Yes He Did: Originality Returns with 2008 Obama Campaign Music

President Obama addressing a rally during his 2008 campaign.

Deals on plane tickets, finding old friends or potential spouses, webisodes, car parts, conspiracy theories, sea level updates, ancestral charts, cheap meds, Berlin Wall pieces, out-of-print books, new pictures of Neptune, way way too much information…and presidential campaign songs.

Obama texting.

Obama texting. (LA Times)

And that’s but a grain of sand’s worth of the Internet’s unfathomable content, its perpetual explosion and excessive overflow forever morphing commerce, human interaction, cultural differences, the perception of time – and the way we elect Presidents.

Few public figures ride that wave better than does Barack Obama. Although the first “Generation Jones” President, he’s had a handle on how the voting generations younger than him interact, get their info and listen to music. It was largely voters in their 20s who sustained him through the turbulent season of state primaries and caucuses in 2008. And he kept them loyal and engaged not just by what he promised to deliver but by the music associated with his campaign.

A button carrying the impromptu Obama campaign slogan, Yes We Can.

A button carrying the impromptu Obama campaign slogan, Yes We Can.

Three words, however, Obama spoke simply as part of a speech intended to rally the hope of supporters against those who predicted his being elected was impossible became the sudden rallying call – and inspiration for the primary music of his campaign: “Yes, we can!”

Initially, during the February 2008 primaries, there’d been a brief ray of hope that the first commissioned campaign song since 1976 would again be heard by voters, with a widely-reported story that candidate Obama had “personally asked” to have an original campaign song composed by singer Joss Stone. The unnamed source in the story claimed, “Joss is a big supporter of Barack Obama and was very excited to be asked to do this for him. He sent a personal message asking her to get on board.  He has always admired her music and thinks she is the perfect choice because of her unique appeal to black and white voters. She believes he is going to be the first black American president and she is honoured to be a part of that.”

A fake superimposed composite of candidate Obama and his alleged campaign song composer, Joss Stone.

Superimposed composite of candidate Obama and his alleged campaign songster Joss Stone.

The prospect of Joss Stone producing the first original campaign song since the days of Ford and Carter even led one enthusiast to Photoshop an image of the duo – which proved premature. The reason no such effort materialized is unclear. Although popular in the U.S. Stone is a British citizen and it may be that the candidate’s campaign thought it wiser that, if there were to be any commissioned campaign song, it might be more politically feasible to to have it be a home-grown effort. It might also very well be that the “news” was all just a publicist’s stunt and Obama had never made the request.

Rather than commission an original piece, Obama’s presidential campaign followed the trend in place since the 1980s. It widely sampled from both current and vintage music of all genres to introduce him at rallies, selections tailored to the audience, be they college students on campus, African-American churcgh-goers, a union hall of electricians or an ice cream social in  small-town square.

Springsteen and Obama.

Springsteen and Obama.

The most frequent music used at Obama’s rallies were recordings of Better Way  by Ben Harper, Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours by Stevie Wonder. Think by Aretha Franklin, The Rising by Bruce Springsteen, and City of Blinding Lights by U2,  and Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson. Whether familiar, established music or Obama’s personal preferences, this growing number of musical tracks were no longer thought of as “campaign songs” but the “candidate’s “soundtrack.”

Adding to Obama’s musical multitude were perhaps hundreds of original, unsolicited compositions, most premiering on Youtube, inspired by his being the first African-American presidential candidate.   From Unite the Nation by the hip-hop Misa/Misa to Illinois Boy by Annie Palovcik, music turned out for Obama ranged in all genres.

Obama Girl Ettinger.

Obama Girl Ettinger.

One effort, Make it to the Sun, was a unique joint effort of five composers and musicians from the U.S., England, Sri Lanka, Canada, and Mexico intended to inspire unregistered American voters to exercise their right to do so. Making it available for sale as a MySpace download, the proceeds were to be donated to the Obama campaign.

In many ways, it began with the popular hit Crush on Obama – a good year before he even won the Democratic nomination. The plesasant-enough original score first appeared in June of 2007, just as the lineup of 2008 candidates were beginning to circulate through Iowa. Entirely devoid of any substantive political content the purely sexualized ode to the then-U.S. Senator from Illinois was performed by Amber Lee “Obama Girl” Ettinger, who lip-synched the vocals provided by her friend Leah Kauffman:

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKsoXHYICqU]

It wasn’t superficial novelty, however, but an emotionally moving quality which led to Yes We Can rising above all the other Obama-music projects.

