Rap vs. Ronald Reagan

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Perhaps no figure so divides the American people like Ronald Reagan. Rap and Hip Hop culture has for decades cited the Reagan era as a decisive and dangerous turning point in modern American history, while conservative Republicans hail the late president as a sort of savior whose radical conservatism restored the country to strength. While Hip Hop culture and conservative Republicans disagree on the effect of Reagan and his administration’s policies on the country, both agree that Reagan transformed the country and set the course on which the nation remains. The Eighties may be over, but we continue to live in the Age of Reagan.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

A recent focus by rappers on the Reagan Era and its aftermath renews the anti-Reagan critique so historically prevalent in Hip Hop. Kendrick Lamar’s album Section 80 is a meditation on the generation born in the 1980s, what he calls “children of Ronald Reagan.” Juelz Santana, too, plans an upcoming mixtape called The Ronald Reagan Era. Nearly eight years after his death, the president seems to finding his way more and more into rap lyrics. Wale has mentioned Reagan multiple times in songs. Das Racist’s Kool AD returns to Reagan (and wife Nancy) even more often. Brother Ali and Jake One are currently prepping the release of Mourning in America, the title of which is an ironic play on Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign slogan.

Whether it is rappers who came of age during the Reagan administration (e.g., Jay-Z, Scarface, Kanye) or those born during Reagan’s 80s (e.g., Wale, Kendrick, Juelz Santana), the consensus is that the Reagan Era constituted a watershed in American life, especially in the hood. Republicans, especially those in the Tea Party, agree. They too regard the Reagan era as epochal, the so-called “Reagan Revolution.” Reagan “made American great again.” The late president is held up as a sort of prophet or saint. He’s like Pac, Biggie, Dilla and Pun rolled into one. He’s become even more venerable in death, and it’s not surprising to hear him invoked dozens of times at Republican debates. And with good reason: Reagan changed the country into what conservatives envisioned. He was so successful that every president since him (including Obama) has largely stuck to the script. It is almost impossible to overstate the late president’s influence on the Republican Party and the direction of the country over the past thirty years.

We’ve been so overwhelmed by the story of Reagan’s unassailable greatness that the conservative narrative largely prevails. “The Reagan Era is when shit got great,” the story goes, and nearly the entire media establishment has adhered pretty faithfully to some version of that story. So why rappers’ beef with Reagan and his legacy? Why is the story of Reagan told by rappers so dramatically different than the one told by conservative Republicans and even Americans more widely?

Rap on Reagan:

— Jay-Z: “I blame Reagan for making me into a monster”

— Wale: “Shit ain’t been the same since Ronald Reagan” and, echoing Hov, “I just blame it on a man named Reagan.” Even the name of Wale’s label chief Rick Ross is due to Reagan, as is Freeway’s.

— Scarface: “Reagan never planned for us to rise.”

— Kanye: “How we stop the Black Panthers? / Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer.”

— The Coup’s Boots Riley links Reagan to the genocidal crimes of Saddam Hussein.

— Public Enemy’s Chuck D: “Reagan is bullshit.” In fact, Public Enemy’s birth was due directly to Reagan.

— Jay-Z, Yaasin Bey (Mos Def) and Immortal Technique find little difference between Reagan’s clique and Osama bin Laden. Before there was bin Laden there was Reagan, says Jay-Z.

— Pusha T: “The Ronald Reagan era was a tough time and a detrimental time to the black community,” especially due to the “Cocaine Ronald gave us.”

— Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul: “Blame Reagan”

— Brother Ali puts it bluntly: “Motherfuck Reagan.”

— The opening scenes of 1991’s Boyz n the Hood (Ice Cube’s acting debut) feature a Reagan/Bush reelection poster shot through ignominiously with bullet holes like a wild west “Wanted” poster. Peep how Tre’s friend stops to offer a personal “fuck you” to the president.

