Atlanta Rappers Reignite Role as Political Kingmakers
When Joe Biden held a drive-in rally in an amphitheater parking lot in Atlanta on October 27th — one week before the election — he made sure to welcome hip-hop culture. Election Day was near, and he was on the south side of the city, in an area that groomed hip-hop luminaries like Jermaine Dupri, OutKast, and Goodie Mob, and minutes from Clayton County, whose voters played a pivotal role in flipping the state from reliably red to unexpectedly blue and solidifying Biden’s victory over Donald Trump.
During the rally, Offset, born and raised in suburban Gwinnett County, provided native-ATL energy with a public endorsement of Biden and a performance of his song “Clout,” from his 2019 album, Father of 4. Later that day, the Migos rapper shared a backstage moment of Biden checking out the pendant hanging from his chain, flanked by fellow show-opener Common. Even if Biden didn’t fully understand Offset’s motivation to wear such prominent jewelry, he knew its value extended to political capital.
Biden is now president-elect thanks, in large part, to the power of the black vote. And nowhere in the U.S. did the black vote matter as much as it did in Atlanta, the capital of modern hip-hop. The city is famous for its ability to activate its citizens around issues and candidates important to its African American constituents. And as the stakes have grown, hip-hop culture has played an increasingly bigger role in who gets to wield political power.
As the state prepares for the January 5th Senate runoff elections between Raphael Warnock and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and Jon Ossoff and Sen. David Perdue, all eyes are on Georgia. Because the runoff will determine the balance of power in Congress — and the Biden administration’s subsequent ability to enact policy priorities — Atlanta has become ground zero for national politics. And from crunk to trap, members of Atlanta’s hip-hop community are now seen as critical in the campaigns’ efforts to influence Georgia voters.
Atlanta trap icon Jeezy’s political involvement has increased exponentially over the years. Prior to the presidential election, he endorsed Biden, appearing at a 2019 campaign event at the Gathering Spot, a private membership club for professionals in Atlanta, and pressing his social media followers to show up at the polls for the former veep. This wasn’t his first public involvement — his 2008 song “My President” became a de facto anthem of Barack Obama’s historic win, he endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, and supported Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial run. Shortly before the 2020 election, he greeted Abrams, the founder of voting rights advocacy group Fair Fight, when she appeared virtually, on video, during Jeezy’s livestreamed Verzuz song battle with Gucci Mane. “Even Stacey Abrams coming on before Verzuz: All that’s small parts of what we have to do,” he says. “For Verzuz, we had 9.1 million insights. That’s a lot of people that saw her.”
Now that Biden has secured the presidency, Jeezy wants Georgians to understand the importance of voting in the Senate runoffs, even for those who stood back for November’s general election. “If the right people are not in the Senate, it’s gonna make it hard for the Biden-Harris administration to do anything they need to do and that they promised to us,” Jeezy tells Rolling Stone.
“What we did see by Georgia turning blue [and] by us being able to sway the election and get it the way we wanted to get it, it wasn’t about just the election — to me, it was about people mobilizing,” he adds. “The same people that say, ‘My vote don’t count; my vote don’t count’ — people mobilized, and every little thing made a difference. It was such a small gap of votes in Georgia that made it turn blue. People have to see progress so that they understand what they’re doing is making a difference. So here with this runoff, we have to continue to do the same thing, because we can’t fight half the battle and then not finish the war.”
One person who has witnessed Atlanta’s music industry groom political kingmakers is “King of Crunk” Lil Jon. The producer, rapper, DJ, and former cast member of The Apprentice says growing up in a city governed by people who looked like and lived near him gave him a unique view of election consequences.
“Coming from southwest Atlanta, we grew up around black excellence. And even further, we grew up around politicians like [Fulton County Comissioner] Marvin Arrington — we went to school together, so I saw his dad [Fulton County Superior Court judge and former president of the Atlanta City Council] Marvin Arrington Sr., all the time. I saw [Ambassador] Andy Young, I saw [former Mayor] Maynard Jackson, because I knew his son. I used to go party at [Former Mayor] Shirley Franklin’s crib with her daughters.”
The rapper admits that he didn’t understand the importance of voting early in his career, but is excited to see young people getting more involved, especially when it comes to elections that many feel affect them more directly than the race for the White House.
“People are always complaining about this and that, but they’re starting to understand now that those people that you send to Congress are the ones that represent you,” he says. “If you don’t like what’s going on with the laws that are being passed, get those judges into those places. People are starting to realize that change is only going to come if they get out there and vote and start to get people that have their best interests at heart into the proper position.”
“It wasn’t about just the election — to me, it was about people mobilizing.” -Jeezy
There is, of course, a deep history to Atlanta rappers using their fame to influence voters — in music and otherwise — in city, state and national elections. On Big Boi’s half of OutKast’s tremendous 2003 album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Big Boi gave a blistering opinion on the Bush administration and politicians in general, calling them “modern-day magicians” and “physicians of death” on his song “War.” In 2014, Ludacris made a public appearance with Georgia’s then-Gov. Nathan Deal during his re-election campaign. Notably, Deal was running against Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, who is nothing short of Democratic royalty in the state and beyond. The Disturbing tha Peace rapper endorsed Biden in 2020, exhibiting a willingness to reach across the aisle and show bipartisanship, if not a keen sense of political savvy.
