Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Staff Sees the Value in Hip-Hop
With the election less than a week away, the campaigns backing Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Evan McMullin have one final push to the public to sway voters to choose their respective parties' presidential candidate as the next Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Throughout the election, each candidate has made unique partnerships to boost their chances of being elected. Trump has leaned on the support of older celebrities, while Secretary Clinton has followed in President Obama's footsteps and steered towards the younger generation while also receiving major celebrity support, especially in hip-hop.
Since President Obama's political career took off and lead him to the White House for the past eight years, he has utilized hip-hop to attract young millennials and Black voters. Embracing hip-hop culture has transitioned to the Democratic campaign for Hillary Clinton, who’s seeking to become the first woman to run for president in the U.S.
She, along with her campaign team, have collaborated on events with Pusha T, Jay Z and have received much support from rappers. The Secretary was even on Power 105’s The Breakfast Club recently to discuss the popular memes comparing her fashion style to that of Death Row Records, which emerged after a presidential debate. This seamless transition was made possible by the diverse and experienced staffers employed by her campaign. These great individuals, who very rarely get the spotlight on them, have been instrumental in helping Hillary Clinton reach young millennials and Black voters and also bring a better understanding to the issues that affect their lives.
XXL brings together two key staffers for Hillary for America to discuss the hip-hop connection throughout Clinton's presidential candidacy. Denise Horn, Director of African American media, and De'Ara Balenger, Director of Public Engagement, talk about the members who work behind the scenes to bring rappers into the fold, hip-hop's influence throughout the campaign and whether or not Secretary Clinton quoted Lil Wayne during her DNC speech.
XXL: So Denise tell me about your background?
Denise Horn: I’m pretty much involved with everything regarding Black media. I went to Howard University for undergrad and got my masters at the University of Chicago. Throughout the time I was working in media as well as politics. But I really jumped into politics in the 2012 campaign, working with President Obama.
But I say that for the interest of the hip-hop industry, a lot of that comes for the fact that we have so many young Black people on the campaign and we’re always talking about the things that we like. A lot of that is us getting together. A great leader behind this is De'Ara Balenger, she is our Director of Engagement for the campaign. She’s instrumental in things we talk about, especially ways to meet and reach Black voters. We’re not necessarily watching the news in the same capacity. But we also think about the quickest way to get the message out to vote. We found that a lot of that is doing things that are just interesting.
I remember The Breakfast Club [interview] when I was pushing for it. One of the things that were really cool was I think it was one of the best interviews the Secretary has ever done. The first one, a lot of people were like, “Wow, the Secretary really showed another side of herself." Because when you’re engaging across different platforms and with different folks, they’re just asking different questions that you don’t normally get asked at a traditional news broadcast.
Folks on our sales team too; everyone brings something new to the campaign. On the campaign, we have this thing called Black Vote Magic. We have weekly meetings where we discuss how can me make this pop or what can we do here. It helps us bring all of our talents together. We also have family meetings where all the Black workers on the campaign are able to brainstorm and use Slack and email.
De'Ara, what do you do as the Director of Engagement for Hillary?
De'Ara Balenger: Good question. A little bit of everything. I'm definitely a catch-all. From engaging with artists, creatives and social influencers each day to ensuring that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton's closest friends are plugged into the campaign. I spend my day making sure nothing falls through the cracks and we do everything possible.
Are ya'll hip-hop fans? What do you and your coworkers listen to?
Denise: We listen to everything. I’m a big Chance The Rapper fan. A lot of Jay Z. We’re excited to have him in Cleveland next week and they’re Kanye West fans. A few of us went to the Kanye show and of course Beyoncé.
