Pardons and other big wins underscore hip-hop’s long, strange relationship with an unlikely president

(January 30, 2021).  Mark this down.  From the world of hip-hop, I’m about to give some reluctant credit – but credit nonetheless – to the unlikeliest of recipients.  

Reluctant because it will be mistakenly seen by some as an endorsement of a so-called “law and order” president who only three-and-a-half weeks ago incited an angry mob of simpletons to try and stop the constitutional transition from his presidency to that of the man who roundly beat him in the last election.  And, unlike several Republican politicians who’ve apparently forgotten that just 24 days ago they were hunkered down and hiding behind chairs in one of this nation’s purportedly safest institutions, I and most other Americans haven’t forgotten.  

The credit this article gives is unlikely because, well, the ex-president is not exactly a friend of hip-hop (although he used to be considered one…big time).  Yet the genre scored most of its biggest wins under his watch.  

As everyone who’s been paying attention knows, thanks to Donald Trump [hard gulping swallow], high-profile rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black (real name: Bill Kahan Kapri) are breathing heavy sighs of relief these days – so much so that they’ve both already released new music in the days since they were pardoned by Trump in the waning hours of his presidency on January 19.

Donald Trump and Lil Wayne.

And so is Death Row Records co-founder Michael “Harry O” Harris, who Trump also freed from a federal facility where he’d spent over 30 years for drug trafficking and attempted murder charges.  Harris’ release from prison wasn’t due for another seven years.

All three pardons were granted after petitioning by character witnesses – both Weezy and Black have donated heavily to charities over the years – plus some heavy lobbying from supporters of criminal justice reform – a political agenda aimed at overturning unfair sentencing practices that mostly impact minorities.  Incidentally, both Lil Wayne and Kodak Black have spoken favorably about Trump in times past, which also likely increased their chances of receiving favor from him.  

And while the recent granting of second chances to the two rappers – both either facing or serving time for weapons violations – and a notorious hip-hop label founder by Trump has been all the talk in hip-hop circles this past week-and-a-half, it underscores a bit of irony that played out during the four years the one-term president was in office: hip-hop as a whole has scored some of its biggest wins during 45’s time in the big house (the big white one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, folks – don’t get your hopes up yet).

Let’s start with the obvious: hip-hop’s emergence as the top consumed genre of music in America.

Call it a coincidence – as certainly few, if any, of the president’s policies could be directly linked to hip-hop’s recent crowning as music’s king.  But it’s worth noting that rap and hip-hop, which the industry lumps together with R&B for tracking purposes because, well, it’s all the same to them, had never ruled the genre rankings before 45’s presidency.

Trump was inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president on January 20, 2017.  Six months later, Nielsen Music (now MRC Data, which Billboard has used for nearly 30 years to compile its weekly charts) released its report of the first-half consumption numbers for 2017.  For the first time, hip-hop/R&B had overtaken rock as the nation’s most consumed genre of music. 

At that point, as of June 30, 2017, the hip-hop/R&B combo accounted for 25.1% of all U.S. music consumption, while rock – at No. 2 – was at 23%.  The two had been reversed in rank at the end of 2016, as former president Barack Obama’s second term was ending.  Pop, which is spared the tone-deaf lumping with rock (unlike their R&B and hip-hop counterparts), has ranked third in recent years. 

Fast forward to now, and hip-hop/R&B’s dominance has only grown.  It has ranked as the No. 1 most-consumed genre of music in the U.S. for each of the past four years, right up through 2020, where it accounted for 28.2% share of the market (compared to 27.7% in 2019).  Rock’s share dropped from 21.6% in 2019 to 20.1% last year, according to numbers released by MRC Data earlier this month.

A key reason for this – obviously – is streaming. 

On-demand and paid-subscription music streaming has exploded as the preferred method of music consumption in the U.S. in the past decade, especially in the last four years.  This has benefited hip-hop the most as the genre’s fans have proven to be the likeliest to use platforms like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music – plus YouTube – to hear or see the latest releases from their favorite artists.  

Rock, on the other hand, still dominates traditional whole-album sales – both digital and physical configurations – but those numbers are too minuscule to overcome the dominant percentage share held by the more rapper-friendly streaming these days.  

As a case in point and an indication of traditional album sales’ dismal showing: the top-selling physical album last year was Taylor Swift’s folk-rock leaning folklore, which only sold approximately 500,000 physical copies (CDs and vinyl combined).  The rest of its 2.2 million total album-equivalent units consumed were a combination of digital album downloads (approximately 800k), plus single-song downloads and streaming, which were converted to album-equivalent units using MRC’s complex algorithm to account for the remaining 900k. 

While the advent of technology and some savvy venture capitalism by streaming companies have been the main drivers for that platform’s success, former president Trump may deserve at least a little bit of credit [hard gulp again] for streaming’s wider acceptance and its improved favorability ratings among fans and artists alike in recent years.

In October 2018, then-president Trump signed into law the Music Modernization Act – a sweeping piece of legislation that updated copyright laws and ensured that artists would be better compensated for streaming.  While artists from all walks of life would stand to benefit from the new legislation, the MMA had greater potential rewards – in terms of royalties – for independent acts, i.e., those not signed to major labels.

Consequently, with many of them signed to independent labels, rappers stood to gain more from streaming’s expansion under the MMA than artists from other genres of music, especially given streaming’s predominant demographic breakdown since the law went into effect.

So while Trump may not have contributed to hip-hop’s reign as the No. 1 genre of music, his most significant piece of music industry legislation certainly benefited the rappers whose pockets got fatter as a result.

50 Cent with Donald Trump in his pre-presidency days

But Trump’s appeal to hip-hop artists – and his long, sometimes symbiotic connection to them – runs deeper than streaming’s gains during his term as president.  

