Rap vs. Reagan


For the modern Republican Party, the presidency of Ronald Reagan was the crowning achievement of conservative policy and American excellence. To this day, GOP leaders across the country refer to their party as the “party of Reagan.” It is clear why conservatives so willingly tie themselves to Reagan’s legacy - under his administration, America experienced a booming economy, developed a fearsome military, and embraced a strong return to conservative family values. “Reaganomics” promoted deregulation, cut taxes, and reduced welfare spending. Perhaps most importantly, his aggressive foreign policy was crucial in suppressing Communist movements around the world and crippling the Soviet Union.

However, Ronald Reagan was also instrumental in starting one of America’s most influential anti-conservative cultural forces - rap music. As an art form, rap has steadily eroded the legacy of Ronald Reagan since the late 80’s through its focus on violence, poverty, and the crack epidemic. While most of America thrived under Reagan, his foreign, economic, and drug policies decimated marginalized communities throughout the country. Originating in black communities, rap fundamentally disrupted the narrative of life in Reagan’s America by exposing the suffering in the inner cities and the persistence of decades old injustices. Through their unwavering marriage to Reagan and his brand of conservatism, the Republican Party is slowly deteriorating along with his cultural reputation. 

In the late 80’s, a few young artists pushed rap to the forefront of American culture where it continues to influence the millennial generation. After exploding out of the inner cities in the 90’s, the genre rapidly grew to become the most popular form of music in the present day. Rap produced some of the most significant thought leaders, pop icons, and trendsetters in today's society.  By tying themselves so tightly to Reagan, Republicans put themselves in opposition to one of the most powerful forces in modern American culture.

Cocaine, Contras, and Compton

“A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not” - Ronald Reagan, 1987

Though Reagan is widely recognized for his numerous achievements, his blunder in the Iran Contra Affair has become a significant piece of his legacy in recent years, despite his heart telling him it did not happen. Reagan’s approach to foreign policy was firm; he aggressively fought Communism around the world and stood his ground against the Soviet Union. While many hailed his “Peace through strength” approach to world politics, Reagan’s unyielding stance led his administration to sacrifice the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens for an illegal financial edge in a Nicaraguan civil war. 

Soon after taking office in 1981, the Reagan Administration began eyeing a group of anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua called the Contras. By late 1982, Congress banned funding of the Nicaraguan conflict as a response to Reagan’s interest in the Contras. In their determination to resist the Communist movement in Nicaragua, officials in Reagan’s National Security Council devised a scheme to illegally funnel money by selling weapons to Iran. At the time, Iran held a several US intelligence hostages, so the plan was to illegally free the hostages through the weapons sales and secretly divert a portion of the profits to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Oliver North, a member of Reagan’s National Security Council, ultimately took the fall for the Iran Contra Affair. Though Reagan publicly denied any knowledge of the plan, evidence collected in the aftermath showed the operation to be extensive and suggests North was not alone in orchestrating the scheme. As the scandal slowly unraveled to the public, Reagan famously lied multiple times about the actions of his administration, “Despite the wildly speculative and false stories about arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not, repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.” As outlined in Brown University’s “Understanding the Iran Contra Affair” project, North and the rest of Reagan’s administration dodged convictions despite breaking multiple laws and the uncovering of numerous incriminating documents in the investigation. 

On its surface, the Iran Contra Affair appears an unethical, but otherwise harmless, overstepping of executive power. However, the administration’s determination to support the Contras led the US into a nefarious relationship with active drug traffickers. Along with laundered US money, the Contras main source of funding came from smuggling cocaine. At the time, the US was a massively lucrative drug market.

 Photo 1: Ronald Reagan reviewing the Tower Commission investigation on the Iran Contra affair.

Photo 1: Ronald Reagan reviewing the Tower Commission investigation on the Iran Contra affair.

