Reflecting On The Powerful Protest Songs That Called Obama On His Bullshit

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Remember Obama? Wasn’t he quite the character. I’ll never not be impressed by how much Obama was able to evade responsibility in the mainstream media and the liberal public eye for so much inaction on so many important issues to progressives. It’s notable that as he exits, his favourability rating continues to climb.

But here’s a thought, do you know who Obama’s Chief of Staff was during his two terms? Or his Chief Strategist at any point? Probably not, I didn’t know who they were and I consider myself pretty informed on things.

And yet now we can tell you exactly what Steve Bannon had for breakfast. The discourse changes when the threat feels real, tangible, obvious and in your face. But when it’s more of an undercurrent, a seemingly misleading tiny jolt (as opposed to what appears to be an all out electrocution) we don’t know what to do in those cases. Even when they can be just as oppressive to minorities than ever before, despite the symbolism of the first African American to hold office. 

I did a quick Google search on Obama’s cabinet. Those names mean nothing to me. But I know who Joe Biden was because memes. A weird feeling starts to set in. What the hell was the Obama administration? How did they deport more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders, which doesn’t include the number of people who “self-deported” or were turned away and sometimes returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection? How did so much slip past so many people?

Well it didn’t slip by everyone. We wrote about this at the start of the year, when I became obsessed with Jane The Virgin, and a screenshot with some text about immigration reform caught my eye:

“It’s interesting to note that Obama has deported more immigrants than any other U.S. president before him, and almost more than every other president combined from the 20th century. Obama’s government has deported more than 2.5 million people since coming to office in 2009, obliterating Bush’s previous record. And he plans to keep going with as many as he can fit in before he says adios to the job. Which makes the media’s scaremongering around Trump seem even more ridiculous.”

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The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screenshot protest in a popular television show was one of the few small nuggets of opposition we had to hold onto, and they should not be forgotten. Here are some other powerful protests in popular culture that call Obama out but maybe didn’t go viral.

Janelle Monáe 

Janelle Monáe is no stranger to taking a stand in her music. You may have heard about the song  “Hell You Talmbout”, “an emotionally urgent protest anthem”.

“Amidst urgent percussion and chants they simply shout the names of those who’ve died and demand we say their names. Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and more are memorialized on “Hell You Talmbout.” The group has issued a statement explaining their intention behind the track, which comes a day after Monáe and Jidenna participated in a police brutality protest in Philadelphia.”

But it’s Monáe’s catchy song “Dear Mr President” which captured my attention recently. For a brief moment, I forgot which president she was referring to. And yet it makes sense that such a song could come to life during an Obama presidency. People of colour have been trying to speak out about the problems they’ve experienced and the worsening conditions in the United States and they’ve largely gone ignored. We know about Black Lives Matters because people power made sure we knew. But we can somehow divorce our understanding of this huge political movement with the president who should be responsible for not only addressing it in speeches but actually attempting to take action on it.

This is no more evident then in The Guardian: “Obama says Black Lives Matter. But he doesn’t ensure they do”.

It was disturbing to watch him refuse to offer meaningful solutions at a recent town hall. Some of us in the Black Lives Matter movement were left in tears

So few attribute these problems to Obama the person or Obama the administration or even the Democratic party, despite personality politics playing such a huge role lately. It’s interesting to note given the amount of backlash Trump the figure experiences for everything that is happening. Trump is the giant sun around which every single horrible thing turns. George W. Bush had that to some extent but not the all pervasive association. It was understood that the Republicans as a whole were a huge part of the problem. But thanks to a weird isolationist campaign, we’re able to make it all about one person. It’s maybe not wise to do that, but if it can help us coalesce on issues and come together to fight the problems, then why aren’t we doing that more often? If the reality is that the one person doesn’t really have any power at all, then maybe we shouldn’t be focussing so much on individuals and go back to the systems. But in terms of symbolism, it matters to make it clear that in this case, one individual, who so many pinned their hopes and dreams on and believed in so strongly, didn’t go far enough in being their champion. The apathy of this election is testament to that.

And so what do we do about the supposed “good” presidents who evade responsibility like a hamster trying to get off the wheel because sorry too tired?

It especially makes you think about the economic realities Monáe describes in this song, and how much of a focal point such economic woes were for white communities throughout and even after the election, while virtually ignoring black and minority communities in the process. It was just assumed we knew how they would vote (against Trump). Navel gazing is one thing, rendering people invisible is another. 

The lyrics speak for themselves:

“Mr. President”

This song is for my mama,

This song is for you.

Hey Mr. President,

Tomorrow I’m paying my rent

My Fuel is runnin’ low

And I’ve got places to go

Quit slowin’ me down

Can we talk about the education of our children?

A book is worth more than a bomb any day

And remember a mirror to Africa

Who will bring the cure before it’s too late.

Don’t you see the hurt in their eyes?

So much disappointment in many faces

Use your heart and not your pride

We can’t go on and keep pretending

Please Mr. President

Where’s all the money you spent,

Food is fallin low

And they have nowhere to go,

Quit slowin me down.

I ask you to have mercy on us father,

You think we know the rules by now,

We can’t go starting wars with hearts of hatred

Out nations greed won’t make it better

Or quiet the fears in our hearts

Don’t you see the hurt in their eyes?