He and hip-hop artists have always had an interesting love-hate relationship over the decades.  

Once considered part of the Hollywood elite that he now despises, the one-time reality TV star and real estate mogul was previously seen as somewhat of a rap icon, frequently rubbing elbows with rappers like Will Smith and P. Diddy who, in turn, adored him.  They would often drop Trump’s name in song lyrics as a symbol of their own material wealth, real or imagined.  

A study by ABC News in 2018 – ironically published on October 18, a week after he signed the Music Modernization Act – found that Trump was name-dropped in over 300 rap verses dating from the late 1980s, and often favorably. 

ABC News cited tunes like Jeezy’s 2011 song “Trump,” where the Atlanta rapper called himself the “Trump” of his hood: “Richest nigga in my hood, call me Donald Trump, the type of nigga to count my money while smoking a blunt.”

Then, as recently as 2014 – just months before Trump announced his presidential candidacy – hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd’s “Up Like Trump” boasted: “Forbes list, Forbes list, Forbes list, Forbes, read it like the Bible/Up like Donald Trump, chain swings like nunchucks.”

The ABC article also mentioned Mac Miller’s “Donald Trump,” the platinum-certified chart hit from 2011 where the late rapper bragged about his Trump-like persona: “Ay yo, the flyest muthafucker in the room. Yeah, you know it’s me.”

Not one to miss a marketing or self-promotional opportunity, Trump acknowledged his connection to hip-hop artists in his now-defunct Twitter account with tweets like: “Oh no, another rapper doing a Trump song –“Young Jeezy – Trump Lyrics.” Why aren’t these guys paying me?,” he tweeted in 2012.

Here are just some of the reported 50 or so tweets Trump posted about Mac Miller’s use of his name in the song “Donald Trump”:

Still, even in the past year – or actually five years – with Trump being more apt to blow a race-baiting dog whistle for far-rightwing extremists (“Stand back and stand by” he told the Proud Boys during a debate with Joe Biden in September) than he is to sing the praises of outspoken hip-hop stars (unless they, of course, do the same thing for Trump in return…there’s typically a quid pro quo involved), it’s shocking that POTUS45 still resonates well with so many rappers, many of whom continue to stump for the embattled ex-president to this day.

Among his most recent on-again-off-again-back-on-again rap supporters are Kanye West, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Lil Wayne.  West remained defiantly in support of Trump until it was reported that the former president hid in a White House bunker during Black Lives Matter riots last summer in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders.  Ye then threw himself into the 2020 presidential race, with only a handful of states adding his name to official ballots. 

We should digress here and emphasize that an African-American rapper – one as mercurial as Kanye West – managed to secure enough petitioners to get his name on the ballots of several states for the general presidential election in 2020.  

A rapper!  

Personalities notwithstanding, that has to be considered a major milestone for hip-hop, regardless of how one feels about Kanye as candidate.  And we should not downplay Kanye’s prior tethering to Trump, without which that historical achievement would not have occurred. 

Years from now, when another rapper makes a run for president, history will recall 2020 as the year Kanye West shattered the ceiling – or, at least, cracked it open.

Donald Trump and Kanye West

For now, Trump’s most recent act of support for hip-hop – the pardoning of Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, as well as the early release of Death Row Records founder Michael “Harry O” Harris – can be seen as yet another of the genre’s victories under Trump’s watch, a win whose occurrence is even more remarkable when considering that the 45th president didn’t bother lifting a finger for the hundreds of (mostly white) cultist mobsters he incited to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in that deadly, failed coup attempt.

Their last-minute pardoning by Trump drew thank-you’s from Weezy and Kodak Black as well as from fellow rappers like Snoop Dogg – the legendary personality who’d been staunch in his criticism of 45 in the years leading up to 2021.

And now the former president, who is more known today for essentially stomping on the BLM movement, promoting racist birther theories about the country’s first Black president, and including white nationalists in his “great people on both sides” assessment following the deadly 2017 supremacist rally in Charlottesville, NC, has earned even more unlikely good will within the hip-hop community.

Perhaps Death Row’s Harry O said it best when he gave an interview to the British tabloid The Daily Mail a few weeks after his unexpected pardoning by Trump and early release from federal prison:

“I appreciate Donald Trump, his children, his son-in-law. Whyever [sic] he did it, he did it, when so many others wouldn’t,” said Harris. “I put in for clemency with Obama and it had to go through so many bureaucratic loopholes it never got to him I don’t believe. But (my pardoning) didn’t happen on his watch.”

As for how he feels about politics following his pardon, the 59-year-old Harris said there’s “not a dime of difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes down to results to me.” He added that he doesn’t “have a dog in the fight, unless the people that’s in power deal with the people that are powerless in a respectful way.”

Newly released Death Row Records co-founder Michael Harris spoke to the Daily Mail earlier this week.

And speaking of that power, here’s another irony in the long, strange relationship between Trump and hip-hop: many of those same rappers who’ve sung Donald Trump’s praises – whether recently or years ago – are purportedly now in the same tax bracket as the former real estate mogul.  People like Diddy, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre and Kanye West no longer have to aspire to Trump’s wealth status because they’ve attained – and possibly exceeded – it. 

And with Trump now better known for what he said (or tweeted) and did (or didn’t do) during his presidency than for the “billionaire” status he attained beforehand, he is no longer considered the aspirational “rap icon” he once was.  Young rappers on the come-up can now turn to someone other than Trump in their boastful lines about material wealth.

And, ironically for hip-hop, perhaps that’s the biggest win of all in the wake of 45’s presidency.

Sean “P. Diddy” Combs with Donald and Melania Trump


DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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