A number of the documents discovered during the Iran Contra investigation detailed  the federal government’s involvement in the drug trade, which have been collected by George Washington University’s National Security Archive. The Reagan Administration’s dealings with the illegal drug trade include, but are not limited to, collaborating with notorious Panamanian dictator and drug trafficker Manuel Noriega, successfully swaying the FBI  to pardon a Contra-affiliated trafficker caught while smuggling drugs into the US, and paying known active drug smugglers to fly supplies to the Contras. While officials have denied that these supply flights ever involved drugs coming back to the US, several accounts contradict that story. In 1990, a trafficker testified that he participated in multiple flights where the supply planes unloaded their cargos in Central America and returned to the US with drugs. While they did not sell drugs themselves through the CIA as many conspiracy theorists claim, the Reagan Administration willingly supported drug traffickers and turned a blind eye to their imports.

Around 1985, when the Reagan Administration began assisting the Contras, a cheap and extremely addictive derivative of cocaine called crack cocaine (or crack, for short) gained widespread popularity in the US. Crack’s low price, highly addictive nature, and destructive health effects resulted in a  “crack epidemic” by 1986. Supplied in part by Contra cocaine, the public health crisis particularly affected disadvantaged minority communities and contributed to the rise of gangs in cities across the country. As drugs poured into the inner cities, so followed the police.

While supporting drug traffickers abroad, Reagan reinvigorated the “war on drugs” at home. Reagan’s version of the drug war focused on fighting drug demand through a tough-on-crime approach he called “zero tolerance”. First Lady Nancy Reagan led the infamously ineffective “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign in schools across the country, which demonized drug use instead of educating young people about its effects. Under the Reagan Administration, changes to drug laws allowed for harsher prosecution of drug users instead of suppliers.

During the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates infamously took a militaristic approach to drug policing that spread to law enforcement around the country. Gates’ aggression likely resulted  from his personal hatred of drug users; during a hearing in 1990 he said that he believed, “Casual drug users should be taken out and shot.” Gates popularized the use of SWAT teams, armored vehicles, and battering rams to enforce drug laws through military-style raids. These laws were disproportionately targeted at minority communities, as seen in the graph below from Vox. Despite nearly identical rates of overall drug use with the white population, arrests disproportionately skyrocketed for the black population in the 80’s.

 From: https://www.vox.com/2014/7/1/5850830/war-on-drugs-racist-minorities

From: https://www.vox.com/2014/7/1/5850830/war-on-drugs-racist-minorities

In Compton, a south LA region consisting of mostly lower income black and hispanic residents, the war on drugs was particularly destructive. The crack epidemic ravaged Compton as it did lower income areas across the country, and Chief Gates’ militarism turned the city into a war zone. In response to criticism from black residents over the violent policing, the city councilman who represented south LA applauded Gates, saying, “Go right ahead, Chief. You do whatever you can to get rid of these rock houses. They're going to destroy the black community if you don't.”

The war on drugs led to mass incarcerations in poor inner city communities like Compton and, in the midst of the chaos, contributed to the rise of gangs. Simultaneously, trickle down Reaganomics helped to suck resources out of the inner cities by cutting welfare spending and social programs in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. In areas like Compton, people saw their communities ruined and their economic opportunity crushed. While many people in these areas succumbed to the trauma of their environments, a small group of young men rose out of Compton in the late 80’s as the rap group N.W.A.

 Photo 2:  Straight Outta Compton  album cover

Photo 2: Straight Outta Compton album cover

Hip-Hop culture emerged out of black communities in the late 70’s and early 80’s with early rappers like the Sugarhill Gang, Run DMC, and Grandmaster Flash; though the genre remained relatively obscure until artists like N.W.A popularized a controversial style known as “gangsta rap”. Unlike their predecessors, N.W.A’s music heavily focused on the harsh lifestyle among the drugs and violence of Compton. Songs like “F**k Tha Police” and “Straight Outta Compton” heavily utilized graphic and anti-establishment lyrics, which brought both widespread media criticism and immense popularity among young people who saw rap as a new form of counter culture. N.W.A’s breakout album Straight Outta Compton was one of the first albums in America to receive the “Parental Advisory” rating on the cover, contributing to its controversial appeal. By the early 90’s, rap legends like Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, Wu Tang Clan, Outkast, and Nas entered the rap scene and helped popularize  the music. Like all forms of counter culture, rap quickly became a cool, trendsetting art in American popular culture.

