Hip-hoppin’ on Donald Trump: How music is fine-tuning its political edge

Rap's complicated past with Donald Trump is the key to its uncertain future

Electrifying lights and music streaming from three separate stages in the midst of trendy camouflage pants and breathable sheer shirts set up an unforgettable Sunday at this year’s Day N Night music festival in Anaheim, California. My squad and clusters of similar crews from around the country rallied at 9 A.M. to see performers like Chance the Rapper take his audience to church. When there’s a strong vibe, it doesn’t matter who you know around you, as we learned throughout the day getting periodically lost from one another.

But then SoCal native YG shook things up near the end of the festival with a throwback to the presidential campaign, bringing out a Donald Trump impersonator.

“They didn’t just hate Donald Trump. It felt more aggressive than that,” my roommate said about the prelude to YG’s performance of “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” referring to the booing, uncomfortable laughter and expletives that erupted.

It reminded music lovers that, as Lynn Q. Yu wrote in LA Weekly, “that’s what hip-hop is for. It’s not just party music; it’s a protest against the machinations of oppression.”

Rap and hip-hop musicians’ reaction to Trump wasn’t always like this. Their on-again, off-again relationship reads more like Rihanna and Chris Brown than Lady Gaga and Taylor Kinney.

FiveThirtyEight, an opinion poll and statistical analysis media site, collected every song from the music annotation company Genius that mentioned Trump and categorized them as having positive, neutral or negative connotations. From 1989 to 2016, Trump and his brand were mentioned in 266 songs. About 60 percent were deemed positive, 27 percent neutral and 13 percent negative.

Before YG used a music festival spotlight to make a political statement, uttering Trump’s name stood for “wealth, business acumen, and the American hustle,” according to The Daily Beast. Take a listen to Mac Miller back in 2011, when he released a single about the current Commander-in-Chief: “Take over the world when I’m on my Donald Trump shit/ Look at all this money! Ain’t that some shit?”

The finesse and bank account of such a prominent real estate businessman allured rappers like Mac Miller and Rae Sremmurd, their 2015 song “Up like Trump” following suit to Mac Miller’s. To two brothers from Mississippi, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi rap “Up Like Trump” to represent their own musical come-up by referencing the ultimate come-up businessman.

Clad in a white suit, gold chain and black shades, a guy with a Donald Trump mask dances in the background of the music video. Even though it’s not clear, Donald Trump is in more places than viewers think he is. Rae Sremmurd elaborated that when shooting footage on the double-decker bus, they got on the top and “[looked] down and Donald Trump is on there….Not on the bus, just a picture of him.” His vast exposure contributes to why two small-town brothers, or any rapper for that matter, would look up to his status for inspiration.

Money and fame is a game to these artists, but insert politics into the equation and they have some choice words about it. What “Trump” stood for aligned with rappers’ luxe aspirations, but when it came to standing with them, as reported by The Daily Beast, he was nowhere to be found: “The idea was to celebrate the outlaw and the ‘self-made’ man, but it was also a celebration of cultures that had little to no interest in reciprocating the respect and admiration.” In 2015, the same year he announced running for the Republican Party nomination, the negative references counted by FiveThirtyEight quadrupled from eight to 34.

Listen to the monologues, melodies and remarkable featured artists who contributed to a political playlist of not-so-national anthems:

Former South Carolina state representative Bakari Sellers said the existence of rap and hip-hop music relies on “[telling] the pain that these communities come from, and there’s no better example of that pain than Donald Trump.”

By 2016, even a fun-loving, fresh face rapper like Aminé wasn’t delivering the peachiest performances. I mean he’s more of a banana guy anyways, but when he sang his hit single “Caroline” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” his giddy riffs were quickly met with a somber verse on stage. The yellow lights faded into a patriotic red, white and blue, and just a week after President Donald Trump’s election last November, politics and hip-hop were intertwined tighter than ever.

9/11, a day that we never forgettin’

11/9, a day that we always regrettin’

If my president is Trump then it’s relevant enough

To talk ‘bout it on TV and not give a —-

I’m black and I’m proud

My skin is brown and I’m loud

Everybody love it when a rapper tells some lies

But that ain’t me, homie, I guess that’s a surprise

America want to act all happy and holy

But deep down inside they like Brad and Jolie

Caroline divine, and I won’t get specific

Club Banana, the illest and it’s too terrific

You can never make America great again

All you ever did was make this country hate again.

In March 2016, five years after the release of “Donald Trump,” Mac Miller publicly denounced the candidate on “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” saying: “I f—kin’ hate you, Donald Trump…. Make America great again? I think you want to make American white again.” Late-night television really can become a political platform.

Reciprocation? Not in Trump’s vocabulary, but hip-hop and rap artists have expanded their jargon to make their voices loud and clear about the influence politics has on their work. With YG and Aminé turning their musical stages into civic platforms, critical references and jabs at the president will grow steadily with his controversial policies and rhetoric.

