“I’m 39 years old, man. At some point, you have to acknowledge what’s going on in the world and what your place is in it.”
I’m sitting with rapper Pusha T in the Def Jam offices in Manhattan on a gloomy Thursday afternoon in late October. I’d spent the day with him — a day in which Pusha, born Terrence Thornton, was repeatedly adding layers to my narrow interpretation of his reality. In one conversation, talk of rap beefs and internet drama popped up (days before, many interpreted lyrics from a new Drake track as a targeted jab at Pusha), eliciting this answer from Pusha, calm, boastful, and expert: “There isn’t anybody in the music industry real enough to make me move out of my comfort zone.” Minutes later, in the same voice, with the same smile and confidence, he talked about his burgeoning relationship with vice-presidential hopeful and fellow Virginian Tim Kaine: “Tim Kaine is a really cool guy. I don’t know if it comes off as much — like I got to really chop it up [with him] — but I don’t know if the public fully knows that he cares. He super-cares.”
Pusha T has been a relevant rapper for 14 years, one who, for the overwhelming majority of those years, was thought of solely as a rapper. He burst on the scene as one-half of the group Clipse, alongside older brother Gene (then called Malice, now known as No Malice). With the help of peak-Neptunes-era production, their grimy lyrics — heavily influenced by the world of drug dealing — became hyperrealistic street tales for some, and for others the depiction of a life so idyllically unfathomable that its allure hits as fiction or even as fantasy. Clipse released three studio albums between 2002 and 2009, and the first two, Lord Willin’ and Hell Hath No Fury, are considered classics of the era. When Clipse disbanded, Pusha took his act solo, landing on Kanye West’s Good Music label. He quickly made a splash with a memorable verse (and MTV Video Music Awards performance) on West’s “Runaway,” from 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. His critically acclaimed debut solo album, My Name Is My Name, was released in 2013 and saw Pusha progressing as a storyteller, continuing to chronicle the murkier sides of society, becoming with age more of a hood archivist than a braggart, while never wavering from his go-to topics of drugs use as a metaphor for literally everything in life.
This career bio — one largely split between rapping and trapping — doesn’t immediately make you think of someone with strong opinions on candidates, and certainly not someone who has chopped it up with Tim Kaine. But it wasn’t just Kaine that Pusha carries strong political opinions about.
Earlier that morning, I’d met with Pusha at a photo shoot near Union Square. After the photographer had finished taking pictures, he did a very common 2016 thing — he started giving his opinions on the election. Thoughts on Hillary Clinton became thoughts on Donald Trump, which resulted in the photographer’s declaration that he wouldn’t be voting in November.
“No way, man,” Pusha responded to him. “You got to vote.” The photographer went on, telling Pusha that he was surprised rappers like “Kanye or Snoop” weren’t as vocal in the election, further spiraling the conversation into the abyss that is a baby-boomer’s Facebook newsfeed. Needing to say something, Pusha simply responded, “I don’t know, man. But I’m doing it.”
“Doing it” means spending large portions of 2016 stumping for Hillary Clinton. It means making a campaign stop with Tim Kaine in Miami. And it means accepting an invitation to the White House in April to talk with Barack Obama about the criminal-justice system, about mass incarceration, about reentry programs, about mandatory minimum sentences — which resulted in another invite months later to the president’s birthday party.
Whether by laying the foundation in discussions with President Obama to extend programs like My Brother’s Keeper beyond his presidency, or by telling stories on the campaign trail about close friends who have been impacted by the prison system — connecting with people in a way the average Hillary emissary could never hope to — Pusha’s waded into previously unfamiliar territory. And it’s clear he likes it. He seems equally excited and surprised about these new worlds he’s landed in, because these things aren’t supposed to happen to someone like him.
“I’m a young black kid from Virginia Beach, Virginia, three hours away from the White House,” Pusha says, describing the unexpected call he got from the Obama administration in the spring and his first time meeting Barack Obama. “There were field trips in elementary, junior high, high school — I never went. So to be so up close and personal with Obama, and to have the access that I had, it’s like, ‘Damn, man. This is inspiring.’ ”
It is no exaggeration to say that Barack Obama has altered the course of Pusha T’s life over the past year. In the way he speaks about the president, there’s a childlike trust that this elder has his best interests in mind — the way a big brother, a coach, a teacher, a preacher, or even a father can do no wrong in the eyes of an impressionable boy.
