Let’s leave the politics to the side for a moment, if at all possible.
There’s a new president on the way. However you voted – or even if you skipped out on your duty as a member of what is ostensibly still a democracy – one truth is indisputable: The guy on the way out is the most music-savvy president we’ve ever had.
President Barack Obama welcomed a broad array of musical artists to the White House, sang well (and soulfully) in an African American church when the assembled needed to hear him do so, proved himself familiar with an eclectic variety of late 20th and early 21st century sounds, and finally – a mere few months prior to the end of his tenure – threw his own music-and-activism festival atthe White House.
Obama praised and fraternized with many musicians from many different walks of life during his eight years in office, and prior to that, when he was on the campaign trail. He proved himself to have seriously good taste, particularly when he made it plain that Stevie Wonder was, quite likely, his favorite recording artist.
Music has always been a tool readily available to those who seek to unify, and Obama clearly displayed a desire to employ it as such from the beginning. (Music has also been available to those who wish to divide and conquer, but I don’t feel like going there right now. I’m tired of negativity, and despite the fact that the optimism I’ve routinely relied on throughout my life has been greatly depleted over the past year or so, I still believe that many of you feel the same way.)
As the nation’s first African American president, Obama could have justifiably concentrated solely on the cultural contributions of African Americans. The history of American music is in so many ways the history of African American contributions to that music, in a country that undervalued those contributions, while simultaneously begging, borrowing and stealing from them. Blues, jazz, rock 'n’ roll, soul, R&B, funk and hip-hop are rooted in the groundbreaking work of black people. This is not an opinion.
Obama might have reasonably employed his cultural power to enact a redress of grievances. He chose instead to acknowledge commonalities in the work of the artists he celebrated. He routinely venerated the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He paid tribute to Led Zeppelin in an authoritative and knowledgeable manner during the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012. President Obama and his wife, Michelle, threw a private party for a few hundred close friends on the South Lawn and booked Prince and Stevie Wonder to play it. (They paid for it out of their own pockets, so please, don’t start.) He routinely spoke highly of – and even more significantly, displayed knowledge and understanding of – jazz luminaries Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Perhaps, as folk wisdom would have it, George W. Bush was the president you wanted to have a beer with, and maybe casually clear some brush on a ranch while you sipped it. But Obama was definitely the president you’d want to hang out and crank tunes with.
He proved as much before he even moved into the White House. Among the most-played songs during his 2008 campaign appearances were “Better Way” by Ben Harper; “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder; “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen; “City of Blinding Lights” by U2; “Think” by Aretha Franklin, and “Higher and Higher” by Jackie Wilson. The thematic thread connecting all of these songs – with the exception of that Wonder tune, which is really just a love song – is one of hope. That might seem a little too “Hold hands around the campfire while singing ‘Kumbaya’” for some people, but a closer look at the songs the campaign chose reveals that the hope being referred to is not one based on blind faith, but on clear-eyed commitment to pursuing an uphill battle. Obama, it seems, knew what was coming.
During the past eight years, the Obama White House welcomed, among others, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, Jose Feliciano, James Taylor, Common, Aretha Franklin, Esperanza Spalding, Lyle Lovett, Trombone Shorty, the Band Perry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Beyonce, Keb Mo and Smokey Robinson.
Obama understood the role that music can play in both inspiring people – particularly younger people – and in celebrating the commonalities that strengthen a culture and a country, while acknowledging the differences that make that culture and country interesting. He also seemed to implicitly understand that the most influential and enduring artists are reaching for the best in themselves and urging us all to do the same.
"Not only do I love Bruce's music, I just love him as a person," Obama said of Springsteen in a 2008 Rolling Stone interview. "He is a guy who has never lost track of his roots, who knows who he is, who has never put on a front."
History may well recall the 44th POTUS in similar terms.