The Meaning of the Word Trap

- Outkast,“Y’all Scared” 1998

As a genre of music, the gangsta rap of the 90's was unprecedented in its requirement that artists have the real life shared experience of hustling out of poverty during the Reagan Era on top of their musical talent. “Realness” of a rapper was equally as important as the quality of their product, and the subject matter focused on that concept of the hustle. Rap was the music of young men and women who struggled to survive during the chaos of the 80’s and escaped the trap of the inner cities by any means necessary. Rap reflected the underdog coming-up-against-the-odds version of the American dream that is enshrined in American culture.

Because of the deep emphasis on specific life experiences, a majority of 90’s rappers came out of real struggle in impoverished inner city communities. Many of them actually ran with gangs or hustled as drug dealers in order to survive. Rap legends like Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G, Eazy-E, and Nas were actual drug dealers during the 80’s. Of course, many rappers did not deal drugs, but these individuals still experienced the hustle to escape the police violence, gang culture, and the crack epidemic in their neighborhoods.

Even the industry structure of rap reflected the hustling mentality. Racism and elitism barred many young rappers from major record labels, forcing these artists to forge their own path to success. Former drug dealer and N.W.A founding member Eazy-E, for example, created Ruthless Records, a record label based out of Compton. In New York, Jay-Z, also a former drug dealer, co-created Roc-A-Fella Records after being rejected from several major labels.

The shared experience of rap, as a collective artform, told the suppressed story of the American inner city during the 80’s. Historically, these communities had no voice; they held no economic power and had little political influence. Reagan was in office a mere 20 years after the Civil Rights movement, meaning these communities were still struggling to overcome the economic and political barriers of structural racism when Reagan was elected. While most of America enjoyed prosperity under Reagan, many poor minority communities were systematically trapped and silently suffocated. A decade later, rap unapologetically pulled back the curtain.

The Children of Ronald Reagan

- Kendrick Lamar, “Ronald Reagan Era” 2011

During the early 2000’s, rap continued its rise into American pop culture. After a decade, many of gangsta rap’s early successes were moving from artist to mogul. Out of the aftermath of N.W.A emerged two industry titans: Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. From New York, artists like Jay-Z and P. Diddy expanded their record label empires into the mainstream music industry. These young moguls helped develop rap's next generation of artists, a group instrumental in enshrining the genre into the American psyche.

Under Dr. Dre’s mentorship, Eminem gained national criticism and major popularity for his eccentric sound and dark humored lyrics. Pop icon Kanye West from Chicago also rose up during the early 2000’s through his affiliation with Jay-Z. From New Orleans came Lil Wayne, another pop culture icon. Although this set of new rappers diverted from the classic gangsta rap sound,  they came from similar life experiences of poverty and maintained the same themes in their art.

It was not until the 2000’s that rap saw the first generation of artists who lived as children under the Reagan Administration. The gangsta rappers of the 90’s were already young adults during the Reagan presidency. This generational shift provided a new artistic perspective on the violence and crack epidemic of the 80’s. As Compton rap icon Kendrick Lamar would put it in 2011, these were the “children of Ronald Reagan,” the crack babies. Whereas ‘90’s rappers were the drug dealers and gangsters during the Reagan Era, this new generation were the children of the victims of the drug war.

Though some of the experiences were lost in the generational shift, the 80’s babies carried on the trauma in their art. On his 2011 album Section 80, Kendrick referenced the older generation as, “The dysfunctional bastards of the Ronald Reagan Era. Young Men that learned to do everything spiteful.” For the children raised in the 80’s, the terrors in their environment like drugs, gangs, and police were half of the trauma. At home and in their communities, these children were raised by adults whose opportunities were crushed by Reagan Era politics and passed down that trauma to the kids.

