November 4, 2008

 

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Despite his Australian roots, ex-Stylus scribe, Jonathan Bradley somehow managed to handily defeat the rest of the staff in an American History trivia quiz. For that, he has earned the title of Passion of the Weiss senior political analyst. His writing can also be found at Screw Rock N’ Roll, a website whose pro-syrup mantra has been blamed for death of Houston rapper, Big Moe. 

If you haven’t been paying attention, America’s rappers have found a hot new accessory, and it’s not a Japanese clothing label, testicle-hugging denim or jewel-encrusted rendition of their own heads (no Rick Ross). In 2008, anyone who’s anyone in hip-hop is rocking Barack.

And as Run-DMC did with their Adidas, Busta Rhymes with his Courvosier, and the Wu-Tang Clan did with um… Wu-Wear, rappers are heading to the studio in droves to record songs about their favorite new brand. And, seriously, who could blame them, right? Obama is the silver-tongued, audaciously hopeful agent of change who electrifies hundreds of thousands of Germans, sends a thrill up at least one leg of MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, and might just redeem mankind for the sins of Oliver Stone leading man George W. Bush. Also, if he wins the election this Tuesday, he’ll become America’s first black president. What is there for a rapper, or indeed, an American voter, not to love?

I’m Australian, so I’d consider it damned disrespectful to try to convince you to vote one way or the other (though, I will warn all 300 million of you Yanks that if I see Republican candidate John McCain inaugurated come January 20 I will be sobbing into my Fosters[1]). But I do know the value of putting your money where your mouth is, and thanks to the efforts of some guy called McCain Feingold (shit, if only John McCain were that honorable), whenever anyone in the United States donates more than $200 to any political candidate, they have to tell the public.

So I thought it might be a nice idea if we took a look at the entertainers making songs about Barack Obama, and see if they were using some of their gold-chain-and-Crystal skrilla to make it rain on their favorite candidates. I mean, if you’re going to write the dude a song, you might as well send him a check to help him tell white plumbers in Ohio how good his tax plan is.

And please, I don’t intend this to be some exercise in McCarthyism. Whether you donate to a political candidate or not is a personal decision, and no one involved in politics should be faulted for their decision not to hand over money to the guy for whom they plan to vote. I mean, I’ve never felt enough admiration for anybody to actually want to give them money to help make them boss of my country; I was ambivalent enough about even voting for the guy running my nation right now, one Kevin Rudd, let alone throwing cash money at him[2]. But then again, I never wrote a song praising Kev’s candidacy, nor for that of any other politician for that matter [3]. What I’m trying to do here is shine a light on some public information, so that we can best understand some of the year’s most talked about records. Or maybe I’m just muck-raking. I’ll cop to that.

To research this article, I used a Web site called OpenSecrets.org, which is an incredible toy if you’re some politics geek like me. Basically, you plug a name into their search engine, and it will tell you how much that person donated, to whom and when. For instance, I can tell you that Tanveer Mirza, a self-employed Doctor from Herndon, Virginia gave $2300 to Democrat-turned-Libertarian Mike Gravel on the fourteenth of May this year. I have no idea who Dr. Mirza is, but I have just made him (her?) Internet famous. Hope the donation was worth it, Tanveer! Gravel in 2012!

Over at OpenSecrets, my first port of call was Jay-Z. I felt sure that Jay-Z must have donated something to Obama. He is a pretty high profile supporter of the Democratic candidate’s campaign, he has recorded somewhat awkward How-To-Vote videos for the state of Michigan, and is even performing free shows to promote the Democratic candidate’s campaign. But in the OpenSecrets records, I can find no hint of Shawn Corey Carter giving a cent to Obama’s campaign. I must admit, this shocked me. I was so convinced that President Carter must have thrown the perhaps future-President Obama a few bucks that I searched through all permutations of Shawn Carter — Sean Carter, S. Carter, Shaun Carter, and even Carter Shawn — in the belief that one of the richest dudes in rap, and a guy who seems fairly committed to the Obama candidacy, would at some point have handed over a few bucks to help out. But, nope, for the Obama ’08 campaign, ain’t no love in the heart of the city.

