Can the freshman senator from Illinois stick to his ideals and still become the first man to rock Air Force Ones on Air Force One? We’re entering the mostly hotly contested election of our lifetime. It’s time to decide? Is Barack Obama our man?
On a Tuesday afternoon in May, the lines for a Barack Obama rally are as long as they would be for the rock concerts that are the normal fare here at the Electric Factory, a vast, converted warehouse in North Philadelphia.
Even for this mixed city, the crowd is stunningly cosmopolitan. The orderly line includes a coed reading The Bookseller of Kabul, South Asian engineering majors from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Arab American law students from the University of Pennsylvania, veteran activists from the National Hip-Hop Political Convention in crisp suits, community organizers in ACORN t-shirts, young white, Black, and Latino parents with kids in strollers, elderly people in wheelchairs, and everywhere, high schoolers—some sporting HOT CHICKS DIG OBAMA buttons, some from North Philly in their school uniforms, others from South Jersey in Abercrombie & Fitch, drawn like the faithful to Mecca.
They have all donated $25 to $50 — star prices for the B-Rock — to be, in Common’s words, ignited. Obama pitches himself as the candidate of change, and many here hope he can turn around a nation polarized by George W. Bush, war, the economy, race, religion, political parties, and even hip hop.
Beverly Washington from the Mount Olivet Tabernacle Church is wearing her red Sunday power worship suit and gripping her varnished brown cane. Four generations from her congregation have come on buses. The last time she felt this good about politics was two decades ago. “Jesse was real. But now Barack is coming,” she says. “He’s fresh, he’s new, he’s inspiring.”
Carmen Mitchell, 14, got her cousin, Anthony Lewis, 17, to ask his mom to write them a fake doctor’s note that morning. They dressed in their summer-brite polos, grabbed their black D&G stunna shades, and skipped classes to catch a train from the boondocks of Conshohocken. Then they hiked two miles from 30th Street Station to be the first in line at their first political rally. They want the wars in Iraq and in their old West Philly neighborhood to end. “He makes us feel like he’s really talking to us,” Carmen says.
Obama arrives backstage, a retinue of Secret Service agents trailing behind. He introduces himself to the employees, looking them in their eyes. On the decks, King Britt cues Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” and she wails, “Oh, freedom! Freedom!”
Now it really is Obama time. This crowd of 3,000 isn’t the biggest he has seen — there were 12,000 in Oakland, 20,000 in Atlanta and Austin — but, as he ascends to the stage, they are deafening. “Spring is here in America,” he says in his soothing baritone. “It’s time for us to renew the spirit of America, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
When he first ran for state office in 1996, Obama continues, “People would say to me, ‘You seem like a nice guy.’” The crowd laughs. “‘You’ve got a fancy law degree. You could be making a lot of money. You’ve got a beautiful family. You’re a church-going man. Why would you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?’” Obama talks slowly, as if he’s unsure whether he’s really made up his mind, and when he has an opportunity to go hard, he often gets complicated instead. But while his voice is doing one thing, his body is doing another. He carries his slim 6’ 2” frame with a hint of streetball swagger. And when he comes to a money line, he holds his position like he’s daring you to charge. His is the opposite of in-your-grill. Obama’s game is finesse.
“We feel as if we can’t make a difference, and so half of us don’t even vote,” Obama says, to swelling cheers. “This nation is founded on a different tradition,” he says, his voice rising, “a very simple idea that we all have mutual obligations toward each other, that we all rise and fall together, that we can value our individualism and our self-reliance but ultimately we have to lift up this idea that we are connected. And if there are children in Philadelphia right now that are killing each other and shooting each other, and without an education and dropping out, that impacts all of us.”
The crowd goes bananas.
When he’s done, he comes offstage to shake hands, followed by the men in headsets. A throng of bodies pushes toward the barriers. People hold up copies of his book, The Audacity of Hope. An elderly Black woman fights back tears. Carmen and Anthony reach out to clasp his hand. Aretha sings, “You need me…and I need you.”
It’s Wednesday afternoon in Washington D.C., the day after the rally and two other fundraisers in Philly. The western end of the seventh floor of the Hart Senate Office Building is humming.
Two young white receptionists field an unrelenting stream of calls on pending votes for the immigration bill and the war supplemental budget. Between rings, they train an eager, racially mixed group of interns how to run the constituent response software. Behind closed doors, aides are working feverishly on a major lobbying/ethics reform bill the Senator has sponsored. Ben Labolt, Obama’s press secretary, sighs, “These are the days my coffee pot is full all day.”
