A Look Back at Hip-Hop’s Role in This Presidential Election – No More Politics as Usual
The 2020 United States presidential election—the showdown between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden—is one for the history books. On Nov. 3, over 80 million Americans voted for Biden—the most for any candidate—and earned the Democrat 306 electoral votes for the win. For Biden, it was restoration for the soul of the country after division and embitterment. But after ballots were counted—and in some states, recounted—Trump and his true believers refuted the results, citing fake news and tinfoil hat theories about fraud.
It’s a cliffhanger; the nation remains on tenterhooks as Trump refuses to take his L.
The election also divided hip-hop. As expected, candidates enlisted rappers to reach millennials, Gen-Z and people of color. Less expected, Kanye West running as a third-party candidate on a wacky, new platform. Some artists went against the grain for Trump, despite criticisms that they were in a “sunken place”, and others were cancelled (almost) for their beliefs. The election was anything but politics as we know them.
Rap The Vote
Politicians seek celebrities to rock the youth vote from Bill Clinton playing the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show to Barack Obama’s bromance with Jay-Z. Bernie Sanders’ progressive values resonated with rappers as did Kamala Harris being the first Black and South Asian candidate. In 2020, artists like Killer Mike and Chuck D cosigned Sanders with rallies and appearances. Harris made several plays to connect with hip-hop; in February of 2019, she shouted out Tupac and Snoop Dogg on The Breakfast Club and in September of 2020, she dropped by Verzuz and wore Timberlands on the campaign trail.
Arguably, the most high-profile rapper playing politics was Cardi B. In 2018, she endorsed Sanders, saying, “Vote for Daddy Bernie, bitch” and in August of 2019, she met with then 77-year-old Vermont senator at a nail salon for an odd-couple conversation on healthcare, police brutality and the economy. In August of 2020, she held no punches in a sit down with Joe Biden about COVID-19 saying. “Tell me the truth, the hard-core truth.”
Funny, likeable and boasting her own Cinderella journey, Cardi B has become a favorite among Democrats. Sanders went so far as to encourage her having a future in politics, saying, “It would be great.” Cardi, always keeping people talking, entertained the idea: "I think I want to be a politician. I really love government even tho I don't agree with Goverment [sic],” she tweeted.
Stump for Trump
There was a time when Donald Trump was a friend of hip-hop. An ostentatious businessman with a knack for self-aggrandizement, he schmoozed with celebrity pals like Diddy and Jay-Z and got name-checked in raps. But as a politician, his “Make America Great Again” rallying cry, racist rhetoric and socially-regressive policies—especially in light of Black Lives Matter, an immigration crisis and global pandemic—are as far from hip-hop’s ethos. DaBaby posted a “Fuck yall” to the Trump camp in September. Offset got into an altercation with rowdy Trump supporters the next month and Rich The Kid claimed Trump tried to woo him for a rally, rejecting the idea because he “ain’t no sell out.”
But not all rappers shied away from the candidate who felt called himself the “least racist person”—while refusing to denounce White supremacy. The love fest crystallized in October of 2018, when Kanye West, wearing a red MAGA hat, ranted about his adoration for Trump at the White House, despite his haters. “You know, they tried to scare me to not wear this hat — my own friends. But this hat, it gives me, it gives me power, in a way,” he said. Many wanted to “cancel” West but that didn’t deter Lil Wayne, and Lil Pump and possibly 50 Cent from joining the MAGA team; Wayne shouted out Trump’s record on criminal justice reform, Pump, who Trump mistakenly called “Lil Pimp” at a rally, lauded him for bringing home the troops and 50 simply wanted lower taxes. The latter rescinded his endorsement this past October.
It’s not surprising that wealthy rappers favored Trump’s lower taxes and generous business incentives. His branding as a change-maker resonated, too. On Instagram, Waka Flocka Flame suggested Trump was a better president than Barack Obama while Chance The Rapper tweeted, “Black people don’t have to be democrats.” Chance, who supported Kanye West for president initially, later distanced himself when Trump shouted out Chance on Twitter.
Perhaps more than any politician, Trump knows the importance of making celebrities feel important and offers political clout. In October of 2020, Ice Cube said he worked with Trump’s campaign on his Platinum Plan to help Black voters. The rapper could not or just did not explain what his plan was—and how it differed from Biden—but he seemed genuinely proud of having a direct line to the Oval Office. As West had gushed to Trump about his MAGA hat, “It made me feel like Superman. You made a Superman.”
It’s My Party
Kanye West was Trump’s biggest hip-hop supporter until ’Ye decided to run himself. “We must now realize the promise of America by trusting God, unifying our vision and building our future. I am running for president of the United States!” he announced on July 4, 2020. The Birthday Party, Kanye’s political party, which loosely combines West’s ego with his brand of Christianity, was more self-serving than serious policy. West had grandiose ideas, such as using Black Panther as a blueprint for governance and putting Tesla head Elon Musk in charge of the space program.
Unfortunately, West didn’t have much time for his own party. Aside from a chaotic rally in South Carolina that ended what appeared to be a breakdown, ’Ye was distracted by other creative endeavors and himself. Some pundits posited that his run—which got incidentally help from Republican operatives—was merely a pawn to siphon off votes from Biden. And what was this interest in politics? West admitted that he had never voted before—he would eventually vote for himself in this election—and spent the campaign bragging about being a billionaire, evangelizing Yeezy and hanging out in Wyoming.
Sean “Diddy” Combs, who made “Vote or Die” ubiquitous in 2004, flipped the script by telling Black citizens to “hold their vote hostage” this go around. This garnered criticism that the mogul was socially irresponsible. He endorsed Biden and then formed his Our Black Party in October of 2020. Diddy called it “one of the boldest movements” but like The Birthday Party, it was heavy on branding and light on policy. Aside from general proclamations, it was unclear how this party would accomplish its goals.
Whether it was a serious attempt at change or some elaborate living art piece, Kanye West ultimately appeared on 12 ballots and received 60,000 votes. He was also on the California ballot as a vice president option for the American Independent Party, but not as a write-in for president. All things considered, it’s an impressive feat that got hip-hop in the political arena and it’s not unlikely that it will be attempted again—maybe by West or someone else.
If this election taught us anything, it’s that hip-hop in politics is unpredictable. Party lines are blurred. An artist’s past allegiances don’t predicate the future. Rappers no longer want to just fight the power, they want to be it. There’s no one way to get the rap vote, but everyone wants it.
See Rappers Showing Support for President Trump in 2020