Antonio Delgado, a black 41-year-old lawyer, is running against incumbent Republican Rep. John Faso in the highly competitive congressional race for New York’s 19th Congressional District. But for the past few months, the contest has been consumed by a debate over Delgado’s former career as a socially conscious rapper named “AD the Voice,” with Faso and conservative groups arguing that the Democrat’s old music makes him unfit to represent the district.
In a new ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee, lyrics from Delgado’s rap career are juxtaposed against clips from his recent campaign ads. A line in which Delgado says that he is “fighting for what’s fair and just” is followed by an old AD the Voice lyric, “gotcha sweatin’ this like ya having sex to a porno flick.” Another line where the candidate says “we owe it to our country to restore the American Dream” is followed by a clip of AD the Voice saying “criticize — it’s what a patriot does” and “God Bless Iraq.”
The ad is the latest effort to frame Delgado’s rap career as an issue that should keep him from winning the upcoming congressional race.
“Mr. Delgado’s lyrics are offensive,” Faso told the New York Times in July, pointing to reports that highlight lyrics where Delgado used terms like “ni**a” and referred to America’s founders as “dead presidents” who “believe in white supremacy.”
Delgado, who would be the first nonwhite representative of the 19th District if elected, has countered that his past lyrics are being taken out of context in an attempt to “otherize” him from voters in the district, which is one of the whitest in the country, according to the Times.
As the debate continues, the conversation is showing the complexities of race and identity in political contests, particularly in those where the candidate for a majority-white district is a person of color. The criticism largely hinges on perceptions and stereotypes of rap music, particularly those that define rap music and black culture as not being representative of mainstream America. And for a black prospective Congress member for a majority-white district, the focus on his rap lyrics puts his “otherness” in stark contrast with the lives and experiences of local voters.
Delgado’s critics argue that his old lyrics are “anti-American”
In 2006, Delgado released his first and only album, called Painfully Free. The album offered social commentary on topics including the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, and capitalism. Delgado, a Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law grad, would later leave music for a legal career.
The candidate, who beat several other Democrats in the district’s June primary, began facing strong criticism for his recorded music in July. A piece in the New York Post said that Delgado “spewed politically provocative and racially charged lyrics a decade ago,” before detailing lines from his first album.
Faso quickly seized upon the news. “Mr. Delgado’s lyrics paint an ugly and false picture of America,” he said in a statement.
The criticism of Delgado’s music as “anti-American” has also spread to other conservative groups. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that aims to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives, aired a radio ad calling the music a “sonic blast of hateful rhetoric and anti-American views.”
Since then, other ads have highlighted Delgado’s former career. In August, the Congressional Leadership Fund released a spot referring to Delgado as a “New York City liberal” and “Pelosi’s candidate” before segueing into a review of his old song lyrics. That review pointed to Delgado’s use of profanity and claimed that he performed “offensive and sexist lyrics.”
Much like the July radio advertisement, the ad again paid special attention to lyrics in which he mentioned “dead presidents” and said “God bless Iraq.” The ad claimed that the remarks were “extremist attacks on American values” before showing footage of a burning World Trade Center.
“Antonio Delgado can’t be our voice in Congress,” the ad concludes.
“Is a guy who makes a rap album the kind of guy who lives here in rural New York and reflects our lifestyle and values?” Gerald Benjamin, a friend of Faso’s and director of the Benjamin Center at State University of New York at New Paltz, asked the Times in July.
“People like us, people in rural New York, we are not people who respond to this part of American culture,” he added.
Delgado argues that his music simply spoke to pressing social issues, which he would also call attention to in Congress. “It was different contexts, different tactics, but same desires and same outcomes,” he told the Times. “Issues like income inequality, issues like gender equality, issues like the pollution of our environment and climate change — these are all issues that I talked about back then as an artist that I’m now talking about.”
Some groups called Faso out for focusing on the lyrics. In July, more than a dozen clergy members sent a letter to Faso, calling the politician’s comments “a thinly veiled, racist attack for the purpose of insinuating fear in the voters in our district.”
Faso—and his supporters—are using coded language to criticize Delgado
Faso and his supporters say their critiques of Delgado are focused squarely on his lyrical content, particularly his critiques of American politics. But the comments also fit into an extensive history of conservative politicians attacking rap and hip-hop, often blaming the music for the struggles of black people.
Conservatives criticizing rap isn’t anything new, but as with so many other racial matters, it has attracted more attention in the era of Donald Trump. Earlier this year, Trump criticized Jay-Z for using “filthy” language at a concert for Hillary Clinton, arguing that the rapper’s lyrics “made me look like the most clean-cut human being on Earth.” Just months before, the rapper had criticized Trump for racist comments about black countries.
While some of these critiques are plainly stated, others tend to rely on language that subtly refers to nonwhite identities. As my colleague German Lopez has noted, these subtleties — often referred to as coded language — are “used against a group or idea that threatens traditional power structures.” Coded language has long been wielded against African-Americans to cast them as deviant and different from whites, serving as an alternative for more direct language that would immediately be considered offensive.
“Current racial code operates by appealing to deep-seated stereotypes of groups that are perceived as threatening,” Ian Haney-López, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, told Vox in 2016. He added that because coded language does not rely on direct references to race, “It allows people to say, ‘Hey, I’m just criticizing the behavior, not criticizing a racially defined group.’”
Haney-Lopez notes that coded language, which has been used to criticize everything from immigrants to Black Lives Matter in recent years, is heavily used by politicians. “Almost every conversation on the right has as a subtext an indication of race,” he said.
Take, for example, Benjamin, the New York political science professor quoted in the Times piece, who asks if a “guy who makes a rap album” is someone who “reflects our lifestyle and values.” With Census figures noting that New York’s 19th Congressional District is nearly 90 percent white, comments about “our lifestyle and values” can be seen as a coded comment positioning Delgado’s race against that of the district he would represent.
It is unclear exactly what the dustup about Delgado’s music will mean for the contest. The district went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but broke for Donald Trump in 2016, and the race has been rated a toss-up by political analysts.
A new poll from Monmouth University released the same day as the NRCC ad suggests that the contest remains close, with Delgado leading Faso by 2 points among potential voters, and by 3 points among likely voters. The model suggests that a surge of Democrats voting in November could widen that gap to as much as 6 points.
That could be enough of a lead to make Faso’s camp worry that the “lifestyle and values” his district supposedly upholds, may not, in fact, be shared by everyone. “Faso has been trying to paint Delgado as a carpetbagger with a dubious past in rap music,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement. “It’s not clear that those attacks have taken hold, at least not enough to give the Republican an advantage.”