The New Relationship Between Pop Culture & The White House

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images.
President Barack Obama has sung Al Green on stage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He's hosted poetry slams with rapper Common, danced salsa with Thalía at a White House Fiesta Latina, and slow danced at his inauguration with his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, to a song by Etta James. Throughout his time in office, Obama succeeded in achieving an elusive feat that we had never before seen from a first family: the integration of politics and pop culture. It was an achievement that made so many of us in this country — young, brown, LGBT, or just plain lovers of culture and the arts — feel welcomed, and for the first time privy to what life is really like behind the doors of our nation's headquarters. Included, instead of excluded. It was an achievement that I knew we would never see again on this level from any future president, a moment in history that would never be duplicated. I had some hope that this cultural climate could endure through Hillary Clinton's term in office. Sure, she may not have hosted jazz celebrations or included Nas on an iPod playlist to be shared with the country, but throughout her campaign, she showed us that she understands the importance of including America's culture in the White House. A Hillary Clinton presidency could have meant events with female poets, more awkward-but-hilarious attempts at viral dance sensations, and performances from powerhouse supporters like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez. But when President-elect Trump enters the White House, all of the jubilation, the delight, and the cultural progress that the Obama family created will become a distant memory. Donald Trump's ignorance about popular culture is laughable. I don't care who you are or where you live in this country: Not knowing how to pronounce Beyoncé's name signals just how out of touch you are, not only with entertainment, but current events, period. We barely heard a trace of music on Trump's campaign trail, and when we did, it was The Rolling Stones — who themselves demanded that Trump stop playing their music.

This is not a man who appreciates the value of art and what it can bring to others.

And remember "the Freedom Kids?" The little girls who adorably (though, scarily) performed on his campaign trail with a bubbly routine in tiny, patriotic cheerleading outfits? It didn't take long before their parents sued Trump, because in exchange for lending this man their cute, made-for-TV faces, they were rewarded by not receiving the proper payment or the opportunity to sell their albums on the campaign trail, as promised. This is not a man who appreciates the value of art and what it can bring to others (especially a country in dire need of uplifting), but a man who is most concerned with himself and his ego. The citizens he will lead? Their joy, their dreams, their emotions? In the world of Trump, they don't matter. No longer will the White House actually feel like a home — the People's House, with a warm and loving family standing at the door to welcome us with open arms. It will return to feeling simply like a culture-less government symbol, intangible and unreachable up on a high hill. Impenetrable to the American people. Cold, white, exclusive — eerily reminiscent of a plantation house. (The White House is, after all, a house that was built by slaves, as Michelle Obama reminded us this past summer.) Popular culture may seem like a low priority on the totem pole for a commander in chief. But President Obama has proven that it's important that the leader of our country reflect the people's interests. Through the arts, the family residing in the White House can inspire a passion for politics in people who may not feel like they need to pay attention, or that their voice matters. And when there isn't a president in the White House whom we as a people feel like we can relate to — or who at the very least, makes an effort to relate to us — it can be difficult to muster up any concern for or pride in our country. So with that, in the next few weeks I will begin to bid adieu to the cultural legacy that the Obamas carefully and authentically created. That legacy will soon be lost in a barren and culture-less White House that will have no music in its halls, no adventurous chefs experimenting in its kitchen or children dancing on its lawn. That legacy is a gift President Obama and first lady Michelle and their daughters gave us, and it's a gift that I will do my best to hold fast to in my heart. But today, I will also mourn its loss.

Editor's note: This post was written while listening to Kendrick Lamar's "Alright."

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