The pop-cultural groundswell for Obama began in February, with Will.i.am's viral video "Yes We Can," which set one of Obama's speeches to music. "I don't think we have seen anything like that video before – it helped change the environment for Obama, blunted the attacks from the Clintons and bonded him to a lot of young voters," says Trippi. "That speech inspired me," Will.i.am says. "Obama connects – that's the difference between a leader and a politician." The clip has been viewed 16 million times on YouTube.
Will.i.am is hardly the only African-American artist to take notice of the first black candidate for a major party. "America has finally come to this point where you can pick a man of color," Chuck Berry told Reuters. "In the Fifties, there were certain places we couldn't ride on the bus, and now there is a possibility of a black man being in the White House." And a much younger artist, Lil Wayne, expressed a similar sentiment: "It means a whole lot to me," he says, "being African-American and being 25 years of age, to live in this day and time, and see history being made." Like Obama, the rapper Common lives in Chicago, and he was an early supporter, dropping his name into his 2007 single "The People": "My raps ignite the people like Obama." "He's for the people, not just for one select group," says Common. Jay-Z, meanwhile, displayed Obama's picture on his video screens on various stops of his last tour, asking crowds, "Are we ready for change?"
Jay-Z also took pains to make clear that his message was not officially endorsed by the candidate, half-joking that he didn't want to harm Obama's campaign the way the candidate's former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, has. But to a certain extent, the campaign has welcomed musicians' support – Obama has mentioned having Jay-Z on his iPod, discussed meeting with him and Kanye West to push positive messages in hip-hop, and shared his stage at rallies with acts ranging from Usher to Will.i.am. And the campaign keeps close tabs on some famous supporters: When Wilco played Saturday Night Live on an episode also featuring Hillary Clinton, his team supplied Obama pins for the band members to wear during their set.
Like many baby boomers, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir sees something familiar in Obama's candidacy. "The Kennedys put out a message of hope, and John Kennedy was able to bring the country together," he says. "I have a feeling Obama might be able to do that as well." But for Michael Stipe, the Obama phenomenon seems like something entirely new. "We are a country of ideas that have been squandered," he says. "With Obama, we have the possibility to have someone who represents what we are in the 21st century. My generation blew it, and for the first time in my life, I can vote for someone younger than me."
This story is from the July 10, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.
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