News outlets have been prying into each bit of Dr. Ben Carson’s autobiography, vetting stories from his childhood in which he claims to have harassed peers and attempted stabbing a person whose identity remains unknown. Contradictory to his recounts of a rebellious adolescence, old friends revealed to CNN that Carson was anything but a bully—imagine, he’s a man who went on to break skin only for the sake of saving lives. And yet, Carson continues to paint himself as a delinquent boy from the poor streets of Detroit.
In his latest campaign stunt, Carson released a one-minute “rap” last week, which according to his management team was meant to target young black voters, a demographic that is mostly Democratic. House exit polls showed that black votes constituted 23% of the Democratic vote in 2014, leading Carson’s team to believe that 20% of the black vote is all that’s necessary to succeed if positioned head to head with Clinton. The $150,000 ad, called “Freedom,” is set to air for two weeks on radio stations in Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, Memphis, and Little Rock.
The track, created by Robert Donaldson, a minister, business owner, and self-dubbed, “Republican Catholic rapper,” performing under the moniker Aspiring Mogul, samples Carson’s speeches over a generic beat with patterned flute riffs. In one line, Carson says, “America became a great nation early on not because it was flooded with politicians but because it was flooded with people who understood the value of personal responsibility, hard work, innovation and that’s what will get us on the right track now.”
After watching Carson’s autobiographical film adaption, Gifted Hands, Aspiring Mogul felt compelled to write a song called “Black Republican” and sent it to Carson’s campaign manager, Barry Bennett, placing the rapper in Carson’s periphery. Bennett liked the song so much that he posted it on Carson’s campaign Facebook page this past September. Such positive feedback prompted Aspiring Mogul to offer yet another track for the campaign which was later approved by Carson.
In an interview with NPR, Aspiring Mogul explained his own reasoning behind making “Freedom” as a proponent of Carson’s campaign, and interestingly referenced Obama’s 2008 campaign ad, “Yes We Can,” as comparable to the song he wrote for Carson.
Aspiring Mogul, however, failed to mention that “Yes We Can” was a lengthy hip-hop music video produced by experienced producer will.i.am and collaboratively sung by a range of celebrities and artists; it was a hit that went viral and aimed to target viewers of all sorts in order to spread Obama’s slogan, “Yes We Can.” “Freedom” is not as collaborative or musically developed, nor is it intentionally designed for a diverse set of ears. More importantly, the song has been largely dismissed and ridiculed on the Internet. The track has already been followed by a spoof called “Panderdom,” created by comedy writer Aaron Nemo from the Huffington Post. Nemo recorded himself over the beat bed “Freedom,” saying “Hi, I’m Ben Carson’s campaign manager. I want to reach African-American voters. I know one thing, it’s if you’re black you’ll like Ben Carson if we put him in a rap. This ad will air on urban radio stations that have high black populations. Is this offensive and highly condescending, well…”
The appropriation of music in politics by politicians and voters is nothing new. Presidential campaign ads—including music and video—have been around for as long as the movie trailer, although electoral jingles may have dated back to George Washington’s, “God Save Great Washington,” a parody of “God Save The King.” Another old musical campaign, among the first of its kind, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” supported William Henry Harrison’s victory in the 1841 presidential election.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the political soundscape could involve anything from user-generated video spoofs and candidate-curated playlists to music at conventions and in advertisements. President Barack Obama hasn’t received a respite since 2012, having starred in a myriad of YouTube videos created by channels like Baracksdubs, with a following of almost 1 million subscribers. The channel prides itself on fashioning comical videos of Obama singing pop songs; it weaves clips of his speeches into somewhat fluid renditions of hits like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” This past summer, Obama made musical taste political by sharing POTUS playlists via Spotify, stirring 2016 candidates to create their own public playlists. Hillary Clinton released a track-list heavy on Beyoncé; Marco Rubio, the self-identified hip-hop head, showed his liking for Wu-Tang Clan; Jeb Bush had a lot of Liam Gallagher; Lincoln Chaffee mostly had Metric; Mike Huckabee curated classic hits from the 40s and 90s while Scott Walker listed the “best” of Nickelback, and Chris Christie, a lot of screamo. Rand Paul chose one song, “I’m Different” by 2 Chainz, joking that he was a “different” kind of Republican, whereas Bernie Sanders abstained from creating a playlist, stating that most Americans can’t even afford music due to income inequality.
To brand their campaigns, prevalent candidates like Hillary Clinton went with Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” Donald Trump chose Neil Young’s “Rockin in’ the Free World,” and Bernie Sanders, “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie.
Sanders’ choice may have been the most relevant and thoughtful one, as Woody Guthrie is one of America’s staples in political music. Guthrie, of course, was a member of the famous protest folk music group, Almanac Singers, in the 1940s. The group became renowned for its creation of “peace” songs and was led by a similarly esteemed musician and political songwriter, Pete Seeger.
Trump failed in his attempt at securing Young’s endorsement. Upon using the song, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Trump was met with backlash from the music prodigy himself. In a statement, Young struck, “I do not trust self serving misinformation coming from corporations and their media trolls. I do not trust politicians who are taking millions from those corporations either. I trust people. So I make my music for people, not for candidates.” Young also wrote that Trump’s campaign management never asked for permission to use his song and that he is, in fact, a Sanders supporter.