A sudden whoosh of air, and Obama himself is in the room, stopping everyone dead for a second. He apologizes for the delay and invites me into his high-ceilinged, mustard yellow office. One wall is adorned with pictures of him with his wife Michelle, 43, and his daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6. There’s a small photo of the surf-swept cliffs of Bamboo Ridge at the southeastern edge of Oahu, where the ashes of his mother, Ann Dunham, were scattered. Another wall is dominated by a painting of Justice Thurgood Marshall. There are portraits of Lincoln, Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., each one Obama’s definition of a “uniter not a divider,” to borrow the phrase George W. Bush once used to describe himself.
Obama takes a chair and kicks his feet up on the coffee table. He wears a blue pinstriped suit. A touch of gray is creeping into his closely shaven hair, but he maintains a gym rat’s physique. When I tell him I went to his rival high school in Honolulu, he can’t resist a little trash talk. “We used to wipe the floor with them,” he tells Labolt, flashing that marquee smile.
Near his desk is an encased pair of bright red Everlast boxing gloves, signed by Muhammad Ali. Above them hangs a framed poster of Ali towering over a prone Sonny Liston, after the famous “phantom punch” in the first round of their 1965 rematch, when Ali is screaming at the former champion to stand up and fight. Here is the other side of Senator Obama: The baller who still enjoys throwing ’bows on the basketball court. The high-roller who raised $56 million from over 250,000 donors in the first half of 2007 to lead all candidates in the paper chase. The man who could become the first Black president.
Obama’s political career has been charmed, some might even say blessed. In 2004, his opponent in the Democratic primary race for the U.S. Senate faded amidst claims of domestic abuse. Then Obama was tapped by Senator John Kerry to give the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Inspired by his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the speech updated Jesse Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron, invoking “the audacity of hope” to end a “long political darkness”. It made him an overnight celebrity.
Obama’s first Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, quit after his ex-wife disclosed his sexual perversions in documents related to a child custody dispute. Republicans searched for an African American to challenge Obama. Unfortunately they plucked perennial loser Alan Keyes, who at one point said, “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.” Obama took 70% of the electorate. He is now the only African American in the Senate, and just the third elected since Reconstruction.
But when Obama announced he was running for president, some shot-callers, like the Reverend Al Sharpton, seemed skeptical of an inexperienced candidate who had not emerged from the civil rights establishment. “Right now we’re hearing a lot of media razzle-dazzle,” Sharpton said at the time. “I think when the meat hits the fire, we’ll find out if it’s just fat or if there’s some real meat there.” Sharpton recently told VIBE, “I’m warming up to Obama, but I’m not there yet.”
Obama’s “blackness” has also come into question. “Obama isn’t black,” Salon.com columnist Debra Dickerson wrote. “‘Black,’ in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves.” The debate exposed fears that a discussion about race that expands to include immigrants of color and their descendants might thwart continuing attempts to address the terrible legacies of slavery. And could someone who grew up in Hawai’i and Indonesia really be “black”? Obama’s Southside-for-life wife, Michelle, plays this line of questioning for laughs on the campaign trail when she talks about her first impressions of him: “I kind of thought any Black guy who was raised in Hawai’i had to be a little off!”
“We as a culture are still confused about race,” Obama says carefully. “There’s this assumption that there’s only one way of being Black. That if you are not conforming to a certain pattern of behavior, that somehow you may not be authentic enough. And those of us in African American culture know that there’s as much diversity in the African American community as there is in any other community.”
Some took just one look at him to make up their mind. On May 4, CBSNews.com disabled all user comments on its articles about Obama because the website was receiving too many racist posts. That same month, he was granted full Secret Service protection, the earliest ever for a presidential candidate who had not previously served, in part because of racist e-mails to his Senate office. Only Jesse Jackson Sr., during his 1984 and 1988 runs, required similar arrangements. “He is both black and black enough for whatever individual or individuals unnerved his handlers enough to seek Secret Service protection,” observed Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.: “That’s a truth that cuts the clutter.”
