He shouts about foreigners a lot, longs for 1950s America, and discos with none of the ability but all the embarrassing confidence of dads everywhere. The Donald Trump dance routine usually starts when he sways his hips on stage at the end of a big rally, and then by the chorus of “Y-M-C-A,” the president will suddenly begin working an invisible elliptical. Boomers love it.
So did the hip-hop community. At least they used to. Not the dancing per se, but they gave props to the old white guy dorkily gettin’ jiggy wit it. Trump was once an indisputable icon in rap music, and now his campaign very much hopes reclaiming that status can help keep him in the White House.
It isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds.
Trumpism was a rap motif long before Trumpism emerged as populist sentiment, and the hip-hop mythos was often better defined than his sometimes-shifting political ideology. Trump and the genre advanced, and intersected, on historically parallel tracks. As Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards noted, the world first read about the Trump family in the New York Times (an investigation of allegations of discriminatory renting practices) just months after a DJ spun the artform into existence at a Bronx house party. As rap became mainstream in the following decades, Trump inspired much of it with a braggadocious ethos of hustle and wealth.
It only makes sense. His monosyllabic name rhymes easily. His celebrity provided an obvious synonym for success. He became ubiquitous, appearing in no less than 300 songs in the three decades before he entered politics.
“I'm back with the funk, chump/ You want funk, how many lumps?” Redman rhymed back in 1992 when the New Yorker was better known as a real-estate developer. “I'm well known like Donald Trump.”
“Call me Donald Trump,” Young Jeezy rapped in 2011 when the future president was at the height of his reality-television fame, “the type that count my money while I smoke a blunt.”
"Donald Trump,” Young Thug bragged in 2014 when the celebrity mogul began wondering about a White House run, “I made/ Forbes list this month.”
Rappers still name-check Trump plenty but the references these days are overwhelmingly negative and few are fit to print (one track by Eminem was so violent the Secret Service opened an investigation). Overall, none of the derision is surprising. Republicans are historically unpopular with black voters, and Republican presidential candidates are normally too boring for rappers to bother mentioning. But Trump is different, and in his fall from celebrity to hip-hop infamy, his allies see familiar unfairness.
“Pinpoint the time when the media and the black community had a problem with him,” said Paris Dennard, a member of the president’s Black Voices for Trump advisory board. “When did it change, and Trump all of a sudden became this racist?”
If there was such a moment in hip-hop history, it would be March 30, 2016. After an hour in the recording studio, YG and Nipsey, artists not exactly known for nuanced political commentary, released “FDT.” They gave radio stations exactly 40 four-letter reasons not to play any of it on public airwaves. The rest of the industry followed suit. But if there was an inverse moment, one of reconciliation, it would be Oct. 11, 2018 when Kanye West walked into the Oval Office.
Seated in front of the Resolute Desk and wearing a red MAGA hat, West talked to Trump about health care and hydrogen planes, discussed his mental health diagnosis and endorsement deals, and criticized both the 13th Amendment and the current state of politics. “That was quite something,” the president said after a bro hug between the two concluded the meeting. It was also the Republican’s biggest hip-hop endorsement until, a year later, West changed course and decided to run for president himself.
Trump welcomed the news, first telling RealClearPolitics in August that a Kanye candidacy was “a great trial run” for future political ambition. In contrast to Barack Obama, who as president called Kanye “a jackass,” Trump hasn’t stopped praising him since. This, in turn, has fueled speculation that the music mogul was dabbling with the idea of running to steal away black voters from Joe Biden. It isn’t an unfounded Democratic fear. Polling shows that while older blacks overwhelmingly back Joe Biden, a UCLA-Nationscape survey showed that support for Trump among black voters under 45 had jumped from 10% to 20%. Winning them over or keeping them from Biden could sway a close election in some states.
But even if the Kanye West effect is negligible at the polls, his influence is unmistakable on the Trump administration and potentially the direction of the Republican Party. Why is that? He handed out assigned reading.
“Kanye sent me a book about a month ago called ‘PowerNomics,’” top White House adviser Jared Kushner told Fox News in September. “It was absolutely phenomenal; it actually incorporated a lot of the things that President Trump has been doing.”
Written by Claude Anderson, an alumnus of the Carter administration, the book argues that black Americans should act as a group to leverage their influence, requiring “that any business, political party or political candidate who seeks or benefits from Black support, always identify blacks by name, commit and in reciprocity, deliver tangible, measurable benefits to black Americans.” Kushner devoured it. Aides close to the president’s son-in-law say that when finished, he binged episodes of “The Breakfast Club,” a hugely influential podcast with black millennials hosted by Charlamagne tha God.
Why would Kushner, the aide charged with Middle East diplomacy, take an interest in hip-hop? His father-in-law's pitch to black voters wasn’t landing. Trump likes to brag that he has “done more for the African American community than any president with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.” He cites a litany of accomplishments: criminal justice reform. School choice initiatives. Funding HBCUs. Opportunities zones. The administration has done its best “to make those Republican things,” a senior White House official told RCP, “but the president doesn’t get the credit.” For instance, Trump hosted two summits at the White House to discuss criminal justice reform. “It was the first time they’d ever done anything like that,” the aide said, “and there was no coverage. A total disappointment.”
