By Jeremy Mitchell
Community Organizer in Southeast Wisconsin
As Hip-Hop Week MKE returns, I rewatched what I think is one of the funnier municipal moments in recent Milwaukee history. The video is from a January 2018 City of Milwaukee Common Council Community and Economic Development Committee meeting that discussed the potential for the first Hip-Hop Week MKE. The best part of the archived footage took place as the committee voiced their approval for Alderman Khalif J. Rainey’s resolution establishing the weeklong city-wide event that celebrates the culture of hip-hop while featuring performances, seminars on health and finances, as well as opportunities for civic engagement. After committee members added their support as cosponsors of the legislation, the chair of the committee, Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II asked committee members, “Who’s your favorite rapper?” Alderman José G. Pérez said, “Rakim.” Alderman Khalif J. Rainey, answered, “I gotta go with Jay-Z.” Future mayor, Cavalier Johnson responded, “I’m a Jay-Z guy too.” Next, the then alderman Tony Zielinski, with an air of confidence, replied, “Oh, Jay-Z” which elicited incredulous laughter from Alders Stamper and Pérez. (If you listen closely you will also hear committee member’s barely audible, “Whatever, nah, whatever!”) Stamper then declared, “Well he’s not my favorite, mine is Tupac.”
The reaction to Zielinski’s reply was I think based on the feeling that some on the committee either did not believe Zielinski actually liked rap music or that he did not in fact have a favorite rapper and was simply parroting the answer of other committee members. It is very possible that former alder Zielinski indeed loves to play Jay-Z as he drives down Wisconsin Ave. But, if he responded “Oh, Jay-Z” just to fit in, it’s understandable, it’s human, but it’s also humorous because we’ve all made statements that everybody thinks we’re making just to project a desired image.
So, as we flash forward from Zielinski’s response, you might be curious if I have a favorite rapper. I do. Sean “Puff Daddy” aka “P. Diddy, you know I got the key to your city” (he doesn’t) Combs is my favorite rapper of all-time. I know. I’m a disgrace. You’re probably wondering if you should even continue reading anything I have to say about rap or hip-hop. Instead of trying to defend myself by regaling you with a laundry list of Bad Boy hits, the importance of the 2004 Vote or Die campaign, or how Diddy gave us Dylan from Making the Band, I would rather say simply, I get it. Finding out a person’s favorite music is like learning who they voted for. That information can be a gamechanger for your relationship with them because music says something about our identity and how we look at the world. For instance, if former alder Zielinski did not say, “Oh, Jay-Z” but instead said, “Oh, MC Hammer,” this may have created some Reasonable Doubt about his political future. Ask yourself, could you vote for a candidate who might own a pair of hammer pants? I could. But I like Diddy. Since our music choices can feel like such a disclosure, let’s take a look at what music may tell us about ourselves, others, and political officials.
Research scientists agree that our music preferences are revealing. In 2020, neuroscientist David M. Greenberg showed in his study “The Self-Congruity Effect of Music” that people prefer the music of artists who have publicly observable personalities (“personas”) similar to their own personality traits. In 2003, Professors Peter J. Renfrow and Samuel D. Gosling wrote an academic article titled, “The Do Re Mi’s of Everyday Life: The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preferences.” The article examined how our music preferences may at times be used to “make self-directed identity claims” and to also “make other-directed identity claims.” And in the 1999 research paper titled, “The Functions of Music in Everyday Life: Redefining the Social in Music Psychology,” Professors David J. Hargreaves & Adrian C. North found that people use music as a “badge” to communicate their values, attitudes, and self-views. So, while we do like and choose music because of how it makes us feel and how it makes us see ourselves, we also like and choose music because of how it makes us look in the eyes of others.
Political candidates also recognize that music is an opportunity to project an image. In a 2016 article in The Guardian, Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, an assistant professor in music at Georgia College stated “Music, as I see it, is the candidate’s attempt to constitute their identity in sound … To sonically construct themselves in a way that appeals to the voters but also offers insight to who they are and what they stand for.” This idea is evident when thinking about political campaigns over the past twenty-five years. During the 1996 Presidential Campaign, Milwaukee-native Todd “Speech” Thomas of Arrested Development hit the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore. During a 2003 Democratic Presidential Debate, journalist Farai Chideya asked candidates, “What’s your favorite song?” Howard Dean was the only candidate to select a hip-hop artist when he chose Wyclef Jean’s “Jaspora” which further solidified his status as an outsider with a fresh new approach. Bernie Sanders made appearances with rapper/activist Killer Mike during the Democratic Party presidential primaries in 2015 and 2016, with the most notable being a conversation in an Atlanta barbershop. While running for president in 2019, Senator Kamala Harris told the Breakfast Club radio show that she listens to Cardi B. Harris then wryly explained that sometimes she turns on “Be Careful.” This confession signaled that Harris may have held the belief that she was a heavily and perhaps unfairly criticized candidate whose kindness should not be mistaken as weakness. During the 2012 Correspondents Dinner, President Obama said, “In my first term I sang Al Green. In my second term, I’m going with Young Jeezy.” This served as a playful notice to Obama’s political adversaries that there would be “no more Mr. Nice Guy” in the subsequent four years.
While Barack Obama may have been the most skilled political figure when deploying hip-hop as political messaging, hip-hop in politics is not always just a calculated projection. At times it can track as real and deeply personal. For example, in 2021, former president Obama told Complex that when he was first running for president he was inspired by Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song” from The Black Album because it “talks about the struggle of just trying to make it,” and how, “sometimes you have to resort to false bravado, and hustle, and tamping down your insecurities.” Obama then dropped these bars from the song,
Treat my first like my last
And my last like my first
And my thirst is the same as when I came.
These lines reminded the candidate to hustle on his way up, but to stay hungry once in the Oval Office.
So what does your alder’s favorite rapper tell you about them? Does Alderman Pérez’s Rakim fandom tell us that the common council president “Aint No Joke” or that he’s “thinking of a master plan?” Would Alderman Rainey’s playlist give us a glimpse into his Blueprint? Is Alderman Stamper inspired by “The Rose That Grew from Concrete?” Should we have predicted that Cavalier Johnson might one day “Run This Town?”
As I drive home through the C.R.E.A.M. City after work, I decided to take a break from Diddy to see what my guy Nasir has to say. I pull up to the intersection of North Ave and Fond du Lac and The Lost Tapes album by Nas starts to play and I catch the lyrics,
What do we own? Not enough land, not enough homes
Not enough banks, to give my brother a loan…
My light turns green and I pass through the intersection to see Columbia Savings and Loan Bank out of my rear-view mirror. I recall Senator Obama’s words from a 2008 interview, “Hip-Hop is not just a mirror of what is, it should also be a reflection of what can be.”