When asked what he thinks of the “Is he Black enough?” discussion, Obama grins. Perhaps it’s that bit of Ali in him. “If you go to my barber shop, the Hyde Park Hair Salon, 53rd Street on the Southside, and you ask my guys in there, people don’t understand the question,” he says. “But it’s something I worked out a long time ago. I know who I am. My friends, my family, my constituency know who I am, and by the time this campaign is all over, America will know who I am.”
Obama, who turned 46 on August 4th, calls himself a member of the Joshua generation, an heir to the heroes of Selma, but he really falls somewhere between the civil rights and the hip-hop generations. He’s too young to have been a Freedom Rider and too old to have worn a Public Enemy t-shirt like a middle finger. He pays respect to the idealism and commitment of the civil rights generation, but he does not belittle the hip-hop generation’s skepticism toward politics.
Polls show Obama leading Hillary Clinton amongst the college-age crowd. The internet is awash in rap, reggaeton, and R&B tributes to him. Hip-hop activists across the country stump for him, and Island Def Jam chairman L.A. Reid recently hosted a fundraiser at his Park Avenue apartment that brought in over $350,000 from the likes of Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Jermaine Dupri. Obama’s supporters include Andre Harrell, Eddie Murphy, Ludacris, and Oprah Winfrey.
So it came as a surprise when, in the wake of the firing of radio host Don Imus and the subsequent backlash against hip hop, Obama was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that rappers were “degrading their sisters”. Many hip hoppers, knowing that the culture has been used as a wedge issue since Bill Clinton attacked Sister Souljah in 1992, were angry that Obama seemed to be lining up on the other side of the battle. Obama says he was misquoted. “I stand by exactly what I said, which was that the degrading comments about women that Imus said is language that we hear not just on the radio, not just in music, “he says. “We ourselves perpetrate this, and we all have to take responsibility for that.”
Rather than score easy political points, Obama took fire from both sides. The Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News hammered him for criticizing hip hop, yet accepting campaign donations from Ludacris and David Geffen. They called on him to return the donations. (When asked if he plans to do so, Obama simply laughs). Russell Simmons attacked Obama as a “mouse,” and told the New York Times, “What we need to reform is the conditions that create these lyrics. Obama needs to reform the conditions of poverty.” Simmons later apologized.
Obama says that, in part, he agrees with Simmons. “Rap is reflective of the culture of the inner city, with its problems, but also its potential, its energy, its challenges to the status quo. And I absolutely agree my priority as a US senator is dealing with poverty and educational opportunity and adequate health care. If I’m ignoring those issues and spending all my time worrying about rap lyrics then I’m wasting my time.”
“On the other hand, I think that there’s no doubt that hip hop culture moves our young people powerfully. And some of it is not just a reflection of reality,” he adds. “It also creates reality. I think that if all our kids see is a glorification of materialism and bling and casual sex and kids are never seeing themselves reflected as hitting the books and being responsible and delaying gratification, then they are getting an unrealistic picture of what the world is like.”
Hard work, sacrifice, empathy, ambition — these are Obama’s core personal values, values he says he sees in the most successful hip hop artists and execs. “But,” he points out, “that’s not necessarily what you see on videos.”
Cerebral and casual, Obama offers a new picture of the 21st Century Black Man as a symbol of power. Men’s Vogue and Vanity Fair covers have made him something of a style icon, but Obama finds this funny. “Esquire chose me as one of the 20 best-dressed men in the world, and my wife couldn’t believe it,” he says. “She talked about how there’s probably some guys sitting in a café in Milan who spend all their time thinking about the latest Armanis and stuff, going, ‘Who is this guy Obama? How did he get there?’”
Sure, Obama has brought sexy back to politics — check the “I Got A Crush On Obama” YouTube video or the Will & Grace episode where Grace dreams she’s showering with him and getting her world Ba-rocked. But it’s Obama’s own redemption song that makes people see in him what they want to see. Black Joshua. Global bridge-builder. New American polyculturalist. “Healer-in-Chief.”
His story, told in Dreams From My Father, a memoir written before his political career began, is a familiar hip-hop generation tale about a boy raised by a single mother and his grandparents, trying to reconcile with a mostly distant dad. But the details are new. His father, Barack senior, was a Kenyan student, the son of a Muslim noble who worked as a house-servant for British colonials. His mother, Ann Dunham, was an anthropology student from Kansas in love with the big world. Her parents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, were working-class whites from Kansas who raised Obama for much of his early life. They gave him that midwestern accent, which shades southern for Black audiences, enunciates its consonants to whites, and becomes melodious around island Locals.
