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Can Marco Rubio's Hip-Hop Cred Pay Dividends?

Can Marco Rubio's Hip-Hop Cred Pay Dividends?

By Scott Conroy - April 17, 2013

There aren’t many U.S. senators who would take time to entertain a TMZ reporter’s on-the-fly questions about hip-hop music -- much less provide thoughtful answers -- while walking through Reagan National Airport.

Only one, no doubt, would call into the celebrity news channel’s daily Web show the next day to follow up on the topic -- which is exactly what Florida’s Marco Rubio did back in February.

“I’m the only member of the hip-hop caucus in the Senate,” he joked at the time. “That’s kind of where I live. That’s what I do and who I am. I think we all listen to something, right? And that’s what I listened to growing up.”

Rubio’s taste for hip-hop has become a topic of interest just as his party is striving to make inroads with minorities and younger voters. And the ambitious 41-year-old senator’s grasp of a musical-cultural force that unites many in those very communities could highlight his relative youth and humble beginnings, theoretically providing a new connection to them.

But it is Republicans who don’t know the difference between Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West who are most often impressed with Rubio’s hip-hop credibility.

Florida-based GOP strategist Ana Navarro, who is close to Rubio, said that his musical musings reflect his strength in reaching audiences on a personal level and coming across as the rare Washington politician genuinely in tune with the broader culture.

“Hell, half the time I don't know what he's talking about when he's tweeting about music acts and styles,” she said. “But if I read about some knew musical sensation I've never heard of, I know I can email him and he'll know the answer.”

The freshman senator’s musical interest often comes up in passing when he is interviewed on more serious topics, but this past Sunday it served as a springboard for a significant political point.

Rubio was in the midst of his round-robin slate of seven news-show interviews when ABCs’ Jon Karl asked him about hip-hop icon Jay-Z’s controversial recent visit (with his wife, Beyonce) to Cuba, a nation that remains under U.S. embargo.

“I think Jay-Z needs to get informed,” Rubio said, noting that one of the famous rapper’s “heroes” is Che Guevara, “a racist that wrote extensively about the superiority of white Europeans over people of African descent.”

"If Jay-Z was truly interested in the true state of affairs in Cuba, he would have met people that are being oppressed, including a hip-hop artist in Cuba who is right now being oppressed and persecuted and is undergoing a hunger strike because of his political lyrics," Rubio continued. "And I think he missed an opportunity, but that’s Jay-Z’s issue."

Even those unfamiliar with the plight of Angel Unier Remon Arzuaga would likely recognize that reference as an example of Rubio’s eagerness to relate on a different level than his more disconnected GOP peers. It is easy to envision Mitt Romney criticizing the Castro regime for having locked up Arzuaga, for instance, but it is all but impossible to imagine the 2012 presidential nominee doing so with Rubio’s ease and cultural fluency.

During the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting in Los Angeles last week, party activists spent the better part of a day in workshops on how to improve their outreach to young people and minorities, as well as to women, Yahoo News reported.

Though the RNC’s efforts to reach out following its post-election “autopsy report” appear more earnest than the so-called “hip-hop makeover” that then-GOP chairman Michael Steele championed in 2009, Rubio would need less of a cultural makeover than other contenders might if he runs for president in 2016.

Still, no one expects his affinity for a particular kind of music to be an instant or all-encompassing fix for the party’s deep-seated problems with young people and minorities.

Andrew Hemingway, a young Republican strategist who in January finished a close second in the New Hampshire GOP chairman’s race, said that while Rubio’s knowledge of hip-hop might not translate directly into votes, it reflects a broader appeal that has been lacking in the party.

“He has a side to him that is very relatable, and he’s not afraid to show it,” Hemingway said. “He’s not afraid to loosen up his tie a little bit and have some fun.”

Not everyone, however, is impressed with Rubio’s hip-hop knowledge, which some critics suspect is less extensive than the senator lets on.

In a ThinkProgress piece penned in February, commentator Alan Pyke ripped Rubio for portraying himself as a hip-hop expert despite having a limited grasp of works by recent artists, whose messages often fly in the face of the Republican Party’s platform.

“If you think ‘the only guy that speaks at any sort of depth’ is Eminem, you do not listen to enough hiphop,” Pyke wrote of Rubio. “If ‘Lose Yourself’ is your favorite Eminem song, you don’t listen to enough Eminem. And if you’re milking hiphop for credibility while marginalizing its challenges to the kinds of policies and narratives that Republicans run on, you might need to test your listening comprehension, period.”

But while the senator readily admits that his day job and life as a father leave him little opportunity to stay as up-to-date as he would like, few could argue that he is exaggerating his love of the music for political effect.

In the same interview with GQ magazine that Pyke cited, for instance, Rubio listed as one of his three favorite rap songs “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A. -- a group remembered in many circles for its aggressively misogynistic, profane, and violent lyrics more than its seminal role in gangsta rap history and cutting social commentary.

When N.W.A.’s protest song “F*** Tha Police” was released in 1988 -- a time when politicians on both sides of the aisle were ramping up efforts to combat the music industry’s distribution of material considered obscene or inappropriate for children -- the group’s record label reportedly received a warning from the FBI.

Rubio has taken issue with some of the lyrics of his favorite artists, but his political team does not appear particularly concerned about any potential repercussions from his musical tastes -- a sign of just how much the battleground in the culture wars has shifted over the past couple of decades.

Asked whether he was worried about the possibility of backlash among religious and cultural conservatives, Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant replied, “The short answer is no.”

“I think if you only listened to conservative music, you wouldn’t be listening to a lot of music,” Conant said. “Chris Christie likes Bruce Springsteen. I think there’s a healthy precedent for Republicans enjoying music, even if they don’t necessarily agree with [all of] the music’s message.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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