Will.i.am of the Black-Eyed Peas.

Will.i.am of the Black-Eyed Peas.

Rap composer and performer will.i.am of the Black-Eyed Peas generated the unique contribution to presidential campaign history by appropriating a recording of the candidate’s trademark “Yes, we can!” exhortation from his January 8, 2008 New Hampshire primary victory speech.

A celebrity element certainly didn’t hurt – a truism since the days Al Jolson composed for Harding and sang for Coolidge.

Scarlett Johansson, an early and avid Obama supporter in the Hollywood community.

Scarlett Johansson, an early and avid Obama supporter in the Hollywood community.

Obama’s spoken words were blended into will.i.am‘s original rap-style composition, overlaid with narration of the candidate’s own words by supporters, among them Scarlett Johansson, Tatyana Ali, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Kate Walsh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adam Rodríguez, Kelly Hu, Hill Harper, Amber Valletta, Eric Balfour, Aisha Tyler, Nicole Scherzinger, Nick Cannon, Bryan Greenberg, and Common. The music video was directed by Jesse Dylan, the son of singer Bob Dylan.

The producer, a Los Angeles native whose real name is William James Adams, envisioned an entire album, Change is Now: Renewing America’s Promise, dedicated to Obama’s candidacy and the hope it would lead him into the White House.

Wll.i.am performing Yes, We Can during a 2008 Democratic National Convention outdoor rally

Wll.i.am performing Yes, We Can during a 2008 Democratic National Convention outdoor rally.

Within a week of its release on the website Dipdive, it received some three million hits. Will.i.am performed Yes We Can at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado.

The music video of the intended album’s second single We Are the Ones, released on February 29, featured appearances by Jessica Alba, Ryan Phillippe, Kerry WashingtonJohn Leguizamo, Regina King, Tyrese Gibson, Eric Mabius, Tichina Arnold, Adrianne Palicki, George Lopez, and Macy Gray, among others.

Will.i.am offered a refreshing rationale for all the trouble he was taking to show his support, feeling that just another celebrity endorsement was a bit futile, since “people are tired of that.”  His crafting of Yes, We Can was, he said, “driven by inspiration and it’s creative and it’s love, it isn’t anything else.”  Here is the music video:

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjXyqcx-mYY]

Again performing Yes, We Can at an Election Night victory, will.i.am then released the album’s third single, It’s a New Day, the video featuring the likes of FergieOlivia WildeKanye WestHarold PerrineauKevin Bacon, and his wife Kyra Sedgwick.
Will.i.am with Barack Obama.

Will.i.am with Barack Obama.

Also invited to perform at the January 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, in honor of that event will.i.am produced the fourth single of the album, America’s Song which included vocals from Bono, Faith Hill, Seal, and Mary J. Blige.

Sheryl Crow, will.i.am, and Herbie Hancock performing at a Lincoln Memorial concert, part of the Obama Inaugural festivities. (Wikipedia)

Sheryl Crow, will.i.am, and Herbie Hancock performing at a Lincoln Memorial concert, part of the Obama Inaugural festivities. (Wikipedia)

Shortly thereafter, when in response to Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards,  the President called West a “jackass,” and will.i.am used it as the title for the last of the album’s five singles, The Jackass Song.

Will.i.am's Change Is Now album, a first in the history of presidential campaign music.

Will.i.am’s Change Is Now album, a first in the history of presidential campaign music.

Ultimately, the five tracks along with numerous others by a range of artists, was released as an entire album.

And while Obama’s 2008 election as the first person with African ancestry to be elected President of the United States made history, so too did the music his candidacy inspired.

Change is Now: Renewing America’s Promise was released on April 28 jointly by Hidden Beach Recordings and the 2009 Inaugural Committee, the first time an entire album of music associated with a presidential campaign and inauguration.
Along with eight of Obama’s speeches, from his candidacy announcement to his election night remarks, it featured a total of twenty-four tracks; in addition to the original five singles produced by will.i.am, it also included God Is In The People by Melissa Etheridge, Change by Lenny Kravitz, Hush by Usher, What Light by Wilco, Shed a Little by James Taylor, and The Star-Spangled Banner by Jennifer Hudson, among numerous other contributions.
Barack Obama takes the oath of office as the first person of African and Euopean ancestry to become President of the United States, January 20, 2009.

Barack Obama takes the oath of office as the first person of African and European ancestry to become President of the United States, January 20, 2009.

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