The Miseducation of Marco Rubio

Posted on November 29, 2012

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GQs interview with Florida Senator Marco Rubio created a lot of buzz last week. Most in the media pounced on his admission:  “I’m not a scientist, man.”  Being the hip hop fanatic that I am, I was struck by the title of the piece, “All Eyez on Him” (a play on one of Tupac Shakur’s most commercially successful album). Judging the story by its headline, I eagerly looked for  the interviewer’s conversation with Rubio about hip hop. I was not the only one who noticed Rubio’s hip hop references, either. The Guardian’s Richard Adams blogged on the interview and The Week’s editors also weighed in on Rubio’s musical tastes. Both identified the irony in Rubio’s and his tastes. They saw a conservative senator who likes hip hop artists, some whom actually crafted music that older Republicans like Dan Quayle criticized in the early 1990s. Reading the interview, I could imagine Rubio, a presumptive front runner in the 2016 Republican primaries: “See, some of us could appeal to people of color. Some of us are actually hip.”

It almost makes me laugh thinking about Rubio possibly pandering to hip hop listeners in ways that Michael Steele tried to when he won the party chairmanship. But, Rubio’s brief discussion of hip hop was where my amusement stopped and the skepticism ensued. I do not see too much irony in Rubio’s affinity for rap like Adams. I see a glaring disconnect between the historical and political context of hip hop and Rubio’s own politics. And this disconnect is a dangerous one because Rubio can enjoy the genre without thinking about how it arose out of the Republicans’ and Democrats’ abandonment of the nation’s cities over the last fifty years. Several of those hip hop artists that he mentioned had to navigate the trappings that accompanied the urban poverty (often racialized) that beset cities during the 1970s and 1980s. What is ironic is that the few successful artists used the mic, turntables, beat machines, and records as their bootstraps, and guess what; Rubio gets to praise them retrospectively in order let us know that he’s down.

Hip hop and mainstream party politics have intersected more in the last four years with the election of Barack Obama, his embrace of rap artists and their music, and hip hop’s embrace of the nation’s first black president. Obama often mentions how he listens to Jay-Z, Nas, Lil’ Wayne, and Eminem in his I-Pod.[1] The President and Michelle Obama invited fellow Chicagoan, Common, to perform at the White House to the dismay of some at Fox News.[2] Conversely, Young Jeezy and Nas have recorded songs praising the President.[3] Jay-Z and Beyoncé hosted a fundraising dinner for the President during this election cycle. Now, with the defeat of Romney in the election and the GOP in disarray, some in the party see Rubio as their answer to Obama—young, Cuban, charismatic, and hip person of color…and lover of hip hop?

Disappointingly one learns that Rubio’s hip hop tastes are rather standard after reading the interview and consulting his autobiography, An American Son. In the interview, Rubio lists Public Enemy (PE), Tupac, N.W.A. (Niggaz wit’ Attitude), and Eminem as some of his favorite artists. Now, there are some ironies in his selections. Rubio says he does not recognize “ transformative people in politics,” but he’s willing to acknowledge how PE was a transformative group, a group that most people, familiar with hip hop and not, cite as the standard bearer of political hip hop groups. I thought I would receive more discussion of his love for hip hop in his autobiography, but hip hop only appears on a single page (page 50). His references to two of the genre’s pioneers—Afrika Bambattaa and Grandmaster Flash—served as the only explicit examples in the context of his admiration for popular black music.

The larger point regarding his response is his ability to disassociate the history his hip hop selections from his politics. Marco Rubio positions himself as a conservative Republican who has the ear of the Tea Party.  He supports the “trickle-down” assumptions governing supply-side economics that Reagan popularized during the early-1980s, at the moment where Afrika Bambattaa and the rest of hip hop’s pioneers gained popularity.

The urban crisis of the 1970s formed the backdrop for the emergence of Rubio’s favorite artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambattaa. Republican presidential administrations often led in the restructuring of the nation’s urban policy during the 1970s and 1980s. Richard Nixon’s new federalism and reform of urban policy often redirected federal support from deindustrializing northeastern and Midwestern cities to suburbs and southern and western cities. Gerald Ford’s administration initially refused to provide aid for New York City in 1975. Democratic president Jimmy Carter’s austere budgetary policies subtly continued this trend. Carter’s support of FED chairman, Paul Volcker’s attempts to lower inflation by raising interest rates, and therefore sparking a recession, also put pressure on cities.

President Ronald Reagan continued the policy of urban devolution and coupled it with his national economic policy, often known as “Reaganomics.” In theory, Reaganomics revolved around free market principles of privatization, competition, and self-reliance. In reality, they amounted to an assault on the welfare state and caused an increased financial stress on states, cities, and poorer Americans. For example, as a result of a tightened national budget and stricter rules to attain Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits, 408,000 families were kicked off of the welfare rolls while 279,000 families received cuts in their benefits on October 1, 1981.[4] Job training programs also took a hit in Reagan’s budgets. The Reagan Administration eliminated the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) Public Service Jobs program in 1981 that provided more than 300,000 poor people with government-subsidized employment.[5] Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released their ode to ghetto living, “The Message” the following year. In the track, Melle Mel raps about the entrenched poverty, joblessness, and entrapment characterizing hyper-segregated cities like New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami.