Growing up a planetary citizen has made Obama an adept code-shifter. He spent his childhood in Hawai’i and Indonesia. In Jakarta, he lived on a dirt road that turned muddy in the monsoon rains, learned to box from his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, kept pet turtles, apes, and crocodiles, and attended both Muslim and Catholic schools. “One of the gifts that was given to him was the fact that he was able to see people in very dire poverty,” says his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, 37, a high school teacher who grew up with him.
“He was able to understand people on both sides of the fence,” she says from her home in Honolulu, “and he was able to negotiate the worlds of the relatively affluent with a profound understanding of what it was like to be poor.”
In Hawai’i, he was a rare working-class student and one of less than a handful of blacks at the exclusive, missionary-founded private Punahou School. Unbeknownst to his classmates — the diverse descendants of whites, Asians, Puerto Ricans, and Pacific Islanders — and even to his mixed-race family, young Obama seethed over race and class issues, even as he put on an amiable front as a popular scholar-athlete.
For escape, he bodysurfed at Sandy Beach, bought comic books from a blind Filipino vendor, and played a lot of basketball. The court was, he wrote, “turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage.” He checked out funk and reggae bands at local clubs, and admits inhaling pakalolo smoke frequently—“that was the point”, he now jokes—and experimenting with cocaine and alcohol. At home, he sequestered himself with books by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X.
“He didn’t really share any of his struggles,” says Soetoro-Ng of her brother’s teen years. “He has always been rather independent. And although he had a great many friends, he sort of understood that the most challenging journeys of discovery would have to be undertaken alone.”
Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, and then transferred to Columbia University, at a time when Afrocentrism and the anti-apartheid movement dominated campus discussions. When he graduated, he moved to Chicago, the birthplace of modern urban organizing, to earn $12,000 a year working in Southside neighborhoods decimated by steel-plant closings and Reaganomics.
“He had started taking himself very seriously,” Soetoro-Ng recalls. “Everything he did touch he was very successful at.” His mother teased him, saying he would become the first black president.
Three years later, he entered Harvard Law School and put his game face on. He was elected editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review, the first African American to attain the position. James Bernard, a labor union organizer and community activist who helped co-found The Source while at Harvard, says, “I remember one of Barack’s roommates was saying to people that he would be president someday.”
Although hip-hop was stirring the campus, friends say that Obama was not the type to stay out late at rap shows. In 1990, when Harvard law professor Derrick Bell resigned to protest the denial of tenure to Black visiting professor Regina Austin and progressive law students organized a national protest over faculty diversity, Obama played a background role.
“He was supportive, and spoke at a few rallies, but he didn’t really have time,” says Bernard, an organizer of the protest. “The image I have is him being on the way to the Law Review building, chain-smoking and joining us for a few minutes before he had to go.”
During the summer after his first year of law school, Obama returned to Chicago for an internship at a law firm. His adviser was a gorgeous and brilliant Harvard Law grad named Michelle Robinson, three years younger but already on the fast-track. They fell in love, and were married four years later. Their relationship, Soetoro-Ng says, is full of humor and strength. “[Michelle is] fiercely pragmatic,” she says, “and that has helped him to balance out the romantic parts of himself, the ultra idealistic.” Michelle recently left her position as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals to campaign full-time.
In 2006, after serving only a year in the U.S. Senate, he was greeted with RUN OBAMA signs wherever he went. He and Michelle began discussing seriously the possibility of him running for president. By October, when The Audacity of Hope debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, the will-he-or-won’t-he stories reached fever pitch. On Oprah, flanked by Michelle, he ducked the question again.
He and Michelle finalized their decision during their annual Christmas vacation back to Oahu. In Honolulu, Obama joined his basketball buddies for a holiday streetball outing at their favorite court off Kapiolani Park. Privately, Obama spoke with his grandmother and his sister, and told them that he and Michelle had decided he would run. Soetoro-Ng told him she fully supported his choice, but added, “Once you make a decision like that, you don’t belong to the family anymore, you belong to the world.”
Traveling to the windward side of the island, Barack and Michelle watched their daughters catching waves, the green-capped Mokulua islets rising gently offshore. “You’re sitting on Kailua Beach, watching your kids play in the water,” he recalls. “You’re realizing, okay, at least for a couple years you’re giving this up. And that was, uh…” he looks down, his hand covering his lips, as if he’s still picturing the lost moment. After three years of a whirlwind ride into the center of public life, Obama is learning to live with regrets.