The Reagan Cartel

Most of the Hip Hop critique of Reagan emerges out of the Iran-Contra Affair. The first Jay-Z line above continues, “I blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra.” Hov is referring to a web of shady-as-fuck activity in which Reagan’s administration ultimately facilitated the sale of tons of cocaine into the US inner-city at the height of the crack epidemic. A Los Angeles cocaine trafficker by the name of “Freeway” Ricky Ross (sound familiar?) served as one of the main conduits through which cheap cocaine flooded the hood. Ross is said to have developed a distribution chain spanning all the way to the East Coast. In the end, the operations stretched from Colombia to Panama and Honduras to Miami and throughout the United States. Honduras’ General Jose Bueso-Rosa—known by the US Government to head “the most significant case of narcoterrorism yet discovered”—was contracted and protected by Reagan’s point man Oliver North, as well as Panamanian President Manuel Noriega (the real Noriega), then known to be a significant player in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. Though of course not entirely due to the Reagan administration’s assistance, the kilo price fell dramatically from $60,000 to a mere $9,000 during the Reagan Era, due to the fantastic increase in supply from Central and South America.

So, when Kanye says, “Reagan cooked up an answer,” Jay-Z says “Ronald Reagan got Manhattan the blow,” or Brother Ali says, “I never sold base, motherfuck Reagan,”, they’re all referring to the Reagan team’s movement of cocaine into the hood.

But why would Reagan’s administration do something as risky as facilitating a massive cocaine trafficking operation? Why would Reagan’s clique do that to American citizens, especially with the incipient crack epidemic ravaging the inner-city? Some have argued that the project was a sort of psychological and chemical warfare deployed to neutralize and weaken the hood and ward off urban rebellion. A decade before, the FBI, through its COINTELPRO operation, had prosecuted a virtual war against the Black Panthers and other civil rights groups, imprisoning and assassinating a number of freedom fighters and forcing others into exile. But while it is certainly believable that the FBI maintained an underground COINTELPRO-type operation after the 1960s—Panther Mumia Abu Jamal was apprehended by the State in 1981, long after COINTELPRO was forced to be shut down—it is doubtful that Reagan’s cocaine operation was expressly intended to continue that war on Black America. What is much more likely is that Reagan and his team simply didn’t give a shit about who would be harmed. Those affected by the crack epidemic were merely collateral damage in a larger war being fought, the pursuit of a global corporate empire.

“Contras, the Shah and the CIA”

The cocaine trafficking was to fund an illegal war being prosecuted by the Reagan administration in Nicaragua, highlighted in the song “Watchout”, by Immortal Technique. That’s where the Contras come in. An illegal, undercover arms trade to Iran partially funded the Contras, and cocaine trafficking provided the rest: narcotrafficking and gun running. The Contra army was an illegal force put together by factions in the the CIA, the Pentagon and the White House to combat a growing revolutionary movement in Central America. For decades (or centuries, really), Central and South America was effectively a plantation for the United States. Before there was China to provide cheap, neo-slave labor, there was Latin America. Entire countries were effectively bought by corporations from the North. That’s where the term “banana republic” comes from, from corporations essentially buying entire countries to essentially operate like vast plantations, often with a Washington-installed and backed “president” as the overseer. A quick Wikipedia search for “Jacobo Arbenz” or “Salvator Allende” will illustrate the sort of thing that was going on throughout the entire late 20th century. Politicians in Washington—especially those most loyal to the big corporations—became used to effectively choosing which leaders would run Latin America. Just a year before the election putting Reagan in the White House, Nicaragua’s Sandinista rebellion kicked out Washington’s overseer—the four-decade long Somoza regime—with a promise to pursue a new Nicaragua which benefited all of its citizens, not just the wealthy capitalist friends of Washington.

While the Sandinistas were considerably imperfect, they represented an incipient global revolution against a growing formation called the Washington Consensus, a world order governed by a wealthy corporate elite. Reagan represented a sort of global revolution, too—one of the corporations and banks against the globe’s people. The sort of economy that the Occupy movement fights against was just beginning to be built by Reagan, being tested in Latin American countries. Necessary to the economic experimentation by the elite were things like the Contra War, its narco-funding and the resulting crisis in the American inner-city. The inner-city was paying the price of this new world order long before the contemporary effects—foreclosures, Wall Street crises, unemployment, etc.—beset the wider population.