Clinton’s contemporary pop pick boded well in comparison to Trump’s floundering; she accompanied her speech on voting rights, equal pay across gender, LGBTQ+ equality, affordable higher education, and climate change with music from other female pop artists like Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, and Jennifer Lopez. Her selection of female artists singing the songs “Roar,” “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” and “Let’s Get Loud” expressed her message of female empowerment to some degree. More importantly, Clinton secured permission and support from the artists before using their music, forming a united front with America’s leading female pop stars. After Clinton’s campaign launch, even Lopez seemed likely to vote for Clinton, saying, “I think it’s time for a woman” to E! News.
Music co-opting is not a surprising marketing strategy for candidates, as voters are treated much like consumers of product. It’s about piquing ears and catching attention in short spurts rather than educating potential voters about each candidate’s platform. In this way, music can become a decoy for candidates, leading voters to support a leader based on popular irrelevancies and precarious connections between the music’s message and that of the politician. This becomes clearer when artists themselves prohibit the use of their music in presidential campaigns.
In the past, many artists have had their music falsely endorse a candidate they have no affiliation with or support for. This year alone, REM revolted against Trump’s use of their song, “It’s The End of The World,” while Dropkick Murphys objected via Twitter to Scott Walker’s walkout in Iowa to their song, “I’m Shipping Up To Boston.” A bevy of similar examples in 2012 include Newt Gingrich’s use of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and Mitt Romney’s unwelcome use of songs by K’Naan, Al Green, and Silversun Pickups. In 2011, Michele Bachmann butted heads with Tom Petty when trying to play herself up as his lyricized “American Girl,” walking into a rally. Years before, Petty stopped Bush from using his “I Won’t Back Down” at rallies. In 2008, Sarah Palin was also confronted by Heart after booming “Barracuda” over speakers at the Republican National Convention. Heart disclosed a statement clarifying that, “Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women.” And stretching further back to 1984’s famous example, Ronald Reagan co-opted Bruce Springsteen’s fame for “Born in the USA,” with absolutely no support from Springsteen himself.
The ASCAP and BMI, both artist performing rights organizations, make efforts to prevent artists and their music from becoming misused in advertisements and campaigns. Their laws protect the artist from false endorsements with the “Lanham Act,” which prevents an artist’s brand from dilution, and the “Right of Publicity,” which protects the artist’s self-promoted image.
Artists have also taken it upon themselves to defend their own work by filing lawsuits against candidates. In 2008, vocal democrat Jackson Browne sued John McCain over using a part of Browne’s song, “Running On Empty,” in a campaign commercial without his consent. Two years following, David Byrne of the Talking Heads took Charlie Crist to court for using “Road to Nowhere” in an attack video against opponent Marco Rubio. The artists prevailed in both cases. This year, Rubio thought it wise to stage his kickoff campaign rally with “Something New,” a track created by former members of the electronic group Swedish House Mafia, Axwell and Ingrosso. Not surprisingly, Axwell and Ingrosso wished not to be affiliated with his party and campaign and asked that Rubio desist.
In the case of Carson’s “rap” ad composed by Aspiring Mogul—an artist directly in support of the Carson campaign—the issue has less to do with the artist’s rights and more with the intentions of Carson and his management team in using the brand of hip-hop and rap music as a marketing tool.
Hip-hop was born out of the marginalization of people whose voices had no choice but to transcend the limits of strict speech or melodic song to be heard. Sprouted from the Bronx, the culture of hip-hop—including rap, graffiti, and breakdancing—became a way for Black youth to voice their experiences, fraught with encounters of discrimination and injustice.
Carson’s underwhelming song, aside from generalizing hip-hop’s audience as solely Black, also plays into the condescending notion that Black youth could only understand his political disposition through the “language” of hip-hop, as if they wouldn’t be able to assess his candidacy in any other way. It reduces the diversity of character within the community of Black youth, implying that if the “consumer” likes rap that (s)he will effectively favor Carson and his political objectives.
In terms of its musicality, “Freedom” is nothing more than superficial composition, lacking both complexity and flow. Carson’s unexpected use of “rap” emerges as a clichéd one-minute gaffe among true hip-hop and rap enthusiasts and creators, cheapening the very urgency and necessity that first spurred the genesis of the genre. The voice of hip-hop belongs to a group that he struggles to fit into. At least since Melle Mel, its roots are in protest, taking the form of personal narrative that expressed vulnerability in the face of the very State that Carson hopes to represent. Nothing about Carson’s rap speaks to these origins, by telling a story about his personal struggle, challenging the status quo, or even exhibiting a visceral sense of honesty. His apocryphal image is also worsened by the fact that “Freedom” wasn’t even written by him; authentic artists write their own lyrics and lay out their own beats—there’s no marketing scheme.
Indeed, there is little to Carson behind the facade. His persona continues to be inconsistent and offensive to prospective voters, especially in this case, where he attempts to imitate a music form he critically bashed just months before. In an interview with Business Insider, he remarked, “we need to reestablish faith in our communities and the values and principles that got us through slavery…why were we able to get through [that]? Because of our faith…and as we allow the hip-hop community to destroy those things for us…we continue to deteriorate.” One can only wonder then how little faith it must have taken for Carson to fall back on the hip-hop community he deems “detrimental.” Perhaps presidential candidates should stick to their podiums for speech only.
REBECCA BLANDON B’16 raps to her own rhythm.