Hip-hop and the presidency


Published April 29, 2024

Bakari Kitwana.

Bakari Kitwana


Bakari Kitwana, a distinguished visiting scholar in the Department of Africana and American Studies, is an internationally known cultural critic, journalist and activist in the areas of hip-hop and Black youth political engagement.

Kitwana has been involved in countless projects that document the intersection of hip-hop and electoral politics. That includes debating Bill O'Reilly on Fox News and Tavis Smiley on PBS, and leading town hall discussions around the country with Van Jones, Eddie Glaude, Cornel West, Adam Mansbach, Chance the Rapper, Talib Kweli, Latosha Brown, Bun B, Chuck D, Michael Eric Dyson and many others.

He has served as editor-in-chief of The Source magazine and as editorial director of Third World Press. His essays and commentary have appeared in The New York Times, Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday and more. For the past decade, he has lectured and given keynote talks at countless universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth and Columbia.

And he appeared as an expert in the Hulu documentary “Hip-Hop and the White House,” which premiered April 22. The film examines the relationship between the most powerful American cultural movement of the past 50 years and the most powerful position on the planet: president of the United States.

Kitwana spoke with UBNow about his involvement in, and the importance of, the new documentary. 

Why is it important for people to understand the historical relationship between the cultural force that is hip-hop and the president of the United States?

There is a long history of hip-hop artists interfacing with the White House that goes back to President George H.W. Bush and continues pretty much during every presidential administration since. It’s important for folks to understand, because of the contemporary economic and sonic impact of hip-hop in American and global culture, and because it partly tells the story of the post-civil rights generation’s political journey, as well as the major political and policy issues that matter to the generations that came of age after the Civil Rights Movement, including the current millennial generation.

Do you see hip-hop playing a role in the 2024 presidential election?

Hip-hop will absolutely play a role in 2024, as its presence and impact has continued to play a role, from George H.W. Bush to President Biden. Increasingly candidates on the left and right have continued to reach out to the hip-hop audience, whether it’s Biden in conversation with Cardi B (via Elle magazine) and the Breakfast Club in 2020, or Kanye West and Waka Flaka in conversation with President Trump in recent years, or the recent dust-up between Eminem and Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy. As candidates try to connect with young voters, hip-hop is a natural fit. Hip-hop is centered in youth culture and cuts across several post-baby-boom generations. These younger generations, especially millennials, can’t boast much about political victories via electoral politics, so they have become increasing critical and outspoken of presidential politics, as we see when it comes to police brutality, inflation, war, student loan debt, foreign policy and more.

Why is it important to have discussions centered around hip-hop’s role in politics?

As a scholar and hip-hop expert, I do this work because it’s important to provide clarity to where and how hip-hop enters these crucial discussions. There is a long history of hip-hop being misinterpreted and distorted as the problem and as a vehicle for demonizing young people. The impact that hip-hop as a cultural force plays in the lives of young people and within the American electorate should not be minimized. But it’s a long history that continues to evolve and requires someone familiar with that history and its nuances to ensure that what is at stake is carefully articulated.

Hip-hop just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Is this music genre having its moment?

Hip-hop has been enjoying its moment for decades as the dominant-selling music in the U.S. But even beyond sales, the music also has influenced the format of other musical genres. Hip-hop has been around for 50 years now. Which means there are hip-hop artists well into their 50s and 60s. The hip-hop audience is also now an audience that reaches across six decades. It’s arguably one of the most influential cultural phenomena in our lifetime. One of the great things about the 50th anniversary was that it showcased the pioneering artists to an emerging hip-hop audience. In doing so, it demonstrated hip-hop’s staying power and allowed a collective looking back at hip-hop’s many accomplishments. But mostly the celebration was about artists. Hip-hop journalism and hip-hop electoral politics engagement are two significant areas that have too long remained underdiscussed. This very comprehensive documentary pushes the nation to look more deeply at what hip-hop has meant in the political arena.