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When Jay-Z and Kanye West perform in Washington tonight, it will be an interesting collaboration not just musically, but also politically.
The two hip-hop superstars have very different reputations in D.C.
Jay-Z is a longtime supporter of President Barack Obama who got prime seats at the 2009 inauguration and was once photographed in the Situation Room of the White House with his wife, Beyoncé Knowles.
West is famous for arguing during a TV telethon after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans that President George W. Bush didn’t care about black people — a moment the president later called a low point in his administration — and was offhandedly derided by Obama as a “jackass” for interrupting fellow musician Taylor Swift at an awards show.
Touring in support of their chart-topping collaborative album “Watch the Throne,” the pair is actually quite representative of the relationship that hip-hop has shared with official Washington over the years.
It’s a history marred by misunderstandings, aggressive criticism from both sides and the occasional bizarre interlude, such as a gangsta rapper hanging out with a GOP president.
More than any other genre of music, hip-hop has struggled to find solid footing in the political world.
“Even though hip-hop is a part of Americana right now, it’s tenuous when it comes to people trying to place it in the mainstream, especially in politics,” said Marcus Reeves, author of “Somebody Scream: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power.” “Hip-hop is not as outspoken as it once was, but it’s still affiliated with a part of society that is something you might want to shun.”
Recent events show the awkwardness has continued.
Earlier this year, criticism flared from conservative pundits and New Jersey state troopers after rapper Common was invited to appear at a White House poetry event.
Common — a socially conscious Chicago rapper who has appeared in Gap commercials — was protested for a track empathizing with a Black Panther convicted of murdering a New Jersey police officer.
Compare that to a 1991 White House visit made by now-deceased Eazy-E, a former member of N.W.A. — known to many for their song “F--- tha Police” — at the behest of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, an event that drew little public criticism.
Vance Levy, a native D.C. rapper who performs as Head-Roc, said partisan and racial politics explain the difference between the receptions given to Eazy-E and Common.
“I think that was a reaction to the country’s first black president,” he said. “It’s [also] a clear indicator of the mindset of the two-party system.”