De'Ara: I am definitely a hip-hop fan. I'm from D.C., so I confess that my first true music love is go-go. I listen to a little bit of everything but lately to folks that are Clinton supporters — Pusha T, Travi$ Scott, Pharrell, MC Lyte and Chance The Rapper. And I love our DJs for Hillary -- DJ Khaled, D-Nice, Mick, Beverly Bond, Samantha Ronson, MOS, DJ Kiss, Natasha Diggs and Aktive. These DJs have been on the road for HRC registering voters and amplifying the importance of the vote.
Was hip-hop involvement something you actively wanted to bring over to Hilary’s campaign?
Denise: I think it’s something that we’ve all been interested in and that we all stressed. A lot of times we think about what are the things we do every single day. For example, Deputy Millennial Vote Director Jamira Burley, she was like we’re always talking about Black Girl Magic, let's do these Black Girl Magic meet-ups and lets talk about the issues that are in the States for Black women.
We had other opportunities where we had a filmmaker, Kimberly Selden, she’s been doing a lot of our Black content. She did a whole video series featuring Black staffers. She did creative filmmakers for Hillary Clinton and we did videos involving Michaela Angela Davis. Then you have De'Ara Balenger, the Director of Engagement. She has a great relationship with Karen Civil and Civil brought up that we should talk to Pusha T. So we were talking about what can we do with Pusha T and we’re like, Wait look at all the things he’s done to address criminal justice reform and he’s from Virginia so how can we connect that to something with the campaign that’s also from Virginia.
So there have been a lot of us thinking of the different ways and the different interests that we all have. I think one thing with Black millennials, especially now, we’re just a completely different generation. Even when we talk to the Secretary or President Clinton’s friends, they always say we think differently. There’s ways that we see things that they just necessarily don’t.
De'Ara: Absolutely. Hip-hop is America. It's the heart of our culture, hope, creativity and progress. Recognizing the powerful role this genre plays in our country, I've always looked at hip-hop artists to ensure they amplify Hillary's message.
How does hip-hop help you achieve goals in your job?
De'Ara: Hustle. There's nothing like starting what you know is going to be a hectic day with "Last Breath" by Future. On a serious note, I get and up and work to make Hillary Clinton president every day so that little boys and girls growing up in the inner city have more opportunities. Our approach to the hip-hop community and in general is to not have transactional relationships with recording artists and creatives but to have open lines and create spaces to talk about how we can activate folks around issues they care about, like with Pusha T, it was Virginia and criminal justice; and Freeway, it was healthcare in communities of color. The other conversation is how to use art and music to improve the lives of young people.
De'Ara, you're relationship with Karen Civil was instrumental in setting up the Tim Kaine and Pusha T block party. How did this happen?
De'Ara: Karen is someone who has become a true friend to the campaign and someone whose creativity we have grown to depend upon. Karen has also become a bridge to the hip-hop community. Folks see Karen with Secretary Clinton and they say, "Oh, she must be cool and approachable because look at the ease and comfort of Karen when she's with her."
Karen worked with Pusha on the Delete Your Account T-shirt that was so successful and Pusha decided that he would like to get even more involved with the campaign. Initially, we really wanted to get Pusha and Senator Kaine together in Virginia but the schedules aligned to get them both to Florida. I love a good block party, especially after we hosted a bunch of block parties in New York during the New York primary.
How do you separate the good and bad hip-hop support? Like you can be a fan of this rapper but he or she may not be the best backing politically.
Denise: We welcome all support that we receive. And then there’s sometimes when we say that we can’t necessarily do this but we’re going to figure out a way to make this happen and we’ll do something on the backend. I think another reason why we have inroads in the industry is our New York State Political Director Erin Stevens. She has done so much, she knows everyone.
We’ve always tried to think of ways to reach people. You think of some of the first few folks that served as validators for us. Q-Tip, he went and DJ’ed for the Secretary’s daughter's birthday. Then we had The Roots, so it’s thinking how can we do something with them. I think also one senior advisor, Minyon Moore, she has so much credibility and she was behind Diddy’s Vote or Die Campaign several years ago. She was the mastermind behind that. So it’s just a lot of us bringing it all together.
