Can a former rapper win a white district?
Posted July 24, 2018 7:33 a.m. EDT
ALBANY, N.Y. _ One of the first albums I ever owned _ it was a tape, actually _ was "Licensed to Ill" by the Beastie Boys. Like millions of American white kids, I was ready to fight for my right to party.
"Licensed to Ill" was released in 1986, a fact I mention not because it proves that I'm getting old but because it shows that rap music went mainstream decades ago. It remains popular in much of the country, including, we can assume, in homes within the 19th Congressional District.
That sprawling district _ which includes Rensselaer and Schoharie counties, much of the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills _ happens to be where Antonio Delgado, who is black, is running as the Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican John Faso, who is white. It is also where Delgado's former career as the rapper AD the Voice continues to dominate coverage of the contest.
Amid accusations that he's "race baiting," Faso has demanded Delgado, a Rhodes Scholar from Schenectady, explain some of his potentially controversial lyrics to voters. The race-baiting accusation probably isn't fair, but all of this is certainly exposing thorny cultural fault lines.
"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 Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at SUNY New Paltz, in a recent New York Times story about the race in the 19th.
Benjamin added: "People like us, people in rural New York, we are not people who respond to this part of American culture."
If you sense unfortunate undertones in those quotes, you're not alone: Benjamin's words caused a small storm, leading his employer to quickly and predictably declare that "the quotes do not reflect our institutional values of inclusivity and respect."
Benjamin, in a statement he emailed to me and others last week, apologized for "insensitive language" and added that he'd been trying to point out that race is never irrelevant in American politics, especially when this particular black candidate is running in one of the whitest congressional districts in the country. It is true that Delgado's music, recorded in the mid-2000s, included rough and sexual language, frequent use of the n-word, criticism of capitalism and the Iraq War, and anger at the racism of dead presidents. Faso described the lyrics as "very troubling and offensive," while a radio ad released by the Republican-backed Congressional Leadership Fund called them a "sonic blast of hateful rhetoric and anti-American views."
That's an exaggeration, but some voters do object to Delgado's lyrics. I heard from one such voter on Monday.
Still, Delgado's lyrics are mild when compared to, say, Eminem, who is not irrelevant to this discussion.
The top-selling rap artist of all time isn't the cultural force he was, but Eminem remains hugely popular in swaths of rural America. A recent New York Times analysis of YouTube viewership found Eminem is most popular in southern Ohio, parts of upstate New York, West Virginia, downeast Maine, northern Michigan and central Pennsylvania _ which shows how wrong Benjamin was about the resonance of rap in rural America.
I won't be the first to point out that Eminem is best loved in the struggling places where voters swung the 2016 presidential election to Trump, which explains why the president was uncharacteristically silent when Eminem lashed out at him last year.
Eminem's base isn't the same as Trump's (it's impossible to know how many Eminem fans actually vote) but there is a correlation. Both are celebrated among their fans _ and abhorred by opponents _ for voicing supposed truths that others will not say; both are given a pass by those supporters for saying things that offend.
Eminem was chronicling the rage and the collapse of the white working class long before Trump tapped it to win the presidency.
Here's Eminem in "Rock Bottom," released in 1999: "I deserve respect but I work a sweat for this worthless check/ I'm about to burst this Tec at somebody to reverse this debt/ Minimum wage got my adrenaline caged/ Full of venom and rage, especially when I'm engaged/ And my daughter's down to her last diaper... "
Eminem is white and he isn't running for Congress. Key differences. Still, it is hard to imagine that anyone who grew up listening to Eminem, who is 45, is going to be bothered by anything Delgado rapped in his music more than 10 years ago. Some voters might even notice that AD the Voice and Eminem hit on a few common themes.
As it so happens, Delgado recorded his rap album about when Trump was unwittingly being recorded on that infamous "Access Hollywood" tape. Trump won the 19th anyway.
Contact columnist Chris Churchill at 518-454-5442 or email cchurchill(at)timesunion.com
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