Hip-Hop in Politics: What a Difference a Generation Makes

PHOTO: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the 2011 Washington Ideas Forum at The Newseum, in this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo in Washington, DC.
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In the 1990s Washington was polarized on many of the same issues as today: taxes, the economy, gun control. But there was one cultural idea that seemed to have bipartisan support: that rap music was a symptom of the destruction of American values.

In 1992, Republican Vice President Dan Quayle called legendary rapper Tupac's acclaimed first album "2Pacalyse Now" a disgrace to American music.

"There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published," said Quayle at the time, calling on Interscope Records to withdraw the album. "It has no place in our society."

At the same time a prominent Democratic figure, Tipper Gore, was in the midst of a campaign against gangsta rap, testifying at a Congressional hearing on the genre's ills.

What a difference a generation makes.

Today attention is lavished on Republican Senator Marco Rubio's love of hip-hop, and specifically gangsta rap. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote a column, "The Rap on Rubio."

In an interview with BuzzFeed the 41-year-old Rubio said that he was not condoning the violence in Tupac's music and gangsta rap, but that he views the music as a mirror of American society.

"I think Tupac's lyrics were more insightful, my opinion, with all apologies to the Biggie fans," said Rubio. "In some ways, rappers are like reporters. In particular, at that time, from the West Coast, it was a lot of reporting about what life was like ... so the '90s was a time when this was really pronounced. You had gang wars, racial tension, and they were reporting on that," he said.

It's a sentiment that the current U.S. president, a Democrat, subscribes to as well. President Obama, who is a decade older than Sen. Rubio, is such a fan of rapper and businessman Jay-Z that he was a VIP at the president's inauguration.

Jay-Z has also come under criticism for his lyrics, with some critics claiming he has glorified violence and drugs. In response, Jay-Z says that like Tupac and his mentor Notorious B.I.G. (also mentioned in Rubio's interview), he is not advocating a certain lifestyle, but providing a window into a part of America that many don't see.

At a fundraiser in Ohio last year, President Obama said it was "an honor" to share the stage with the rapper, not only because his music is on the president's iPod but also because he tells "American stories."

Politicians are even getting personal with hip-hop stars. Sen. Rubio talks of knowing the real name of the Miami-born Cuban-American rapper Pitbull. President Obama has often said the he and Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, have led "parallel lives," achieving success in America despite early struggles with absentee fathers and poverty.

Since 2008, Jay-Z and his wife, the pop star Beyonce, have become staunch supporters of the president and friendly with the first family.

"I've gotten to know these guys over the first several years," the president said in a radio interview last October. "They're good people. We talk about the same things I talk about with all my friends."

Hip hop historian Davey D, a professor at San Francisco State University, told the Washington Examiner that the evolution of hip-hop in politics has less to do with a shift of values and more to do with time. He points out that Rubio and Obama favor hip-hop artists who are not new; they've been popular for a decade, if not longer.

"Anyone who's under a certain age -- at this point I'd say 50 -- probably has some sort of engagement with hip-hop," he said. "It's hard to ignore."

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