Also, we just find ways to do a lot of networking, especially in the beginning of the campaign. We would go to Brooklyn Bowl and see Questlove DJ and while we’re there, we’re there to do our job and figure out how to talk to every single person that we could. It’s been a grassroots effort amongst the campaign staff. So we went to Roots Picnic and that’s where we got a lot of inspiration for what we wanted to do for the Democratic National Convention. We have big supports like Russell Simmons. He has hosted campaign staffers over his house and pretty much doing an influencer dinner like, Hey, we have all these talents at the table — artists, actresses, actors, singers — how do we make sure to use our collective energy to elect Hillary Clinton as the next president?
Former President Bill Clinton going to Made in America with Jay Z and stuff like that. Is that planned or does that just naturally happen?
Denise: Well, I think one of the things that we’ve done, both [former] President Clinton and Secretary Clinton are both down to do whatever. They especially want to hear from people and interact in a real time. [Former] President Clinton when he goes out there he wants to know what Jay Z is thinking or what is it that we need to be doing differently. He’s very open-minded in that and also loves to talk to people. So in Made in America, he’s there and he’ll come back and say, “We have to do more. This is what we need to do.” He’ll talk to the Secretary and bring it back to the campaign.
Two events in particular, the Jay Z concert in Ohio and Pusha T's voter registration contest, how do you plan these?
Denise: Well, in campaign mode we’re working 24/7 every single day of the week. A lot of it does take a lot of relationship-building and I think a great thing about the Clintons is that they care about relationships. They always try to help people or figure out ways to work towards the common goal. It does take a long time to build that relationship but when it happens a lot of times we put together a quick army so we’ll have a communication staff together to see how are we going to make this pop, get the legal team handling contracts and the team on the ground in the state that actually finding the venue. In the beginning of the day,you’ll have nothing but the end of the day you’ll have everything and start rolling stuff out. So it’s pretty quick.
Did Hillary’s speech writer really quote Lil Wayne when she said, “After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit,” during her acceptance speech at the DNC?
Denise: I can’t say that it wasn’t definitively that because there are so many people who have a say in the speeches. There are times when I’m reviewing and editing her speeches, I would say, “Okay, we need to use this line” because some people won’t necessarily get that line but a Black person may say they’re talking about so and so.
I do remember when [the news about the Lil Wayne reference] was happening but I don’t know who actually came up with that line. I think that was one of the speechwriters.
Does Hillary listen to any hip-hop music?
Denise: You know what’s so funny. I’ve been on the plane with the Secretary and will see her go back and relax after a long day but she does have a variety of music interests. I know, Senator Tim Kaine and his team will take out their Beats Pill and they all have to play one song and listen to a song selection from each staffer. So one person may play the hip-hop song that they all have to listen to through, one would play a country song, someone plays the gospel song. It’s one of the daily rituals on the plane. Staff-wise, we come up with the playlist for all our events.
As a general hip-hop fan, what's your opinion on Donald Trump’s National Spokesperson and members of the Republican Party blaming hip-hop for rape culture?
Denise: You can’t blame everyone except for the candidate for his action. When something isn’t right, it’s rigged. When he didn’t get nominated for an Emmy, it’s rigged. The debate was rigged. No, your mic was on. So I think a lot of time, for some reason, they like to pass the responsibility off to something else. I don’t believe you can necessarily blame hip-hop for rape culture. I think you have to take responsibilities for your own action. I don’t think hip-hop made him say those things that he said when he thought no one was there. I’m assuming that was just him.
There's a great sense of camaraderie on the campaign among Black staffers. Who else has been instrumental with the seamless collaboration between hip-hop and the campaign?
De'Ara: In a way, all the Black staffers have contributed to this. Because of the diversity of our staff, from the Black millennials to the most senior staffers, we've been able to plug in a variety of artists that resonate with every generation.
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