Enter Ice Cube.
A founding member of NWA and a founding father of the “gansta rap” subgenre, Ice Cube has made his views on society clear. His 1988 protest anthem, “F*** tha Police,” for instance, was added to Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 greatest songs of all time and would seem contrary to Republican law-and-order rhetoric. If anything, the rapper is decidedly anti-Trump. He released a 2018 single, “Arrest the President,” calling Trump “Russian intelligence.”
But when Ice Cube, whose real name is O’Shea Jackson, released a list of reforms called the “Contract With Black America” and reached out to both campaigns, Democrats brushed him off. They would meet, the rapper says he was told, after the election. Kushner didn’t wait. The two met for more than three hours. According to a source involved in those negotiations, Ice Cube and company were impressed.
Kushner never asked for an endorsement. He barely mentioned politics at all; instead the rapper and the presidential adviser discussed which of Jackson’s policies could be incorporated into Trump’s Platinum Plan, a two-page document that was released in December.
The main topic discussed by Kushner and Cube? Increased access to capital for African American business owners. “He pushed us strongly to put up a real number so that the community would take a serious look,” an aide involved in the negotiations told RCP. Some of the suggestions the rapper made were non-starters this close to an election. Others could become priorities in the future, such as a trust fund for every American child, seeded at birth by the federal government. The aide said that so-called baby bonds, as proposed by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, is an area the White House is “willing to look at” if Trump wins a second term.
Kushner ended the meeting by thanking Cube and company. He also passed along a copy of “PowerNomics.” Others were less charitable, and the artist weathered widespread blowback for even sitting down with the White House. “People just hate Trump so much that they don't want him to have any wins,” a source close to the rapper said. “But the thing is, we don't care about that.”
Ice Cube has not, however, changed his opinions on the president himself. He has not endorsed him either. But disliking a politician personally, the source said, is no reason to abandon policy discussions. “We usually trash politicians if they owe people. Who does Trump owe? He certainly owes the evangelicals because of the way they came out for him,” the source close to Ice Cube said, noting that he doubts Trump’s religious supporters actually believe the president is “a God-fearing man.”
“They’re like, ‘The guy promised us 200 conservative judges, and by golly he did it. We win,’” the source explained. “Who cares if the guy is Satan? Cube got them to commit to a number of $500 billion.”
All of this is, of course, unusual. Although Richard Nixon once met with Elvis, and Ronald Reagan had plenty of friends from his Hollywood days, Democrats are the party that enjoys a near-monopoly on mega celebrity.
Trump has managed to pull more rappers into his orbit even in the final days of his campaign. “I don’t care Trump doesn’t like black people 62% are you out of ya f--king mind,” rapper 50 Cent wrote in a since deleted Instagram post after complaining about Biden’s tax plan. His ex-girlfriend, comedian Chelsea Handler, later told Jimmy Fallon on NBC that she had “to remind him that he was a Black person, so he can't vote for Donald Trump.” Others didn’t listen.
This includes rapper Lil Wayne, who reached out to set up a meeting with the president, a source with direct knowledge of the discussion told RCP. “Just had a great meeting with @realdonaldtrump,” the multi-platinum rapper tweeted last Thursday. “He listened to what we had to say today and assured he will and can get it done.” Trump quickly retweeted the rapper. The campaign wasn’t surprised, according to the source; it was just “the next logical step.” In the final days of 2020, the staff feels confident that Trump is finally getting through to black voters, especially millennials.
But even if the endorsements and appearances had come sooner, Trump would never have played Lil Wayne or 50 Cent of Ice Cube at any of his rallies, let alone dance along with them — he prefers boomer favorites like hits from Queen and Al Green. And while he accepts the endorsements of rappers, the campaign does not endorse the rap lyrics, which tend to be cruder than the president’s tweets – or even what he said on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. How can Trump be a champion of the religious right and rappers?
“I don't necessarily think that your mother needs to listen a Lil Wayne,” Dennard told RCP before adding that, at the same time, “your mother wasn’t one of the thousands of black men who were disproportionately affected, locked up and locked up for life, by the 1994 Crime Bill.” By welcoming Lil Wayne in the same way his administration worked with Ice Cube, Dennard said Trump "understands that rappers have a unique understanding” -- and wants to learn from it. He also wants to profit from it, and rappers have always understood this about the president, too.
Tupac Shakur, the famed rapper killed in 1996 (and whom Kamala Harris recently identified as “the best rapper alive”), certainly had no illusions about the future president.
“You’re taught that in school and in big business,” he sang, “if you want to be successful, if you want to be like Trump, it’s ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme. Push, push, push. Step, step, step. Crush, crush, crush.”