It was born in the Bronx by Black and Latin American artists who came from disadvantaged communities often seen as an afterthought to lawmakers. And from the jump, it was common for emcees to speak about these struggles and use their political predicaments as inspiration for their art. (“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is often cited as an example of this.)
Over time, the genre gained more popularity — and more scrutiny, too. And it eventually became an art form that was impossible for politicians themselves to ignore, for better or worse.
For “Hip-Hop Is Universal,” The ReidOut’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, here are some of the most memorable hip-hop moments in U.S. political history.
Eazy-E goes to Washington (1991)
When Republican Senate leader Bob Dole sent an invite to Eric Wright for a fundraising luncheon with President George H.W. Bush in 1991, he apparently had no clue he was inviting Eazy-E of N.W.A fame. The rapper’s appearances in songs like “F--- tha Police” had made him a pariah among many conservatives, but he told The Washington Post that previous charitable donations might have led to the invite for the event, hosted by a group called Republican Senatorial Inner Circle. What a spectacle.
2 Live Crew prevails in court (1992)
Luther Campbell (better known as “Uncle Luke”) and his group 2 Live Crew helped set important legal precedents for artists in the early 1990s. After a federal judge ruled that the “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” album was legally obscene — and after group members faced arrest for performing the songs — the ruling eventually was overturned in federal court in 1992, establishing case law on obscenity in music. The group also won a copyright case at the Supreme Court in 1994, setting precedent for artists to be able to record parody tracks after they dropped “Pretty Woman,” a parody of Roy Orbison’s original song. Check out an explainer on that historic case here:
Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment (1992)
Clinton’s attack on rapper Sister Souljah at an event for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition is one of the most infamous hip-hop moments ever. The presidential candidate criticized remarks the artist had made as promoting violence against white people. Today, to say a politician had a “Sister Souljah moment” is essentially synonymous with saying they’re grandstanding.
Watch the original Sister Souljah moment below — and then check out her response here.
Dan Quayle targets Tupac (1992)
Ahead of the 1992 presidential election, Vice President Dan Quayle was crusading against artistic creations he deemed unfit for the American public. And the Republican found an easy target in Tupac Shakur. As The New York Times wrote at the time:
Having fired a few value volleys at Murphy Brown — and taken a few hits in return — he [Quayle] now is targeting a rap performer, Tupac Amaru Shakur, and his record company, Interscope Records of Los Angeles.
In 1992, a man named Ray Howard fatally shot a police officer during a traffic stop. Howard told authorities that he might have been inspired to kill the officer by a cassette of Shakur’s album “2Pacalypse Now,” which he said was playing in the stolen truck he was driving. Quayle pushed, unsuccessfully, for the record label to pull the album — which includes a song about a violent encounter with police — from stores, saying it has “no place in our society.” Of course, Quayle and President George H.W. Bush went on to lose their re-election bid handily.
Orrin Hatch ‘raps’ on the House floor (1996)
In 1996, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, railed against record companies during a speech decrying cannabis use among young folks. The late senator’s delivery here was lacking, to say the least.
Kanye West goes at George W. Bush (2005)
Days after Hurricane Katrina battered Louisiana, Kanye West’s observation that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” wasn’t novel — plenty of Black people before him had felt this way and said as much. But West saying so on live television did reignite public discussions about racism. And it prompted an unbelievable response from Bush himself: The architect of the Iraq War claimed that it was “one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.”
‘MC Rove’ takes the floor (2007)
This video of Karl Rove “dancing” around as “MC Rove” is from 2007, which is odd since the White House deputy chief of staff appears to be mimicking hip-hop artists from about two decades prior. Nonetheless, this clip is full of cringeworthy moments.
David Banner testifies on Capitol Hill (2007)
Rapper/activist David Banner spoke at a House hearing in 2007 about stereotypes in media after radio host Don Imus lost his job over a racist diatribe in which he insulted Black women — and pointed the finger at hip-hop. This excerpt from Banner’s testimony hits the hardest:
Traditionally, multibillion-dollar industries have thrived on the premise of violence, sexuality and derogatory content. This capitalistic trend was not created nor introduced by hip-hop. It has been here. It is the American way. And I can admit that there are some problems in hip-hop. But it’s only a reflection of what’s taking place in our society.
Obama’s brush-off (2008)
This is a key moment in Barack Obama’s character arc. In 2008, he upped his coolness in the public eye when — responding to criticism from Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primaries — he channeled his pal Jay-Z, who had released “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” a few years earlier. This was Obama saying, “I’m not sweating Hillary.” And the rest is history.
Conservatives go crazy over Common (2011)
Republicans lost their damn minds in 2011 when Common, the renowned poet and emcee from Chicago, was invited to perform poetry at the Obama White House. Nothing says “I don’t know about Black culture — or pop culture more broadly” like framing Common as a menace to society, but that’s precisely what conservatives did. Figures like Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly falsely claimed he had endorsed violence against law enforcement. And Common was labeled “vile” elsewhere on Fox News, despite the network’s positive portrayal of him less than a year earlier.
The GOP’s tantrum was a noteworthy moment in the history of right-wing hysteria.
Ben Carson’s rap ad (2015)
During Ben Carson’s long-shot Republican bid for president, his team apparently thought tapping a conservative rapper named Aspiring Mogul for an ad would resonate among young Black voters. It did Carson no good, but he can find solace in knowing that it has given me a good laugh ever since.
Hakeem Jeffries shouts out Biggie (2017)
Outside of emcees dining with the president, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., honoring the late, great Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie Smalls) is about as close to a full-circle moment as you’ll find for hip-hop and politics.
This post is part of MSNBC’s “Hip-Hop Is Universal” series, which celebrates the genre’s 50th anniversary and examines its future.