So much Disappointment in all of their faces

Use your heart and not your pride

We can’t go on and keep pretending

O please Mr. President

Dear Mr. President

I hope you got the letter I sent

A Dollar only goes so far

And we need help here, no matter who we are

See we come from different worlds and different places

Until there’s one great land, one nation under god,

Times are getting harder and we need you to be like Moses

And lead your people through

Please be careful, Be Careful,

of what you do, what you do

Killer Mike

Look, it’s no surprise we’re obsessed with Killer Mike. I’m sorry to remind your broken heart of the time Killer Mike had lunch with Bernie Sanders at Busy Bee in Atlanta. Or when Run the Jewels crowdsourced a cat-themed remix album called Meow The Jewels.

Killer Mike is especially one to watch. Described as one of Hip Hop’s most outspoken orators Killer Mike dipped his toe in politics a little more recently by vocally supporting Bernie Sanders in the primaries and live tweeting the White House Correspondents’ dinner, as well as trying to run for office in Georgia (he was not “legally” allowed to but I’m betting after this election we can most definitely start changing the rules).

But through all the noise, you might have missed this song by Killer Mike called “Reagan” released in 2012.

There is so much to unpack here. Killer Mike takes the idea of how everyone loves Reagan, and even today there can be some parallels drawn between Reagan and Trump, as Sam Kriss cheekily points out in “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before”. This cosying up to power is a theme we’ve seen carried on over the last few decades and it’s this idea that things won’t change no matter who is in charge, which inspired this piece on taking on the system

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call out the individuals and their failings. And it’s on this point that Killer Mike does not beat around the bush, so to speak. Here Killer Mike explains his comparison of Barack Obama to Ronald Reagan:

HipHopDX: Let’s kick things off by delving into the most talked-about track on R.A.P. Music, “Reagan.”

Killer Mike: “Reagan,” I knew it. Why do you people only like me angry? [Laughs]

DX: [Laughs] “Ronald Reagan was a actor, not at all a factor / Just an employee of the country’s real masters / Just like the Bush’s, Clinton and Obama / Just another talking-head telling lies on teleprompters / If you don’t believe the theory, then argue with this logic: Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Gadhafi?” Was the Gaddafi connection the only thing that led you to tie Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama together or are there other areas where you see a comparison?

Killer Mike: I didn’t tie Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama together; Barack Obama tied him and Ronald Reagan together. Barack Obama compares himself to Reagan.

In fact, everybody running for President this year, with the exception of Ron Paul, has compared themselves to Ronald Reagan. And I can’t even be a 100% on the Ron Paul thing, because he may have done it before too.

So that’s not me [comparing Obama to Reagan], that’s just me saying “I agree.” [Laughs]

DX: The Gadhafi connection, can you elaborate a little bit on what you were saying there about them both going after Gaddafi?

Killer Mike: Both times we went after Gadhafi in a very illegal way. [In 1986] Ronald Reagan killed his adopted daughter with a bombing. That is – first of all, let’s admit to something, Libya is a sovereign nation. That’s just what it is, it’s a sovereign nation. To go into a sovereign nation, or endorse or back going in to assassinate the leader of a sovereign nation, is wrong. It’s reprehensible.

Now, as an American on some level I benefit from that so I’m not gonna trip. But, as a Pan-Africanist, as a truth-teller, I have to say it’s wrong, because it is. Gadhafi – speaking from the Black experience, from an African-American male and a person who’s a member of the African Diaspora – was an African leader that had been good to his country, financially. He was an African leader that had been good to other African countries. He was a leader that supported dual citizenship for African-Americans. He was a leader that was willing to have a United States of Africa, in which all of the resources of Africa would be for Africans. He wanted to change the monetary system from accepting U.S. dollars to gold for Libyan oil and the next thing you know we were killing him.

Now, as a guy who wants to pump gas below $5 a gallon, that benefited me. And as an American I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like gas being below $5. But as a truth-teller I have to say that [the murder of Muammar Gadhafi] potentially set a global divide that’s already pretty deep between the rich and the poor. African-Americans don’t have a lot of global advocates. That was one of them that got murdered. And, if we don’t look at the truth for what it is, we’re crazy.

Now, the reason I keep going back to the fact that I’m an American and I even benefited from it is because on the first verse of “Reagan,” before I talk about Obama, Clinton, Bush, before I name all of the usual suspects in terms of who’s keeping me oppressed, I talk about me oppressing my people, by being a rapper. I talk about me setting unrealistic goals, and I talk about members of the fraternity of emcees who are also doing this. So before Reagan – and I’m not talking about Reagan the man as much as I am Reagan the ideology, which all the other politicians are saying they are: the ideology – [this mentality] has caused even me, as an American, as an African-American man, as one of the most suffered groups of people in this country, even I have become an oppressor to my own people. Because, in order to gain financially and support my own family I have promoted and propagated some lies. And other rappers have, and I’m still doing it to this day.

Who knows what could have happened if more people spoke out and focussed the blame where it belonged, on the establishment and the institutions that ensure things will never change?

We must especially be on guard in the coming weeks, months, years when speaking truth to power, that we get it right this time, that we focus our energies when we fight injustice and not let anyone off with a free pass. You can see this cognitive dissonance still unfolding with the barbaric treatment of peaceful protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

If the current administration won’t protect its citizens from powerful corporations and institutions, that’s a huge concern moving forward towards a Republican presidency that has full control of all houses and who have blatantly ignored these issues for as long as possible, opposing Obama for entirely different and even more ridiculous reasons.

Let’s hope we can at least learn from all of the missed opportunities and take these power anthems along with us (while making more of them of course).

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