Under Raps

There’s No Problem With Obama’s Hanging Out With Jay-Z and Tiger Woods

The president, argues Allison Samuels, is sending a message with the African-American company he keeps.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Just this past Sunday The New York Post’s Phil Mushnick penned a rather self-righteous article condemning President Barack Obama’s highly visible friendship with the rapper Jay-Z.

The angry post examining the friendship between the two men was in many ways long overdue for a president regularly analyzed and usually criticized for each and every action he takes.

The column took note of Jay-Z’s ‘ex-con’ and criminal past. (Jay-Z—the stage name for Shawn Carter—briefly sold drugs and pled guilty to an assault charge for a fight in 1999, for which he received probation.) It also took him to task for the violent and sometimes anti-female and anti-gay lyrics used in several of his rap songs in years gone by.

Mushnick goes on to explain that Jay-Z’s perfectly penned rhymes about guns and his lyrical use of them now more than ever stand at odds with the very strong anti-gun position the president and the first lady have taken ever since the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., in December. To back up his claims, Mushnick published examples of Jay-Z ‘s songs from a decade ago, either unaware or, worse, unwilling to acknowledge rapper’s more recent and more enlightened musical releases.

Carter’s newer selections don’t excuse what he wrote earlier. But the recent Watch the Throne clearly reveals a more mature and evolved adult male who is now married to Beyoncé, one of the most famous women on the planet, and the father of a new bouncing baby girl. Somehow Mushnick turned a blind eye to these facts when he mindlessly suggested that if President George W. Bush had a white friend and financial contributor to his political campaign similar to Jay-Z, the media would have surely crucified him. This is complete nonsense.

We have to acknowledge that Carter’s royal hip-hop marriage to Queen B (Beyoncé) mainstreamed him in ways no business deal could and made him pitch perfect for his role as BBF of the president. But what’s obviously lost on Mushnick and possibly on many others like him is that the friendship of this particular president and this particular rapper is much more complex than it appears.

That of course this is the curious and continuous conundrum of the first African-American president. Any of his friendships and relationships can be called into question simply because they fail to reflect anything seen before in history. But they should not be called so much into question: The president knows exactly what he’s doing.

The same dynamic was in play a week ago, when Obama was criticized yet again for meeting up with disgraced golfer Tiger Woods for a play date during President’s Day weekend. Woods was once the undisputed darling of the sports world until the news of his numerous affairs hit the tabloids and ruined his marriage and his red-hot career. President Obama’s embrace of the fallen hero struck many as odd and ill-timed but for others, particularly those in the African-American community, the move showed much needed support for the once seemingly unstoppable force in sports.

“I liked the fact that he is reaching out and embracing those young men who may have been misguided or done or said the wrong thing in the past,’’ says Pastor George Lambert, of New Hope Church, in LaGrange, Georgia. “It speaks volumes to our youth, particularly our black men who feel their lives have little value or that they are always being criticized for their actions no matter what they do. President Obama is quite familiar with that and they connect with him over being in that place.’’

President Obama knows full well what he’s doing when he brings someone like Jay-Z or Tiger Woods into his sacred inner circle—and he fully appreciates the message he’s sending. He did not become the first African-American president without thinking long and hard about the people he chose to bring in or let out. He’s also quite aware of the presence of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, two well-known black men who both spend a great deal of time complaining that he is far too distant from the black community and its most pressing concerns.

The nonapologetic presence of Jay-Z during the inauguration and the embrace of Tiger Woods appear to be early indications that this president is finally ready to challenge those vocal detractors still eager to question the part of his heritage that is black. After golfing with Tiger and paling around with Jay, President Obama will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College in May, the all-male and historically black institution in Atlanta that counts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee among its alumni. His appearance as the first black president before a graduating class of young black men should have a deafening impact on the school and the young men that attend it that reverberates for years to come.

Those close to the president say to expect many more high-profile events in and around the African-American community over the next three years. Such events will help hush Obama’s many critics, both black and white, and will cement his legacy as a president savvy enough to balance the budget, popular enough to work both sides of the aisle, and cool enough to roll with Jay-Z.