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In a recent rally in the Bronx, Donald Trump invited two rappers, Michael Williams (Sheff G) and Tegan Chambers (Sleepy Hallow), to the stage. Both rappers are facing felony charges, but their appearance at the rally aligns with Trump’s history of transactional relationships with hip-hop artists. The rapper Lil Wayne met with Trump before the 2020 election and praised his Black economic empowerment proposal, the Platinum Plan. In what appeared to be a quid pro quo, Trump later pardoned Wayne as he was leaving office.

Trump’s relationship with hip-hop has been complex. Rappers have often referenced Trump in their lyrics, drawn to his ostentatious displays of wealth and a hustler persona. In the past, his unrestrained sexism may have appealed to the misogynistic cohort within hip-hop. However, Trump’s racist rhetoric, particularly during his amplification of birther conspiracy theories against Barack Obama, alienated him from much of the hip-hop community. Despite this, Trump found a way to curry favor with a few big names, including hip-hop artists, through the apparent dangling of presidential pardons.

Kanye West famously visited Trump in the Oval Office and advocated for clemency for Chicago gang kingpin Larry Hoover. While Trump didn’t grant Hoover clemency, he did commute the sentence of Death Row Records co-founder Michael Harris, thanks to encouragement from Snoop Dogg. The rapper Kodak Black joked that his own commutation from Trump was akin to a mob boss granting favors. Trump’s use of the pardon power creates a perception of capricious acts of forgiveness traded for loyalty, reinforcing a belief in an inherent connection between Blackness and criminality.

Despite Trump’s history of racist remarks and actions, some rappers have allowed themselves to be used as pawns by him. Corey Miles, a sociologist studying the relationship of trap music to the carceral state, notes that Trump is double-dipping by calling for tough criminal justice policies while later criticizing the same system and offering pardons. The testimonials that Trump buys with his pardons hold weight in the culture, influencing some to view support for Trump as an act of rebellion rather than treachery. The pardons create unwritten indentureship, reinforcing a sense of loyalty to Trump in exchange for forgiveness.

Trump’s approach to granting pardons and commutations reduces the concept of justice to acts of forgiveness traded for loyalty. He feeds a narrative that he is a strong man dispensing favors to those who align with him. While some rappers have been willing to align with Trump for personal gain, his actions perpetuate harmful stereotypes and beliefs about Black individuals and criminality. The use of the pardon power as a tool for transactional relationships highlights the insidious nature of Trump’s manipulation of the justice system for his own benefit.

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