Looking back at President Barack Obama’s efforts to diversify the country’s arts
THE SANTA CLARA
January 19, 2017
As his presidency comes to a close, Barack Obama will be remembered for many policies, good and bad—his diplomatic measures with Cuba and Iran, the war in Syria, the Affordable Care Act. Yet, what many people will overlook is Obama’s significant legacy in the art world.
During his eight years in office, Obama actively sought to shine a light on artists of all backgrounds and from all facets of the arts.
For instance, the president, an avid reader, regularly shared the titles of the books on his shelf and regularly invited authors to the White House. Just at the beginning of 2017, Obama hosted a visit for Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz and Barbara Kingsolver, a slate of authors as diverse as America itself.
On top of that, throughout his presidency, Obama continually presented artists and entertainers with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award for a civilian. Honorees have included the openly-lesbian comedian and television host Ellen DeGeneres, African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey, the part-Canadian architect Frank Gehry, Latina dancer and actress Chita Rivera, beloved Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, African-American author Toni Morrison and rock singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen.
Looking at these artists, one can’t help but note the sheer diversity of the group—beyond just vocation, but in race, gender, sexuality and more.
Moreover, never before has there been a president more embracing of hip-hop, a genre that often contains strong— and sometimes divisive—political messages regarding race. At his final State Dinner in October 2016, Obama invited both the gay artist Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper.
Obama also regularly brought in hip-hop artists—from J. Cole to Nicki Minaj—to the White House, often to discuss “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative that promotes racial justice among young men of color.
And on numerous occasions, Obama professed his support of rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose song “Alright” notably became the anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2015, the President even declared his favorite song of the year to be Kendrick’s “How Much a Dollar Cost.”
In the rap, Kendrick honestly reflects on his past greed, looking at a moment when he failed to give even a dollar to a homeless man. As Kendrick raps, “And I’m insensitive, and I lack empathy / He looked at me and said, ‘Your potential is bittersweet’ / I looked at him and said, ‘Every nickel is mines to keep.’”
Elsewhere in the world of art, Obama has praised the accomplishments of African-American dancer Misty Copeland. Back in 2015, Copeland achieved a huge feat when she was promoted to be the first black principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre—one of the world’s foremost classical ballet companies.
After news spread of her achievement, Obama invited Copeland to the White House to congratulate her and to have a conversation on race in the United States.
Commending Copeland, Obama noted the impact the dancer has had on all women of color.
“As the father of two daughters, one of the things I’m always looking for are strong women who are out there breaking barriers and doing great stuff,” Obama said. “Misty’s a great example of that. Somebody who has entered a field that’s very competitive, where the assumption is that she may not belong.”
To cast these artists as merely random choices on Obama’s part would be ignorant of the struggles these artists overcame. The President intentionally chose artists who were breaking down barriers, just as he did by becoming the first African-American president. And by promoting such artists, Obama formed a culture that was more representative of all the people in this country.
Perhaps the biggest artistic achievement that emerged during Obama’s presidency and that best encapsulates his cultural aims is the Broadway smash “Hamilton.” The show has long ties to the President—back in 2009, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was invited to the White House Poetry Jam. Originally supposed to give a performance from his first Broadway production “In the Heights,” Miranda surprised the audience—to a skeptical audience—with a rap about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
That song, which Miranda dubbed the “Hamilton Mixtape,” spurred the creation of the rest of the show, a musical that would intentionally cast actors of color and wax poetic about the impact of immigrants on the country’s history. For instance, in one song, Hamilton, who was born in the British West Indies, and Lafayette, the Frenchman and Revolutionary War hero, sing, “Immigrants, we get the job done.”
Obama has continually praised the musical for both its critical success and inclusive message. And in March 2016, the President invited Miranda back to the White House for a special performance.
As Obama explained to the crowd, “(The) show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men—and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us. And that’s why Michelle and I wanted to bring this performance to the White House. Because Hamilton is not just for people who can score a ticket to a pricey Broadway show. It is a story for all of us, and about all of us.”
Thus, over the last eight years, Obama didn’t just pursue political action—he also made serious strides in diversifying the art world. And while none of these artists necessarily needed Obama’s stamp of approval, the support of the President of the United States does very much affirm these artists’ endeavors and any social messages they may proclaim.
Looking forward, no one knows what the arts community will face in the next four years of a Donald Trump presidency, but it will certainly be different. If the response to his inauguration is any indication, the relationship between the arts and Trump will be frosty. (He can’t even get a Bruce Springsteen cover band to perform for his festivities).
Trump has also admitted he doesn’t read books. And Hollywood actors and actresses have, in droves, repeatedly shared their criticisms of the businessman.
Obama has brought a sense of an inclusive culture to the White House—something that might be missing when the man Spy magazine dubbed “the short fingered vulgarian” takes office.
Contact Maura Turcotte at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.