Frank Sinatra and the Black Republican

On January 30th 2009, America once again had reason to celebrate. Former Maryland Lt. Governor, Michael Steele became the first African American appointed as National Chairman of the Republican Party. This came just over one week after the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. The Obama campaign sparked a renewed interest and hope in politics, similar to that made by John and Robert Kennedy, but I can only wonder how much of an impact, if any, the appointment of Steele will really have.

My immediate interest in Steele came from a sound bite I caught on CNN: “I want hip-hop Republicans. I want Frank Sinatra Republicans. That’s how it is out there.” This was not the first time that Steele made this connection as in 2006 after becoming the Governor of Maryland, he described himself as, “…conservative, but I’m also moderate… As I like to tell people, I’m a little bit hip-hop and a little bit Frank Sinatra”.

Similar to that of the success of President Obama, Steele is attempting to appeal to both current G.O.P’s as well as the burgeoning youth vote. What he fails to realize is that Sinatra and hip-hop are one and the same; no distinction needs to be made. You don’t need to look any further than this years’ Grammy performance of Swagger Like Us by the “Rap Pack”. But for argument’s sake, I will.

In the 1960s, Sinatra and the boys personified cool. Along with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and others, The Rat Pack was the quintessential crew. Their over-indulgence in luxury and wealth was their trademark. They were definitely not the most skilled musicians, but their voice and the way they were perceived gave them an undeniable appeal. Men wanted to be them, while women wanted to be with them. They wore the finest clothes and jewellery, smoked the finest cigars, had affiliations with high-ranking politicians, and were photographed partying with their large entourages and other celebs, all the while feeding the appetite of their own alter-egos (i.e. Ol’ Blue Eyes).

Fast forward to 2009, to the leaders of the rap game (in no particular order): Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne, T.I., Kanye West, Young Jeezy, Diddy, Nas, 50 Cent, Ludacris, the list can go on and on. While there are many factors that can be used to distinguish each of these artists, they all share common attributes that are highly influenced by Sinatra.

In 1961, Sinatra left Capitol Records and started up his own recording home, Reprise Records. By starting his own label, he was able to take better control of his career, as well as provide an outlet for his friends. Artists like Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald all benefited from Sinatra’s vision. Similarly, in the 90s artists like Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, the Hot Boys all struggled to break through the traditional mould. Rap was anything but mainstream. As a result, they started their own labels, built their own studios, hired their own producers and the likes of Roca-Fella Records, Bad Boy Entertainment and Cash Money Records were born.

The entrepreneurial concept of building your own empire, doing it your way is the foundation of the modern hip hop movement, one which was greatly borrowed from Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. This is no more explicitly stated than in the Jay-Z rendition of I Did It My Way, off the Blueprint II (2002), which samples the original version written by Paul Anka: “Black entrepreneur, nobody did us no favors/The Rap Pack, I’m Sinatra, Dame’s Sam Davis/ Big’s the smart one, on the low like Dean Martin/We came in this game, not beggin n***as pardon/ Demanding ya’ll respect, hand over a cheque.”

Like hip hop artists today, Frank Sinatra was not immune to controversy. Throughout his career he was linked to the mob. Rather than shy away from this, he embraced it, even encouraged it. It was a part of his persona; a gangster and a gentleman. Heck, there are even stories of incidents between rival crews… if you don’t believe me then google “Las Vegas Hotel, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra”. This same bravado is used by most rappers today. While the media scrutinizes over their past involvement in crime, the fact of the matter is most rappers aren’t criminals; they’re just associate with them. Speculation over Sinatra’s ties to the mob, most notably Lucky Luciano were sensationalized, taking on a life of its own. Similarly, Lil’ Wayne’s connection to the Bloods is strategically glorified in nature. Like any good character from The Sopranos, or classic scene from any Al Pacino flick, rappers use gangster imagery to entertain the masses and sell not only records, but themselves as a brand.

In the 90s and early part of the new millennium, the image of a rap artist was quite standard: lots of bling, baggy jeans and every throw-back jersey imaginable. Their excessiveness was flaunted to the highest degree; sickening to most. Whether it was the ice in their teeth, or rockin’ one of those tacky-coloured watches from Jacob the Jeweller, there was an apparent disconnect between the commercialized image of rap and the conservative audience that was consuming it. Gradually, this commercial façade began to wear thin.

While still much more excessive than the average Joe, rappers have embraced the notion of quality over quantity, and have shifted dramatically from flashy to classy; from the bells and whistles of MTV Awards to the red carpet glamour of the Oscars. Bucket hats and Timbs have been replaced with stylish scarves, finely cut blue-diamond incrusted jewels and designer suits. No longer drowning in a pool of Cristal with half naked women, the new Diddy advocates celebrating life responsibly in a black-and-white ad for Ciroc Ultra Premium Vodka — shot in Sinatra’s actual home, no less, featuring his classic Fly Me To The Moon.

The days of doing a show with a hype man, a Dj and 30 other crew members on stage are long gone and have been replaced by full piece bands with percussion, brass and horns sections. Rappers, like the recording deals they are signing have truly become 360 in nature. Their influence spans far beyond the inner city and urban music, into the global realm: philanthropic causes, campaign endorsements, ownership in clothing lines, sports franchises, night clubs, real-estate development, etc. And that’s just Jay-Z. The legacies of Frank, Dean and Sammy have been forever cemented in pop culture, as the Rat Pack has reincarnated itself in the evolution of the hip-hop genre. Case in point: the iconic scene in the video for Roc Boys featuring Jay-Z, Nas and Diddy smoking cigars in front of a pool table at the 40/40 Club, in their 3-piece suits sharing a laugh.

The comparisons between hip-hop and Frank Sinatra are endless. The struggle is identical: the pursuit of the American Dream. That is what makes Sinatra and Jay-Z so relatable to most if not all Americans. That is their allure. “I want hip hop Republicans. I want Frank Sinatra Republicans.” It’s clear that Mr. Steele wants to be inclusive, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But he must realize that being inclusive isn’t about appealing to the hip-hop vote, or appealing to the Sinatra vote. And it’s certainly not about creating a dichotomy where none exists.

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