It seems that the United States may be on the verge of electing its first black president. A slew of minor and major celebrities from the music world certainly hope so. From indie giants The Arcade Fire and Wilco to that archduke of narcissism, Morrissey, much of alternative rock has declared its support for Barack Obama.
He has also unsurprisingly captured the hearts and minds of many in the hip hop and R&B community including such luminaries as Will Smith, Ne-Yo and Usher. Although most studies suggest these endorsements have little real impact on voting behaviour, the interaction of politics, music and indeed, race, has had a long and important history in the United States.
Rock and Roll itself largely originated from ‘race music’- music created by and for African-Americans. This music was often the only political outlet for a disenfranchised and segregated black community. The song ‘Strange Fruit’, first performed by Billie Holiday, was one of the most successful protest songs in history and became an anthem for the equal rights movement with its chilling depiction of a lynching in the deep south.
As segregation later began to crumble, black artists found themselves increasingly involved with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, as well as African-American activism. Gil-Scott Heron’s famous song-poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ was the manifesto of change and empowerment for an entire generation of black people. Heron also helped lay the foundations for what would later develop into hip hop and rap, genres that would themselves become heavily political. Although never as well-defined as the highly political (but mostly white) punk movement, hip hop and rap gave similarly disillusioned youths an escape from humdrum reality and the power to vocalise their discontent.
Following the mainstream success of bands like Public Enemy, commercial hip hop artists have since felt able to take a direct role in trying to increase political participation amongst young people. In 2004, P. Diddy, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent (despite being a convicted felon and thus unable to vote) launched the ‘vote or die!’ campaign to try and get young people involved with politics in an era of widespread apathy. But it has taken the charisma and sense of optimism offered by Obama to rouse the interest of the young in politics and become the sweetheart of the youth music scene.
In contrast, Hilary Clinton is being backed by mostly older ‘establishment’ figures such as Jon Bon Jovi and Elton John, with only the notable exception of super cool scenester and one-time Bush supporter 50 Cent who has been quoted as saying that voting for Hilary “is a way for us to have Bill Clinton be president again, and he did a great job during his term”. It remains to be seen who will win this close contest, but the fact that a candidate such as Obama has got to this point at all is perhaps proof that the revolution that Gil-Scott Heron predicted, and that black music has long demanded, may have already happened.