This picture has been making the rounds since Beyonce and JayZ held a $40,000 campaign event for President Obama. It's an absolutely beautiful picture, one shared and commented on by thousands. The most powerful man on the planet, and the most powerful MC on the planet–in fact I'd go one further and say one of the most powerful tastemakers on the planet. And note that you can't really tell who's who. The MC isn't wearing shell-toed adidas. The President isn't white and old (until Obama's election, the President's skin color and age worked as a "uniform" of sorts, working the same way Run DMC's adidas warmup suit did.[foot]It's important to mention here though that Run DMC pretty much created the look we associate with classic MCs, preferring to wear the same gear to their performances as they wore on the street, supplanting the George Clinton inspired look of MCs like Grandmaster Flash[/foot]. And in between them the most beautiful woman on the planet. It isn't clear what they're talking about but all three seem incredibly relaxed.
When many of us cast our vote for Obama last year this is what we were looking for. We become the classic. Turn the image into a black and white and its essence is timeless and powerful. Swap out Obama for Kennedy, and JayZ and Beyonce to their equivalent white early sixties power couple, and I can't imagine that new picture looking better.[foot]In fact I spent a bit of time trying to find an image I could juxtapose against them. I couldn't find one.[/foot] And that's part of the point. Part of the joy of this moment is being able to say, proudly, that our classic trumps your classic. That the New American Classic is so much better than the old that it's a shame we can't go back in time.
I want to complicate this a bit though.
This is an older picture of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. There's a joy present here, just like the picture of the President, JayZ, and Beyonce. Note the difference in composition–unlike the picture of the President and JayZ (shot from below) this picture, shot at eye-level, places us on the same level as the subjects. We aren't looking up at Hansberry and Baldwin. We aren't eavesdropping on a private conversation. The politics of the two images are quite different. The story I read into the Obama picture is a Cosbyesque story about hip-hop and America made good that occurs in the face of tremendous economic and social anxiety. JayZ, Obama, and Beyonce exemplify the two major pathways to black rags to riches success. And these major pathways articulate an assimilationist project–we become the classic, the classic becomes us–it requires an underclass.
The Hansberry Baldwin picture on the other hand articulates a different political project.