Although FiveThirtyEight has yet to take 2017 into account (did you see what Eminem had to say recently?), Trump’s brand will receive more scrutiny in a rags-to-riches revision of his position in America. The president’s personal wealth has been taken off the pedestal, while his engagement, or lack thereof, with social issues receives caustic remarks through rap and hip-hop, making a “neutral” stance obsolete. With frustration and agitation coursing through verses, the 60 percent of positive Trump mentions will be overrun by the current wave of unfavorable slants in songs, performances and even outros such as YG’s snippet (to no surprise) at the end of Ty Dolla $ign’s “Hello” that has no direct correlation with the sexual ballad.

A melting pot of musicians has only been teeming and boiling with anger over Trump’s Muslim travel ban, incessant chatter over building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Billboard asked YG why hip-hop artists should share their political views, he noted that hip-hop has always been a tool to fight power: “Me and Nip always talk about that but we already deal with getting blackballed by the police, shows getting shut down, so we was always hesitant about going ham on shit. But f— all that — this hip-hop, this rap, we got a platform and we’re going to use it for the right shit. I ain’t hesitating no more.”

Common, quoted at the Tribeca Film Festival in March by “The Hollywood Reporter,” discussed the artist’s role, especially in this presidential term: “One thing that we had in hip-hop that you have from that ‘80s era is a lot of people were kind of educated politically to a certain degree, socially and politically. I think even in this crucial era, the music can be more powerful if the people are passionate about it and they really do care.”

Filmmaker Nelson George pitched into the same thought as Common, saying, “Often artists respond with some of their best work because it touches their friends and their community in a way that’s inspiring. Anger, as much as love, inspires art.”

Ty Dolla $ign with brother Big TC spoke to no justice in lieu of police brutality in a soulful track literally titled “No Justice”. As illustrative as the lyrics are – pulling the listener over and violating their earbuds like cops have notoriously done with the black community – the most impactful blatant verse comes at the very end:

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the lesser of two evils

But if money is the root of all evil

Then this n*gga Donald Trump growin’ money trees

By running for president, he even cash in on his T-shirts

Hillary is no saint

But I would rather hide emails than ban immigration

Based on religion or race

Honestly both of these motherfuckers

Fuck with the KKK, that’s crazy

Donald Trump, David Duke, Hillary Clinton, Robert Byrd

But at least Hillary has the decency to lie about it

And I hate liars, but even more than that

I hate racists

Make America great again is really just

Make America white again

Let’s keep it trill.

Keeping it “trill” is equivalent to keeping it real, which these performers claim to be doing in their music. Joey Bada$$ produced an album in April titled “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” and Snoop Dogg said he was done clowning around about political issues in his music video for “Lavender (Nightfall Remix)” released in May.

Interestingly enough, following YG at Day N Night was closing performer Kendrick Lamar, who has made his fair share of political statements and has become familiar with the repercussions over the last few years. He keeps it “trill” in his single “The Heart Part 4,” which was released in March in advance of his album “DAMN.”:

Donald Trump is a chump

Know how we feel, punk? Tell ‘em that God comin’

And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’

Electoral votes look like memorial votes

But America’s truth ain’t ignorin’ the votes.

Here Kung Fu Kenny “thinks America should fight for a more democratic process” due to Trump’s win from the electoral college and not the popular vote, which Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton took by over 2.9 million votes. Fast forward a month later when “DAMN’ comes out, and Lamar is saying something else in the track, “YAH.”: “I’m not a politician, I’m not ‘bout a religion.” Yeah, why the sudden change of topic from bashing the electoral college to becoming apolitical?

In 2015, Lamar sang “Alright” from his “To Pimp a Butterfly” album at the BET Awards. Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera condemned the performance, saying its message about police brutality was more damaging to “young African-Americans than racism in recent years.” The pain that African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, females and transgender people have endured in lieu of the election is not manifested by the music, but the music is the relief from it. Rivera’s rhetoric, to Lamar, is problematic because it invalidates the experiences of people who have felt targeted by Trump and have suffered from it.

Lamar knew this public critique was not all right:

“Hip-hop is not the problem,” he said to TMZ. “Our reality is the problem of the situation. This is our music. This is us expressing ourselves. Rather [than] going out here and doing the murders myself, I want to express myself in a positive light the same way other artists are doing. Not going out in the streets, [going] in the booth and talking about the situation and hoping these kids can find some type of influence on it in a positive manner. Coming from these streets and coming from these neighborhoods, we’re taking our talents and putting ’em inside the studio.”

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Top image: (Maya Bingham/Neon)

Heran Mamo is the co-editor of Neon and a senior studying journalism with a minor in culture, media and entertainment. She likes writing about pop culture and its convergence with social issues. She has worked as an editorial intern for Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. In her free time, Heran likes curating Spotify playlists and shopping for sneakers.