On Tuesday, The Atlantic published Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cover story about the presidential legacy of Barack Obama. The feature is largely concerned with the racial dynamics of Obama’s presidency, and so it’s titled, “My President Was Black.” The name, of course, is a play on the chorus of a hit single — “My President” — that Jeezy released on November 15, 2008, just 11 days after then-Senator Obama was elected the first black American president.
In his profile, Coates cites Jay Z’s lyrics (“My president is black, in fact he’s half-white / So even in a racist’s mind, he’s half-right”) from Def Jam’s official, post-inauguration remix of “My President” to illustrate the optimistic, briefly “post-racial” outlook that broadly defined the national mood following President Obama’s election. But it’s the original song and, more importantly, its music video, that truly bottled the euphoria of that political moment. While actors such as Scarlett Johansson and Kal Penn honored Obama with high-profile volunteer work, and singers such as John Legend released super-sincere pop tributes, Jeezy kept it hood. He saluted Obama and his own custom rims in the same damn breath.
In the 2000s, post-crunk Southern rap choruses got a bad rep for their supposed simplicity and inanity, so lacking in literary complexity and social concern. Jeezy basically answered that critique with a hook so historically considerate, on the one hand, but so otherwise blunt and effective on the other that you’d never mistake it for a turn to rappity, “conscious” rap:
That is the gist of the song, in which Jeezy drifts among rapping about the country’s economic distress (a common theme in his music, pronounced in especially wonky terms on his 2008 album, The Recession), his own professional success, and President Obama’s recent election. Accordingly, in the video, Jeezy rolls through his mock rally in a Lamborghini Murciélago LP 650–4 Roadster, painted baby blue. Indulge me: It’s the color of a sea change. With Obama’s election confirmed, the Washington, D.C., rally depicted in the music video isn’t just a victory lap on behalf of the president-elect, but a comprehensive parade of black history and black culture — hence the guy holding the big, white “BARACK OBAMA” placard squeezed in between fellow delegates raising similar posters naming the late “SOULJA SLIM” and “BERNIE MAC.” Holding their own placards, dozens of other attendees instead represent places instead of people: a global mix of wildly disproportionate populations, including “COLORADO,” “HAITI,” “QUEENS BRIDGE, NY,” “IRAQ,” and “AFRICA.” This wasn’t the Democratic National Convention. This was the first breath of a new world order, one in which black people from all walks of life, in solidarity with a few shabby, white College Democrats sprinkled throughout the video, would finally set the agenda.
Most everyone in the video — including Jeezy, Nas, and Bun B — is wearing Obama campaign memorabilia, much of it black, all of it unofficial. And unlike the white kitsch — such as Shepard Fairey’s famous “HOPE” poster — that largely defined Obama-related optimism in mainstream pop culture and the press, the hoodies, beanies, T-shirts, and tchotchkes that black vendors sold, and black families hoarded, during the 2008 election through Inauguration Day had the benefit of being so fashionable that you just might wear it to the club. Or, you know, to a Jeezy music video shoot, where the only thing missing is one of those hotep-core home portraits that frame Obama, MLK, and Jesus Christ together.
Following the liberal malaise and late economic downturn of the Bush years, Obama’s first presidential campaign inspired a lot of orgasmically optimistic art. Much of it sucked. Even “My President,” which doesn’t suck, isn’t exactly the best Jeezy song; it’s too hilariously sincere about the Electoral College and state abbreviations for me to take it entirely seriously as something other than a contemporary Schoolhouse Rock video. Plus, the song’s tone aside, Nas’s guest verse is some of the very worst rapping he’s ever done; he kicks a knockoff Busta Rhymes flow that just doesn’t suit him at all. By the time he slows his roll to coin “pole-i-tician” as an alternative term of endearment for a stripper, I’ve just about tuned out Nas. But he tried.
Here it’s important to remember that the music video for “My President,” apart from its obvious design as a celebration of Obama’s win, was also an awkward reconciliation for a few of the artists involved. Nas spent 2006 complaining about the state of hip-hop, so dominated by snap and trap “ringtone” rappers of the day, and Jeezy told him to go fuck himself. In 2007, Pimp C disparaged the Atlanta rapper’s authenticity in an interview with Ozone magazine, and Jeezy — alongside T.I, the contemporary king of ATL hip-hop — responded that Pimp C was old and out of touch. Pimp C died later that year, and Jeezy shouts him out extensively here (“I’m forgiving you, Pimp C / You know how the pimp be, that nigga gon speak his mind”) to clear the slate nearly a year later. Likewise, “My President” is the first (and most successful) song Jeezy and Nas ever recorded together, thus ending their feud. Obama was, indeed, the great healer — in all of hip-hop’s sordid affairs, if not elsewhere as hoped.
I mentioned that nearly everyone in the music video is wearing Obama ’08 street-team gear. The single exception — the one guy wearing a suit in this whole spectacle — is Georgia congressman John Lewis, the 20th-century civil rights leader who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. In the video, Representative Lewis is smiling and jumping for joy, waving a sign that reads, “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK.” This isn’t some unrelated footage of Lewis that Jeezy spliced into his music video; Representative John Lewis really does fuck with Jeezy, and he really did agree to be in the video. Amazing.
Truly, 2008 was strange times. 2016 feels no less strange, but rather dark, cataclysmic, and surreal in the inverse; in the age of Black Lives Matter, these joyful crowds have turned to fearful protest. But from the uncertainty, one truth: President-elect Trump’s inauguration will look nothing like this. I fear we may never see such optimism on display from America’s most beleaguered musical genre ever again, though I suppose rappers have always swung between rebellion and celebration, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not, at hip-hop’s extremes. When I look back at this video now, I wonder where the crowd went, and what they’re up to. And I wonder whether they might all be down to reconvene for some Inauguration Day resistance down on the National Mall.