“[Barack] was like, ‘Don’t just focus on the presidential candidacy. You need Congress, you need local, you need everything,’ ” Pusha says. “He was like, ‘We really got to dial in on these other platforms.’ So hearing him say that, I was like ‘Oh, okay — bet.’ I’d never really looked at it like that. Or I was fine just leaving it up to others. But he was like, ‘We have to be on the ground level, we got to go out and talk.’ ”
Catching the Obama bug is nothing new; that’s been a reality in the United States of America since 2004. But attaching himself to Hillary? That made many people do a quadruple take. On numerous occasions, both the Trump and Clinton campaigns have been accused of obtusely pandering to minority communities to get votes, so seeing a tweet pop up one day from the official Hillary Clinton Twitter handle that stated, “Enter to win: meet Pusha T. Register to vote and you’re automatically entered to win” seemed like peak pander. (At first glance, I assumed it was a Photoshop.)
To be fair, in what universe is Hillary Clinton truthfully connecting herself with one of rap’s greatest cocaine storytellers? There’s no way she knows how old Pusha’s niece was when he got her a chinchilla. (See the year 2002, the song “What Happened to That Boy,” and the answer, which is 4 years old.) To many, it seemed egregiously out of touch, perhaps the ultimate sign that the Clinton campaign had no shame. And the Clinton campaign wasn’t alone — Pusha had to bear the brunt of some of the flak. “‘How could you support the same person who supported the 1994 crime bill?’ ” Pusha says, outlining a critique that has come his way.
“It was a horrible bill,” says Pusha, sitting in the office of his longtime business partner Steven Victor. “But I try to tell people that it is a very layered bill, meaning there are good parts and bad parts, and to pass some of the good, you had to pass some of the bad. Bill Clinton wouldn’t have gotten elected being soft on crime.” He doesn’t excuse its existence, mainly because he’s a product of the ’80s and early ’90s and he experienced the trauma that plagued black neighborhoods before the bill — and after. “Everything we’re talking about right now has done amazing damage to my time, my era, my whole growing process. Everyone who grew up within that time period, we’re talking about those issues right this second.” He’s very frank about his personal involvement in these issues — very much a drug dealer by 1990, when he was in the seventh grade. That world became his life; he saw it tear up neighborhoods and families, the epidemics of drugs and incarceration. “The length of time that so many of my friends have gotten, nonviolent first-time offenders for drugs, is ridiculous. So I have a super-personal connection to that.”
This ultimately comes back to Hillary. “What made me know that I was going to support Hillary wholeheartedly was that her, Bill, and Bernie spoke out and said, ‘Yo, this is a mistake. We have to fix this, period.’ ” Some still think this is yet another way in which she’s callously luring people in, telling them what they want to hear in the moment. But it’s clear Pusha is learning how to navigate the blurry world between politics and activism. “I can’t dwell into the inner workings of her mind. But the fact that she’s speaking on mass incarceration, I decided I’m going to support her and I’m going to make this my issue that I see through.”
Talking to him, I get the sense that he takes Hillary at her word — that he believes that she wants to undo something from her past and that she can change — because that’s what he wants for himself. He doesn’t hide from his past, but he wants to be judged and taken seriously for his present self. He wants to continue to be himself: rap about what he raps about, dress the way he dresses, live the life he enjoys. He also wants to be able to champion things that matter to him — and to know the people who can make that change happen. “I think myself, my music, my content, makes everyone have to get briefed about me,” Pusha says, laughing. “Politicians never have tried to be next to anything edgy; they’ve always shunned all type of energy that could come back to haunt them. But it’s a new day.”
An hour after our conversation, we take an SUV four blocks north to The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He’s set to be on the show as a regular guest, not to perform a song. This is a lane that few rappers have found themselves in — to be equal parts entertainer and intellectual. I watch backstage as Pusha, dressed in all black, his trademark braids poking out of his cap, is seconds from being introduced.
“My next guest tonight is a recording artist, social activist, and the president of Kanye West’s record label, Good Music. Please welcome Pusha T.”
I’m standing next to his manager, Shivam Pandya, who whispers, “Social activist. That’s new.”