Morning in America

Simultaneously, Reagan’s domestic policy agenda was a form of that which was being imposed on Latin America: lower and lower taxes on the wealthy and less and less government services for the poor and working-class. Reagan’s domestic policy agenda was driven by a fundamental ideological principle: the wealthy elite were not being taken care of and that was the reason for any and all economic ills. Alternately called “supply-side” or “trickle-down” economics, the theory was that benefits given to the wealthy and corporations would trickle down to the rest of us. Comedian D.L. Hughley explains what “trickle-down” looked like to a young Black male in inner-city Los Angeles:

All the social programs…were cut as a result of Reagan coming into office and greed just became a hobby. He was kind of the Moses of leading them to feeling good about being greedy white men.

One of Reagan’s first accomplishments was to assault the tax code in favor of the elite. Upper marginal rates had been no lower than 70% (and often in the 80-90% range) since the 1940s. It was 70% the day Reagan entered the White House; by his second term it was 28%. Not surprisingly, there was suddenly less money for the programs that kept the least fortunate Americans hanging on. Social programs were cut drastically to make up for the wealthy’s tax cuts. Reagan justified these draconian cuts in social programs by creating in the minds of affluent, (mostly) white Americans the specter of the “welfare queen.” Reagan fooled voters into believing that social programs like AFDC welfare, food stamps and job training were making life too easy on inner-city families.

The story told by Hip Hop ran entirely counter to that of Reagan. Emerging out of the South Bronx (pictured below), rap music announced to anyone with a record player that things were not as Mr. Reagan said. “Hip Hop has always been political,” reminds Hip Hop journalist and Bronx-born Davey D. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 classic “The Message” explained to everyone who was listening that things were getting worse in the hood. Even Kurtis Blow’s 1980 seeming party joint “The Breaks” was about economic hardship. Run-DMC led off their 1984 debut album with “Hard Times,” a song about poverty in the 80s.

Rappers who grew up during Reagan’s 80s—Jay-Z, 2pac, Biggie, Ice Cube and NWA, Scarface and Geto Boys, and others—offer rich insight into precisely how the new urban neglect affected families and communities. NWA’s Eazy E called rappers “underground reporters,” who were telling a story quite different from the evening news, which whitewashed Reagan’s damage. Rap listeners far from those struggles received stories from the front lines of Reagan’s America. “Little Amy told Becky, Becky told Jenny / And now they all know the skinny.” Rap listeners knew what the major media establishment was still sleeping on: Reagan had been a disaster. “Trickle-down” had not worked. “Things done changed,” warned Biggie, who was 8 years old at Reagan’s inauguration. And he was right. The unrestrained capitalism ushered in by Reagan was sending US jobs overseas to Central America and elsewhere. Reagan’s cocaine had contributed to a full-blown crisis, which was now the pretext to send millions to prison. The so-called “welfare queens,” by which Reagan meant women like Gloria Carter, Afeni Shakur and Voletta Wallace, struggled in the increasing hopelessness of a country with fewer economic prospects and less in the way of assistance for those struggling. Reagan had succeeded only in enriching the wealth and power of the elite, and it had been at the expense of the poor and working-class, especially young Black Americans.

Now a new generation of rappers continue the rebuke of Reagan and the ideology he represents. Joining them is the Occupy movement, which is nothing if not a protest of the 30+ years of continued Reaganism. Rap has become the music of resistance in the US and across the globe, and the alliance of Occupy Wall Street and Hip Hop is proving to be a potent force. Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kweli, Bun B, Russell Simmons and others lent their voices to the movement, with Lupe’s Friend of the People mixtape being essentially dedicated to Occupy. “New gang alert,” Lupe warns. The Age of Reagan might finally be nearing its end.