As the first black president in the history of this country took the oath of office earlier this month, America bore witness to the pride, joy and amazement that African Americans in particular felt on inauguration day.
The moment was especially powerful for the generation of African Americans who experienced the civil rights movement. Yet it was no less so for the so-called hip-hop generation, African-American men and women born between 1965 and 1984, and even their younger counterparts.
President Barack Obama, 47, is the first presidential candidate that the hip-hop generation has fully embraced. And with Mr. Obama now in firmly planted in the corridors of power, that begs the question: What effect will he have on hip-hop?
Recently, Mark Hemingway wrote on the National Review’s website that the Obama Administration may signal that “the era of hip-hop might be ending.”
Yet that was the opposite of what activists, young voters and hip-hop artists expressed during inauguration weekend and in its aftermath.
Even Nas, age 36, the New York rapper who in 2006 released an album titled “Hip-Hop is Dead,” has changed his tune.
“America is a hip hop country,” he said in a phone interview.
Sounding more like David Axelrod than a rapper from the Queensbridge housing projects, he predicted that the power of the Republican Party and Fox News would wane.
“People don’t want to talk like Bill O’Reilly, dress like Bill O’Reilly—he is ignorant of how people live. We speak the truth.”
Indeed many seemed hopeful that President Obama would inspire hip-hop to strive for a more uplifting message.
“They used to tell us all you can do is sell crack rock or have a mean jump shot to get out of our situation,” said Young Jeezy, an Atlanta rapper who declined to give his age. “Now people say the sky’s the limit. We’re thinking past Pluto.”
Whether or not any rapper is (metaphorically) headed to Pluto, Mr. Obama appears to have bridged a generational gap in the African-American community.
In an interview published in Vibe Magazine in August of 2007, he said he primarily listens to artists like John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder, but also mentioned hip-hop acts like Outkast and Common.
“He’s kinda like the cool older brother to a lot of us in the hip hop generation,” said Jeff Chang, 42, an activist and author.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Obama did not give hip-hop’s often violent and misogynistic lyrics a free pass. Yet he did convey a subtle respect that many said helped his message resonate with a generation of people who have witnessed incarceration rates rise so high that 1 in 9 black males ages 20-34 are imprisoned.
That subtle respect was also important for many in hip-hop who say they’ve helped pave the way for Mr. Obama’s.
"We’ve been able to speak to young white men," said Paradise Gray, 44, the DJ from X-Clan, a hip-hop group known for its political themes.
"They don’t see us like their parents saw us."
Nathanial Motte, 25, one half of 30H3, a white hip-hop group popular on the emo rock circuit, is a prime example.
“Obama is the first president who really is in tune with cross-generational American culture,” he said. “The political climate has made cultural differences less important.”
Some activists said they are even seeing changes at the grassroots level. Khari Mosley, 32, the national political director of the League of Young Voters, said he’s hearing more young people saying things like “I gotta be like Barack” in reference to acting responsibly.
Recent data also appears to point towards progress. Last week a report by a group of researchers described what they call an Obama effect on test scores: the gap in performance between whites and African-Americans on a particular test given prior to Mr. Obama’s nomination “virtually disappeared” when the same test was given after his election.
Still, some say it’s too soon to say Mr. Obama will change hip-hop, or even that hip-hop will continue to embrace him.
“Getting elected is only a part of it,” said Bakari Kitwana, 42, an activist and author.
“Is he going to be able to…make the issues that matter to young people stick? That will determine whether or not he’s the first hip-hop generation candidate.”
Those issues, according to Rosa Clemente, 36, the vice presidential candidate for the Green Party and author of the essay “Why President Elect Obama is Not the First Hip-Hop President,” must address the needs of the poor as well as the middle class. She cited providing more affordable housing and ending mandatory sentences for drug violations as examples.
For now, however, the hip-hop generation appears to be taking in Mr. Obama’s mantra of change and responsibility.
“He’s a role model,” said Young Jeezy. “You look at his big beautiful family and think, ‘I can do that.’”