The election of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms remains one of the starkest examples of Atlanta rappers making a political difference. Running against former City Council member and Trump supporter Mary Norwood, Bottoms forced a runoff and campaigned extensively to consolidate backing from other campaigns (and their supporters). When all but one of her former challengers backed Norwood or remained silent, Bottoms got a huge push from Killer Mike and T.I., who ardently endorsed her candidacy and helped push her to a narrow victory.
“We didn’t stand with the mayor at a press conference; we stood on the steps of City Hall before she was the mayor, and she won,” Killer Mike said earlier this month at a campaign event at The Gathering Spot in Atlanta. “Kasim [Reed, former Atlanta mayor] won [in 2009] by more than 700 votes, after me and Tip canvassed the Westside with him. So hip-hop has been effective.”
“I think one of the main things that helped Mike and I connect the dots and translate the message to our people to get them up and out to vote for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, was the fact that Mary Norwood was threatening our culture,” Tip says. “Threatening to shut the strip clubs down, threatening to shut the studios down. Threatening a lot of things that we have built this city to run off of.
“So my message was, ‘If you are a dancer, a DJ, a promoter, a valet driver, a club owner — whatever it is you do that you’ve created a living or earned significant income off this nightlife and culture — then it is your responsibility. That is being threatened right now,’” he adds. “And that language, people understand.”
Since the mayoral race, T.I. and Killer Mike have served as advisers to Mayor Bottoms, from being official members of her transition team to Mike’s viral moment speaking out at a press conference, calling for calm when Atlanta’s turbulent George Floyd protests resulted in property damage in several areas of the city.
Tip says he recognizes not only his ability to “galvanize and activate the culture on behalf of the people who are sincerely and genuinely passionate about helping our communities and doing right by our people,” but also the responsibility. He notes a unit of politically active artists that includes, alongside Killer Mike, Ludacris, and his longtime business partner Chaka Zulu, many influential people in Atlanta hip-hop.
That also includes Jermaine Dupri, whose So So Def label has been synonymous with Atlanta’s hip-hop scene for three decades. J.D. recently joined T.I., Mike, Common, and Big Tigger of Atlanta radio station V-103, for a livestreamed discussion with Warnock and Ossoff. “It has to be connected,” Dupri told the audience, before addressing Ossoff directly. “What’s happening in the state of Georgia, and what’s happening in this city alone … This is the new world we live in. These are the people these kids listen to the most. When I met Jon for the first time, the energy I felt is that you understand where you live at. You understand the people around you. Atlanta, and Georgia, demonstrates something different. And we demonstrate the way the rest of the world should be moving.”
Tip also says he knows motivating younger hip-hop fans to stay active in politics takes continued leadership from people like him. His friend 21 Savage has recently been more outspoken about his political views, as well as Lil Baby, who marched during the protests over George Floyd’s killing and has shared his own experiences with police brutality.
“We’ve gotta pass the baton. Nobody can stay in position too long. Everybody has a place and a purpose.” -T.I.
“We’ve gotta pass the baton. Nobody can stay in position too long. Everybody has a place and a purpose,” T.I. says. “It’s our job to make sure that the person you’re passing the baton to is someone with a genuine passion for our people, and has respect for our culture. That’s a no-brainer to us.”
As director of Atlanta’s Office of Film & Entertainment, Phillana Williams, a surrogates director for the Warnock for Georgia campaign, and a former strategy and engagement surrogate for the Biden-Harris campaign, deals directly with connections between politics and “the culture.” Having worked for years in the music industry, including at Atlanta’s venerated LaFace Records, she is intimately familiar with how Atlanta hip-hop interacts with power. And she thinks politicians should look more deeply at how musicians can be used to help campaigns.
“Oftentimes they call musicians just to perform, but they’re more than that. They’re people, too,” Williams says. “They have mothers and fathers; they’re parents. They care about health care. They have family that have regular nine-to-five jobs, even if they don’t. They’re being affected by the pandemic — actually more than any other business group. The entertainment business has taken the hardest hit, and will be the last one to come back.”
Williams praises Killer Mike and T.I., saying “they get it,” and says she’s spoken with Lil Yachty and Offset — who she says shows a great deal of political promise — about getting more involved. One of her projects is bringing in celebrities for virtual campaign events on Instagram Live and Twitch. Another was the “Georgia On My Mind” initiative, in which celebrities performed their own renditions of the timeless song and shared it on social media starting December 14th (the first day for runoff early voting) to encourage people to cast ballots.
Politicians often miss opportunities to engage with artists due to shortsightedness, Williams says. “They really do care about a lot of stuff that happens, and they need to be more than just, ‘Hey, can you get on this stage and sing?’ They need to be talking, because they have organic audiences. Not that politicians don’t, but politicians talk a certain way. Musicians are very open and honest about their lives.”
“There are so many things we have going wrong, and so many things that require attention and meticulous detail,” T.I. adds. “And all of those things can be solved by us sticking together.”