To some extent, Obama has been given a pass by a media and a public that’s willing to overlook his inexperience and his still paper-thin political program. It’s not just that he can grip the mic and tell a story like he was Ghostface, but because his is such an amazing story. He may be the perfect candidate for a post-Reagan, post–Real World environment in which celebrity and politics feed each other.
But Obama’s chosen field is not entertainment. Before the primary battles begin in Iowa in January, Obama must clear a lane through a crowded field of Democratic candidates. He will have to take his shot on a wide range of issues. And then he will need to box out his competitors when the media rebound comes.
All the Democratic candidates now oppose the Iraq war, but more than the other frontrunners, Obama has staked his campaign on it—never mind the fact that the next president will still be a wartime president. In January, Obama introduced a largely symbolic bill that called for a drawdown of combat troops in May and complete withdrawal by April 2008. Now he urges his audiences to force Congress to vote for troop withdrawal.
“When we do that,” he said at the Philadelphia rally, “as bad as our foreign policy seems right now, there is light at the end of the tunnel.” But while Obama has chastised his Democratic opponents for taking the wrong stand on the war, he hardly led the fight against Bush’s war supplemental budget, voting very quietly against it in the 11th hour.
The Reverend Al Sharpton says Obama’s greatest weakness is that he seems to be a candidate without a cause. “I want to see a strong stand on issues that concern people,” he says. “The cause can’t be the candidate, the candidate must rally around the cause. The reason for
that is that if they lose, at least we will have advanced the cause.”
For two decades, most presidential candidates have avoided addressing two trends that have shaped the hip-hop generation—the widening wealth gap and exploding incarceration rates of people of color. Obama says, “They will be part of this campaign.”
In May, on the 15th anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising, Obama warned of the rise of “quiet riots,” a term coined in a Reagan-era Commission on The Cities report to capture the despair of abandoned ghetto youths. Obama said he wanted to reach “young men and women without hope, without miracles, and without a sense of destiny other than life on the edge—the edge of the law, the edge of the economy, the edge of family structures and communities.” At the third Democratic debate in June, before a largely African-American audience at Howard University, he talked about education, urban policy, and the criminal justice system. But he failed to address the day’s biggest issue, the Supreme Court’s blow to five decades of school integration.
Onstage in Philly, Obama garnered the biggest cheer of the day when he said: “Listen, when George Bush steps down, the entire world is gonna breathe a sigh of relief.” But is Obama ready to stand up? Critics of his performances in the first two Democratic debates—in a word, he bricked—have called him “Obambi”. Others say his Senate record already shows him knuckling under to credit card companies on interest rate limits and corporations on class-action lawsuits.
Yet everyone wants to root for the skinny boy with the funny name who grew up to become the Great Black Hope. On some days, like that evening in Philadelphia, his candidacy feels bigger than a presidential campaign or a referendum on the Iraq war, and more like a test of whether America can truly end three decades of culture wars fought across the lines of race, class, gender, and generation. More than any other candidate in recent memory, Obama — who describes himself as a “hopemonger” — seems to embody America’s unfinished promise as a multiracial, polycultural democracy. He speaks to the hope — there’s that word again — that a new face and a fresh start might finally make things right.
“I think there is the potential,” Obama says, “not the certainty, but the potential—that if we are successful we could change how America sees itself and how the world sees America. And that would be worth it.”
Can't Stop Won't Stop Extras
- A Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Q+A By Oliver Wang
An exclusive interview about the book from 2004
- A Tribute To Richie Perez
The story of one of the Bronx greats–a Young Lord and a mentor to many.
- Interviews With The Author
Four years of print, radio, and video interviews with Jeff Chang. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll order Chinese.
- Making A Name :: Book Excerpt
It has become myth, a creation myth, this West Bronx party at the end of the summer in 1973…
- Writing The Book, Part 1
From 2003, the first blog post on writing “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”. Can it be that it was all so simple then?
- Writing The Book, Part 3 or 2.5
Another blog post on writing “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” from the eve of release. Bonus angst: that vexing “Asian American question”.
The Reader Archive
- Welcome To The Reader
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- 2008 Elections
Links to Jeff’s coverage of the 2008 elections for Vibe
- Hip-Hop Activism
Links to some of Jeff’s articles on hip-hop activism
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