One cannot understand the rise of hip hop, and especially the salience of popular songs like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” outside this context. Marco Rubio recalls writing a paper praising Reagan’s foreign policy in the fifth grade, which is partly what attracted his father’s support while Reaganomics contributed to the decline of cities like New York, the object of Melle Mel’s lament.

Besides Public Enemy and NWA, Tupac Shakur represented the most heralded artist from Rubio’s list (unless someone wants to argue for Eminem). Consequently, his reference to Tupac is not that intriguing. Sure, Tupac, along with NWA and PE expressed a form of black rage that would seem to repel many conservative Republicans. But, Tupac boasted an ability to craft songs that appealed to hardcore hip hop and popular audiences. Tupac was likely to rap about police brutality, partying, his mother, deliver a misogynistic rant, attack fellow rap competitors, big up the old school rap generation and predict his own death on the same record. Only few hip hop artists have been able to record hip hop albums that seamlessly appealed to different segments of fans. That’s why, no matter what political persuasion, many hip hop fans, across generations, revere the slain hip hop legend.

The question becomes, however, which Tupac did Rubio appreciate? Did Rubio listen to the Tupac who challenged police brutality and racist perceptions of black men as violent on his first album, 2Pacalypse Now?  Rubio recounts his own experiences with racism growing up. But, I would be hard-pressed to think that he identified with Tupac’s indictment (akin to Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King’s charges) of the United States with hypocrisy since it often stereotyped black men as violent while participating in wars abroad and perpetuating state-sanctioned violence against people of color at home. In Tupac’s words:

“I told them fight back, attack on society. If this is violence, then violent’s what I gotta be. If you investigate, you’ll find out where it’s comin’ from. Look through our history, America’s the violent one.”

I wonder what Rubio thought of Tupac’s other politically-charged songs like “Holla if Ya Hear Me,” “Only God Can Judge Me,” “The Struggle Continues,”  “White Man’z World,” “Don’t Stop,” songs other than the rather watered-down “Changes”?

Rubio also thought of himself as somewhat familiar with Tupac’s life. It is well known that Tupac descended from Black Panther activists. Panther Afeni Shakur gave birth to Tupac in New York City in 1971. Shakur was a member of the city’s Black Panther Party and was charged with conspiracy along with other members in the early 1970s who became known as the Panther 21. Former Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur was Tupac’s step-aunt. Yes, the same Assata Shakur that has been living in political exile in Cuba since 1984.

Now, I am sure that Rubio expressed his genuine opinion of hip hop in his autobiography and in GQ. I can also see why some may have done a double-take after reading the interview. On the one hand, hip hop has served as a dominant voice of many young black Americans. And as the “Black CNN,” as Chuck D once described the art form, hip hop artists have served as critics of American politics, especially Republicans’ politics.[6] Yet, on the other hand, hip hop has always appealed to youth of all racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. Historically, young white men have been the genres’ most eager consumers. Hip hop has also emerged as a global phenomenon over the last twenty-five years, thus demonstrating its ability to appeal to various groups of people, in ways that the Republican Party could never do. So, Rubio’s love for hip hop was not really surprising, nor extremely ironic.

What may be the most troubling is Rubio’s ability to separate art from its historical and political context. Artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, NWA, Public Enemy, and Tupac (and even Kanye West, to a degree) all made (and still make) enjoyable music, the type you could party and/or ride to. But they also crafted songs that reflected their position within the nation’s political economy—members of an urban, disposable, and “unemployable” “underclass.” Many of these artists rapped about being “trapped” in the nation’s eroding cities, often abandoned by Republicans (and Democrats at times).  Now, anyone can like hip hop, no matter their political persuasion  but not everyone is in a position to influence (urban) policy like Senator Marco Rubio. It would be nice if he and other Republicans (as well as Democrats) actually thought about constructing an urban policy that is not based on cutting welfare, trickle-down economics, gutting the public school system in the name of “choice,” or extending “charity.”


[1] “Obama’s I-Pod:  From Jay-Z to John Coltrane,” Billboard.com, October 29, 2012, http://www.billboard.com/news/obama-s-ipod-from-jay-z-to-john-coltrane-1007993752.story#/news/obama-s-ipod-from-jay-z-to-john-coltrane-1007993752.story, accessed November 26, 2012.

[2] “Common’s performance at the White House stirs controversy,” IBTimes, May 11, 2011, http://www.ibtimes.com/common%E2%80%99s-performance-white-house-stirs-controversy-283329, accessed November 26, 2012.

[3] This represents a deviation from the norm in hip hop where artists have recorded more songs criticizing previous presidents including Bill Clinton, the “first black president.”

[4] “New Fiscal Year Ushers in Reagan Era of Tax, Budget Cuts,” The Associated Press, October 1, 1981.

[5] “Public Service Jobs Ended; Jobless Benefits Harder to Get,” The Associated Press, October 1, 1981; Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, The New Class War:  Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1982), 18.

[6] Eazy-E is the exception. He donated money to the GOP in the early 1990s and visited President George H.W. Bush at the White House, at the Republican’s request.  See “The GOP’s Gangsta Lean,” Baltimore Sun, June 13, 1995, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1995-06-13/news/1995164184_1_eazy-e-bob-dole-elizabeth-dole, accessed November 28, 2012.

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Posted in: Hip Hop, Politics