sense of ur­gency and set­ting a hard re­minder (es­pe­cially given where we are now) that we can’t af­ford to not vote . . . ever.”

Hip-hop is now an in­te­gral part of any get-out-the-vote ef­fort, and the dy­namic be­tween hip-hop and pol­i­tics has changed dras­ti­cally since “My Pres­i­dent” was first re­leased. But whether the mes­sage reaches folks like Jeezy — those who voted for Obama and then didn’t show up to the polls in 2016 — re­mains to be seen.

As Jeezy di­vides his time be­tween At­lanta, Los An­ge­les and Mi­ami, he won­ders whether pol­i­tics still feel out of reach for those he knew back home. He’s proud to have had a part in a his­toric elec­tion — prob­a­bly how a good por­tion of At­lanta’s hip-hop com­mu­nity hopes to feel af­ter the midterms.

“Not every­body is go­ing to be happy all the time,” Jeezy says, “but if you come in and make things dis­rup­tive and you turn peo­ple against each other, then you got to ask your­self if you’re be­ing a leader. I’m just glad that I could be a part of a sit­u­a­tion that some­body was ac­tu­ally be­ing a leader and lead­ing.”

KYLE GUSTAFSON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Di­rec­tor Gabriel Hart on the set of the mu­sic video for the 2008 Jeezy song “My Pres­i­dent.” Ge­or­gia gu­ber­na­to­rial nom­i­nee Stacey Abrams (D) dur­ing a cam­paign stop in Ma­con, Ga. Her cam­paign uses a remix of Jay Rock’s hip-hop hit “Win.” Jeezy, per­form­ing in Mary­land in 2012, hasn’t felt con­nected to the po­lit­i­cal process since 2008 and didn’t vote in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, which saw a de­cline in black votes.

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

GABRIEL HART

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