For Kendrick, the theme of being trapped at all sides was central to his art. On the song “Cartoon & Cereal,” Kendrick raps from the point of view of an innocent child raised around the horrors of the 80’s;

“I-I wonder if you ever knew that you was a role model to me first. The next day I-I woke up in the morning, seen you on the news. Looked in the mirror, then realized that I-I-I had something to prove. You told me ‘Don't be like me, just finish watching cartoons’, which is funny now cause all I see is Wile E. Coyotes in the room.”

While the rap of the 90’s painted a disturbingly vivid image of life in the inner cities, artists like Kendrick added a new emotional layer by exploring the same image from the perspective of an innocent child. Kendrick’s 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City delved deeper into that theme, and simultaneously launched his career as one of the largest figures in modern music. Today, the Compton artist symbolizes the power rap holds in American culture; he has received 22 grammy nominations (he won seven) and nods from President Obama, who said his favorite song of 2015 was by Kendrick and even invited the rapper to the White House in 2016.

The End of the Reagan Era

- Killer Mike, “Reagan” 2012

During the generational shift in rap culture, Ronald Reagan became the symbol for the politics that destroyed the inner cities. In the 90’s rap generation, there was certainly an awareness of the origins of the crack epidemic, but not quite complete. In 1998, Andre 3000 of Outkast rapped “Have you ever thought of the meaning of the word 'trapped'? Baboon on your back. But what’s sad is that crack, was introduced to hispanic communities and blacks.” Though the frustration at the system is present in 90’s songs like Outkast’s “Y’all Scared”, it is difficult to find a focused political narrative at that point in the development of the genre.

 Photo 3: Reagan in 1982

Photo 3: Reagan in 1982

By 2005, Kanye West called out Reagan by name on the song “Crack Music,” writing, “How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer.” During the mid 2000’s, rap artists, along with the American public, became increasingly conscious of the role the Reagan Administration played in the crack epidemic and the chaos that followed. Another example comes from Jay-Z’s 2007 “Blue Magic” where he wrote, “Blame Reagan for making me into a monster. Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra. I ran contraband that they sponsored.”

Ronald Reagan became a certified villain in rap culture by the late 2000’s. Whether this image is deserved or not is a question of historical debate, but by turning his back on poor minority communities in the 80’s, Reagan doomed his legacy and the party that tied itself to it. As the rap industry continued to build its power and cultural influence, the artists turned their wrath on Reagan and the conservative ideology that he represents.

In the 2010’s, rap reached unprecedented heights as a cultural phenomenon. In 2015, CNN reported on a study that analyzed the song structure of 17,000 of the top hits between 1960 and 2010. According to the study, “The rise of rap music and related genres appears to be ‘the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts’ in the period the research covered.” Furthermore, a 2015 Independent article reported that across all languages and countries, hip-hop is the most popular genre on the massive music streaming platform Spotify. Finally, in early 2017 hip-hop officially beat out rock for the “most popular genre in the music industry for the first time in U.S. history.” 

As rap achieved meteoric heights in recent years, the genre inevitably evolved from its roots. For example, today’s rappers often talk more about drug use than drug dealing and many of rap’s younger artists were now born after Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Despite these changes, rap still maintains a connection with its roots. Even though many of the younger artists were born after the 80’s, their communities are still recovering - many of the same issues like police violence, mass incarceration, and wildly insufficient resources still plague low income minority areas. Trap music is arguably today’s most popular subgenre of rap, and though it is stylistically very different, it shares gangsta rap’s thematic focus on violence and drug hustling.

Of course, Reagan still plays the role of the villain in modern rap as well. In 2012, Killer Mike released the appropriately titled  “Reagan,” which blasted the Reagan Administration’s role in destabilizing black communities and the American government's continued failure to remedy the destruction. On the song, Killer Mike continues the anti-Reagan narrative, writing, “Just like Oliver North introduced us to cocaine in the 80’s when them bricks came on military planes.”

