NEW YORK (Reuters) - Presidential hopeful Barack Obama listens to hip-hop, knows many of the genre’s moguls, such as Jay-Z, Russell Simmons and rapper Ludacris, admires their business acumen and has been endorsed by them.
That support could be a blessing for the 47-year-old Democratic candidate as he appeals to young voters.
Or it could be a curse, with links to hip-hop’s “gangsta” image and offering ammunition for the supporters of Republican rival U.S. Sen. John McCain.
“Hip-hop’s public image makes it a hot potato,” said Bakari Kitwana, of the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago. “People don’t know what it is so they equate it with hyper-sexuality, violence and drug culture.”
“People on the right can always say this doesn’t represent family values and they can make these negative associations with hip-hop that then Barack or any other candidate is put in a position to defend,” said Kitwana, who is publishing a book in September on organizing a hip-hop voting bloc.
Hip-hop music began in New York’s South Bronx in 1970s and has grown into an industry worth billions of dollars with mass appeal beyond its black and Hispanic roots.
Activists broadly define a so-called “hip-hop generation” as Americans mostly aged 18 to 29. There is no data showing how many of the millions of those voters identify with hip-hop.
A March poll by the bipartisan “Rock the Vote” found 47 percent of young voters support Obama, with 28 percent backing the 71-year-old McCain. The hip-hop activists believe a majority of the “hip-hop generation” back Obama.
Obama, who would be the first black president, has criticized some hip-hop songs.
“I am troubled sometimes by the misogyny and materialism of a lot of rap lyrics, but I think the genius of the art form has shifted the culture and helped to desegregate music,” he told Rolling Stone magazine.
He distanced himself recently from a Ludacris song slamming Obama’s former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, McCain, and President George W. Bush. The song calls Clinton a “bitch,” says McCain doesn’t belong in “any chair unless he’s paralyzed,” and calls Bush “mentally handicapped.”
Obama’s campaign said “Ludacris ... should be ashamed of these lyrics.” McCain’s campaign did not return calls for comment.
“Hip-hop is a celebration of not only what is right, but what is wrong in society,” Benjamin Chavis, chairman of the bipartisan Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, told Reuters. “A lot of times artists like Ludacris, they push the envelope in terms of describing the contradictions of American society.”
Chavis said, with Obama running, “all indications show the 2008 election will probably have the largest youth voter turnout, the largest hip-hop voter turnout in U.S. history.”
Hip-hop began with a party-focused image. But it later became harder with “gangsta” rap, which focused on violent gang life. Several noted rappers have died violently, including Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.
Rappers regularly make news for the wrong reasons — Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown served jail time in recent years and rappers often appear in court.
But rappers are fighting the stereotype, sponsoring programs to encourage fans to vote and making political statements. In 2005, Kanye West accused Bush of racism for the slow response to help those stranded when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, saying “Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Rock The Vote says 44 million Americans aged 18-29 are eligible to vote, of whom 61 percent are white, 17 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black and 4 percent Asian.
Simmons, known as the “Godfather of Hip-Hop” for co-founding the hip-hop giant Def Jam, says the youth vote could be the “critical difference” on Election Day.
“They decide whether (fashion designer) Ralph Lauren is cool,” Simmons, who has endorsed Obama, told Reuters.
“They built Tommy Hilfiger from scratch and they reaffirmed Versace. There’s no reason why they can’t help to build (Obama’s) brand like they do for Coke or Pepsi.”
Editing by Xavier Briand