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Back Tracks: Obama’s music taste doubles as lessons

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President Obama, who will be leaving office on Jan. 20, was open open about his love of music during his his presidency. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

Back Tracks is a weekly music column that studies the past, revisiting tunes that might be old but still resonate today.

Politics can cause a lot of animosity and divisiveness, so one thing I admired about President Barack Obama’s administration was its ways of incorporating music into the White House — music that harbored tenacity and togetherness.

A revolving door of artists, from B.B. King to Kendrick Lamar, performed at the White House,  reflecting decades of influence on the musical landscape of our country. Obama even went as far as sharing Spotify playlists highlighting the triumph of his inauguration and odes to summer days and nights.  

Looking back, there were valuable lessons embedded in the songs shared by and in honor of Obama during his tenure. Below are three selections with lyrics that can continue to inspire hope in our country even with his eight years ending on Friday.

“Lean on Me” by Bill Withers (1972)

Before Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Mary J. Blige moved over a million in attendance at a pre-inauguration event with her rendition of Bill Withers’ chart-topping “Lean on Me.” Since so many musicians have taken their shot at “Lean on Me,” it is not surprising that it is one of only nine songs to top the Billboard Hot 100 by two different artists, having also hit the top with the drum-machine heavy Club Nouveau cut from 1986 .

With a chord progression that requires only one hand to be mastered on the piano, Withers’ version is simple and bare, yet has touched souls time and time again. On top of that, his words have echoed for nearly half a century in times requiring unity and companionship.

Especially now, with people from so many different walks of life going through a variety of problems — “we all have pain, we all have sorrow” — we can call on Withers to remind us that our pain and sorrow are conquered when they are shared.

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong”

“Ready or Not” by Fugees (1996)

When Obama was running for president in 2008, he and his opponent John McCain were asked to rank their top-10 tracks. While McCain’s list boasted two ABBA songs in his top three, Obama picked this hit from hip-hop act Fugees as his favorite.

The trio of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel has produced deeper material, but the Enya-sampled “Ready or Not” has a soothing feel that is easy on the ears. Hill’s voice is like therapy, eliciting feelings of inner peace whenever she embraces the microphone.

It has been said in ad nauseam during times of conflict that hate cannot cancel out hate. Jean reiterates these wise words on his records, which should be followed if peace and love are the goal.

“No fighting”

“Keep Marchin’” by Raphael Saadiq (2008)

Throughout his presidency, Obama has tried to connect with young adults. One of his most successful ways of doing so was curating playlists on Spotify. His mixes are a window into the music he consumed as a college student, helping him to appear more personable and even land a job offer with the music streaming company.

“Keep Marchin,’” one of the more modern songs that appeared on his 2012 campaign playlist, musically and lyrically captures the spirit of 1960s soul. Raphael Saadiq, a gem in the R&B world, channels the passion of other Obama favorites such as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson.

What Gaye, Robinson and Saadiq have in common is their ability to inspire during tough times. For his take, Saadiq drives home the point that despite the challenges of oppressors, giving up is the only way they can win.

“Keep marchin’ on”

Music can be a great healer if we let it. Let it be there for comfort and inspiration whenever the world presents itself as a confusing place.

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