A major player in today’s rap scene is the Compton-based record label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), which houses Kendrick Lamar. Just in 2016, former Crip gang member and TDE rapper ScHoolboy Q wrote, “Gang banging, dope slanging, GTAing. Shoot the whole club up, f**k trying to sneak the ‘K in. On the road to riches, thank you Mr. Reagan, you helped the dollars rake in.” Even in the present day, TDE and major artists like Kendrick and Q carry on the hustle and trauma of rap’s roots, and by doing so, they maintain rap’s anti-Reagan focus.

From Compton to Congress

-Kendrick Lamar,"Hood Politics" 2015

In 2017, rap holds tremendous influential in the general American culture; industry veterans like Dr. Dre and Jay-Z have successfully broken into the world of business and artists like Kendrick continue to dominate popular music. Rappers like Drake, Ice Cube, Childish Gambino, and, of course, Will Smith have connected rap to the film industry. Through rappers like Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, and ASAP Rocky, rap has intertwined with fashion culture as well. Rap even invaded the Broadway scene; the 2016 instant classic and record shattering Hamilton is a musical play consisting almost entirely of rap, with lyrics focused on the themes of hustling and writing your way out of poverty.

 Photo 4: Kendrick Lamar meets President Obama at the White House

Photo 4: Kendrick Lamar meets President Obama at the White House

With rap’s domination of American culture, the genre’s influence has undoubtedly poured over into political thought as well. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported on the changing demographic makeup of the US political parties. According to their research, “Over the past 24 years, there has been a dramatic shift in the composition of the two coalitions, which has resulted in Republican and Republican-leaning voters now being a significantly older cohort than Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.”  Millennials today predominantly lean left, according to Pew. Interestingly enough, millennials also make up the bulk of rap fans, as the Radio & Television Business Report found that,  “almost two thirds of the [hip-hop] audience is between the ages of 18-34.”

It is impossible to determine rap’s role in causing political shifts up until this point, but the future is bleak for the Republican Party if rap continues to hold its current level of cultural influence. Rap, as an art form and as the collective of individual artists, inherently opposes the Reaganistic conservatism that contributed to the devastation of the inner cities in the 80’s. In the age of Trump, rap's fundamental opposition to that brand of politics is clear. Just within the last year, for example, top rap artists J. Cole and Chance the Rapper came out in support of Colin Kaepernick and the controversial NFL anthem protests after heavy Republican outrage; and numerous rappers like Eminem, YG, Run the Jewels, Joey Badass, A Tribe Called Quest, and Kendrick Lamar have released music criticizing President Trump.

If current trends carry on, rap will continue to push American culture, and by extension the American youth, away from the legacy of Ronald Reagan and away from the Republican Party. In the meantime, the GOP is growing older and slowly dying every year. In a 2015 Politico article, the author discusses how the Republican’s reliance on older voters is literally killing the party; statistically, McGraw writes, “of the 61 million who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, about 2.75 million will be dead by the 2016 election.” If the Republican Party cannot connect with more millennials, the party will literally die within a few decades. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, rap will help siphon off the Republican’s supply of younger voters and contribute to their inevitable collapse.

From the Civil War promise of “40 acres and a mule” to the deception of the Iran Contra Affair, the US government’s relationship with disenfranchised peoples has historically been one of hypocrisy and cruelness. Through the suffering caused by his policies, Reagan became the modern symbol of that distrust and made an enemy out of one of the most influential forces in modern American culture. In their glorification of Reagan, the Republican Party will continue to be crippled by the rap phenomenon opposed to their politics. Republicans must face the major existential question of how they can persist with a political narrative that is in direct contradiction to the culture of the youth in America. The trauma and terror produced by Reagan’s administration created a hunger for retribution, and over the course of three decades, it manifested itself in the most popular music genre in modern American culture.

CultureCPR AdminComment