National News

A Congressional Candidate Used to Be a Rapper. Will It Matter?

Posted July 17, 2018 6:34 p.m. EDT
Updated July 17, 2018 6:36 p.m. EDT

RHINEBECK, N.Y. — Antonio Delgado is a lot of things: a Rhodes Scholar, a graduate of Harvard Law School, a former lawyer at one of the country’s largest lobbying firms, and now the Democratic nominee for Congress in New York’s tossup 19th District, which stretches throughout the Hudson Valley and Catskills regions.

But for all Delgado’s accomplishments, it is another part of his past — a fledgling rap career under the stage name “AD the Voice” — that is receiving the most attention in the early days of his race against the Republican incumbent, Rep. John Faso.

In 2007, Delgado released a rap album featuring lyrics that criticize capitalism and America’s history of racial injustice. They include frequent use of a racial epithet common among black rappers, and criticize some of the founders as “dead presidents” who “believe in white supremacy.”

Faso is trying to use the lyrics against him, saying they are “inconsistent with the views of the people of the 19th district and America.”

“Mr. Delgado’s lyrics are offensive,” Faso said in response to questions from The Times. “It’s his responsibility as a candidate to answer for the controversial views he expressed in his lyrics and whether he continues to hold these views today.”

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the conservative political group closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently began broadcasting an ad on local radio stations that features a portion of Delgado’s rap verses, accompanied with ominous background music and narrator who describes the lyrics as a “sonic blast of hateful rhetoric and anti-American views.”

Gerald Benjamin, a friend of Faso’s and director of The Benjamin Center at State University of New York at New Paltz, said, “this is about culture and commonality with the district and its values.”

“Is a guy who makes a rap album the kind of guy who lives here in rural New York and reflects our lifestyle and values?” said Benjamin, a longtime political science professor, adding that he personally did not consider rap music to be “real music.”

“People like us, people in rural New York, we are not people who respond to this part of American culture,” Benjamin said.

The criticism of Delgado has thrust historically fraught topics of race and identity into the forefront of an election that was already slated to be one of the most competitive in this November’s midterm elections. Delgado, who is black, said he believed the attack on his lyrics is an attempt to “otherize” him, particularly because he is trying to become the first nonwhite candidate to represent the area in Congress. A poll commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently showed him leading Faso.

New York’s 19th Congressional District voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but went for President Donald Trump in 2016. About 83 percent of the voters in the 19th are white, making it among the whitest congressional districts in the country.

The songs he recorded include frequent use of the racial epithet and a few references to sexual acts. Delgado said his words were appropriate considering the context of his art at the time. He also cited contemporary rap artists such as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Lauryn Hill as inspirations for his political outreach, since much of their music focuses on giving voice to those who are typically unheard.

“It was different contexts, different tactics, but same desires and same outcomes,” Delgado said of his old music. “Issues like income inequality, issues like gender equality, issues like the pollution of our environment and climate change — these are all issues that I talked about back then as an artist that I’m now talking about” as a candidate.

Referring to Faso, Delgado said, “In his dated mindset, he thinks it’s accurate to suggest that if you’re black or if you’re of a certain race, you can’t be of this community,” Delgado said. “But I believe the community of people who are grounded in love and unity far outweigh the community of people he’s speaking to.”

The clash comes as the two candidates pursue drastically different campaign strategies. Delgado, like many other Democrats in prominent swing districts, is attempting to frame the campaign around Republican attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act and focus less on Trump.

Faso, even more than many other swing state House Republicans, has largely embraced Trump’s agenda, from the conservative policies to the sometimes divisive rhetoric. Faso recently ran digital advertisements pledging to “Keep MS-13 out of New York” and has repeatedly called for increased requirements for food stamps because, as he said earlier this year, sheriffs have told him that “every drug dealer they arrest has a food stamp card in his pocket.”

At a recent farmers market in Rhinebeck, Delgado’s hometown, several residents expressed outrage that Faso is attempting to frame Delgado’s rap career as a political hindrance. The most critical said that Faso was resorting to racial demagoguery unbecoming of the district, and echoing the divisive language that has sometimes emanated from Trump. Others said they simply wished both candidates would focus on the policy issues closest to the district, and even Delgado’s most explicit lyrics should have no bearing in the congressional race. “I don’t want to judge either of them for things that happened a long time ago,” said Lauren Rose, a Bard College professor who lives in Red Hook, New York. “I want to judge them for what they care about now.”

Matt Stinchcomb, a Rhinebeck resident who was strolling through the city’s Main Street on Sunday with his family, said he was not surprised the race had already turned personal. Stinchcomb, who helped start the popular e-commerce site Etsy, said the rap album was a “nonissue” for him.

“I don’t know how much of this is racial but it certainly seems like an attempt to paint him as an outsider,” Stinchcomb said. This campaign “should be focused on if these are the people who represent my values, that’s it.”

Rabbi Yael Romer, the senior spiritual leader at Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley, was one of more than one dozen area clergy who recently signed a letter asking Faso to leave the rap album out of the political debate. The letter, which began with the words “shame on you!,” said bringing up the rap album was a “thinly-veiled, racist attack for the purpose of insinuating fear in the voters in our district.”

“It’s code when you say things like that ‘this kind of person does not represent our district,'” Romer said in an interview. “That’s a code for saying to voters who don’t come from diverse communities that someone who’s of color could not represent them.”

Romer said Faso is yet to respond to the letter, or to her private phone calls and messages.