To be fair, Hova’s probably given a fair bit already in noon-monetary terms, given the cost of putting on a Jay-Z show, something the Obama campaign has been getting for free in swing states like Michigan and Florida. And Jay-Z went (literally) on record mourning that his philanthropic contribution to the victims of Hurricane Katrina was inadequate because he gave his money rather than his time. Evidently he intends to do the opposite in ’08.

The story is similar with other notable Obama supporters. Ludacris upset Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (“No one cares what a person like Ludacris does; his audience is small and his mind is smaller”) and caught a disavowal from the Obama campaign for his The Preview track Politics as Usual (Obama is Here), which praised the Democrat and dissed Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Luda boasted that he’s one of Obama’s favorite rappers, but unless he’s recently moved to North Carolina and become a bus driver for Wake County schools, Christopher Bridges hasn’t donated any money to anyone during the campaign. Nor has Tyree Simmons, a.k.a DJ Drama, a.k.a. Barack O’Drama, who co-produced that mixtape with Ludacris.

Nas’s Black President was one of the rapper’s better songs from his Passion-maligned, untitled album of this year, but Jones comma Nasir is another 2008 non-donor. Jay Jenkins, who you might know as Young Jeezy, likes his President black and his Lamborghini blue, but his money is staying in the latter rather than headed to the campaign of the former. Maybe the recession is hitting the Snowman harder than I thought. Still, it’s unnerving enough seeing Jeezy doing something as civic-minded as registering to vote. Let’s not get carried away and expect him to be involved in actual campaign finance.

Common beat pretty much every pundit to the punch by calling Obama for President back in 2004, on Jadakiss’s Why (Remix), but Lonnie Lynn hasn’t donated a dime to his fellow Chicagoan. Nor has another early on-wax Obama booster, Juelz Santana (or LaRon James, if he were to show up in campaign finance records). Kanye West kicked it with Obama and his running mate Joe Biden at the Democratic National Convention, but hasn’t donated to their campaign. My guess is that West got sour when Obama refused to use autotune on his speeches.

Obama’s non-rap supporters aren’t doing much better. Bruce Springsteen gave Obama his high profile endorsement before the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, and nothing more. Maybe Billy Joel, with whom Springsteen has been performing shows, should have leaned on him a bit harder; William Joel donated $2300 to Obama. Conservatives were convinced that it was the Decemberists, and not Obama who brought out 75, 000 Oregonians to a rally in Portland this past May; Decemberist singer Colin Meloy did play the event, but when it came to forking over some cash, his dollars (one thousand of them, to be precise) went not to Obama, but to Oregonian Democrat Steve Novick. Montreal group Arcade Fire has been playing shows to promote Obama, and singer Win Butler praised the candidate as “the first candidate in my lifetime to strip some of this bullshit away,” but, Butler, an American citizen has not contributed to the campaign.
Must all political activity by musicians be confined to free shows and songs of praise? Don’t they realize that top-rating informercials do not come cheap?[4]

Is anyone giving any money to the ever-so-cash-strapped Obama campaign? Will.I.Am is. William Adams of Sherman Oaks California, employed by Black Eyed Peas Music, isn’t only setting Obama’s speeches to music, he’s giving so much money to the candidate that Obama can’t legally accept any more from him. That’s a total of $4600 over Obama’s Presidential and Primary campaigns. After he reached his Obama limit, Will.I.Am went even deeper into his pockets and gave $26,000 to the Democratic Party. He’s either wild about Obama, or he’s trying really hard to make up for Elephunk.
That sort of paper is easy for someone like Will.I.Am to throw around. He does, after all, have more money than not just the Judeo-Islamic-Christian God, but also more money than all of the Hindu gods combined (and Ganesh has more ice than a Paul Wall grill).

But stars of lesser means like John Legend (or John Stephens, if you’re the government) have also given the maximum of $4600 to Obama. Interestingly, three days after making his first donation to Obama, back in May 2007, Legend gave $1000 to Hillary Clinton. Dude is playing the field! Who knew he was so canny? Legend appeared in Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” video, and the cast list for that clip is fertile ground for Obama donors; Tom Waits-coverer Scarlett Johansson, Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk, and Rockit-eer Herbie Hancock all showed up for the shoot, and have all given to the Obama campaign. Another “Yes We Can” cast member, Fonzworth Bentley, I am sorry to report, has not donated to Obama, and, yes, after searching for Bentley by his real name (Derek Watkins), I did check the database for donations made under his nom de umbrella-carrier. Nothing to be found.

Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla also maxed out on donations to Obama, which suggests Death Cab for Cutie are doing pretty OK for themselves. Walla does seem highly committed to Obama’s campaign (for instance, he’s been canvassing at Green Bay Packers’ games), but I don’t believe anyone can hand over nearly five thousand dollars to a politician unless they’re feeling pretty comfortable about their own financial situation.

Another indie rock band unashamedly promoting Obama is New York’s The National, though their efforts seem to be filled with backhanded compliments. I thought it was strange enough when they started selling a shirt featuring the candidate above the caption, “Mr. November”; The 2005 National track of that name does suggest at a politician being the titular character, but the song’s promise that “he won’t fuck us over” seems hollow and insincere.

Then when the Obama campaign used an instrumental version of the National’s “Fake Empire” for a promotional video, I thought they were just begging for Fox News to take a shot at them (Obama calls America a Fake Empire! He must be a Communist Muslim!). I guess Bill O’Reilly is checking for new rap mixtapes, but not quiet, stormy indie rock. Nonetheless, the National, or at least its lead singer Matt Berninger, is apparently sincere in his support for Obama; in addition to the videos and t-shirts, he’s donated $3046 to the Democrat.
If few of Obama’s musician-supporters are actually giving money to him, it’s nearly impossible to find a musical backer of Republican candidate John McCain willing to write a check. Daddy Yankee, a.k.a., Ramón Ayala, approves of John McCain’s stance on immigration, but gave not a cent to the cash-strapped Arizonan Senator. John Rich, the country singer responsible for McCain’s theme song “Raising McCain,” uses his Web site to funnel donations to the Republican, but Rich hasn’t given a cent of his own money to the man he’s singing about and shilling for. Rich is certainly willing to make political donations; he donated $2300 to one of McCain’s primary campaign rivals, Fred Thompson! John Rich is a pretty prolific song writer around Nashville, and it’s safe to say he’s earning pretty well from royalties. And yet he wants his fans, most of who would not earn anywhere near as much as he does, to donate to a guy he won’t even write a check for?

Fred Thompson, incidentally, seems quite popular within the Country music scene. Thompson, a former Tennessean Senator, ran a campaign that lasted for about six minutes back in the Primary season, but during that time, he managed to rack up donations from not just John Rich, but Rich’s buddies Gretchen Wilson and “hick-hop” rapper Cowboy Troy — and all on the same day, too. Rich, Wilson and Cowboy Troy sang the National Anthem at the Republican National Convention, almost precisely twelve months after they all wrote checks out to Fred Thompson. Not one of them donated to McCain’s campaign during that time.

Incidentally, Big Kenny, John Rich’s counterpart in his group Big and Rich, eschewed Thompson and gave $2300 to Barack Obama last April. Big & Rich are currently on hiatus. I will not speculate as to why.

If it is true that money has a pernicious, corrupting affect on politicians, the miserable contributions of the music industry suggest that neither a President McCain nor a President Obama, would be willing to offer much to the industry, even if their influence could be bought. If McCain wins this Tuesday, he would owe so few favors to the world of popular music that any guitar-wielder or rhyme-spitter with a request for him should probably not bother. Obama, for all the lip service rappers and indie rockers have shown him, hasn’t actually had much to show monetarily for their support. But if Obama really can be bought? Will.I.Am dug deep. Look for Fergie to be nominated Secretary for Lovely Lady Lumps this coming January.

[1] Please note, I only wrote Fosters for effect. We don’t drink that shit. A promise, however: I will buy you a schooner of James Squiers should any readers come round to my local.
[2] Also, I am what economists call “broke as fuck.”
[3] Well, I did have this ditty titled “Hoes Get Low for Woodrow,” but, since I was not born until 62 years after President Wilson’s administration concluded, I don’t believe it had any effect on his campaign.
[4] Given Obama’s talent for producing high rating material, I’m hoping that once he’s elected, he and Biden set about producing a sitcom as Burns and Smithers did when they took over all of Springfield.

Download:
MP3: Jay-Z -“Politics as Usual”
MP3: Charli Baltimore-“Money”

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