Her name is Karen Islas, and she is the first person in a long line that snakes around the block. She's in her early 20s, lives in San Francisco, and is clutching a ticket to get inside the Warfield Theater. Unfazed by the wait, she talks in excited tones as a bomb squad truck drives slowly down Market Street. “We got here around 5:30 this morning,” she tells me.
There's no name on the marquee above us, but there doesn't need to be. Everyone knows that President Obama is due to speak. What's more, he's a “special guest” of a conspicuously strange bedfellow: the popular hip-hop artist Kanye West. Tickets to the fundraiser for the Democratic Hope Fund have set attendees back anywhere from $250 to $10,000, with a special $100 rate for students.
At a table on the sidewalk, friendly volunteers distribute will-call tickets next to a host of not-so-friendly Secret Service agents. Attendees arrive asking questions about bags, cameras, and seating, dressed in attire ranging from T-shirts and cutoffs to formal dresses and three-piece suits. A nearby news anchor reapplies face powder while telling her cameraman to avoid getting the Crazy Horse strip club in the shot.
I walk to the end of the line on Turk St., noting the overwhelmingly millennial crowd. I think of a text last night from my baby-boomer dad, joking that “I'd probably pay $250 to see Obama. But I might also pay another $250 to NOT see Kanye.”
When I'd told friends I was seeing Obama and Kanye together, the consistent reaction was disbelief. Obama may be our first hip-hop president, but he's also the president who once called Kanye a “jackass." The two may both hail from Chicago's South Side, but Obama definitely found his stride decades ago, while Kanye's magnetism owes, at least partially, to the unpredictability of his every step.
But let's face it, this pairing is weird because of a basic reality: that the typical left-leaning, well-off, Prius-driving Obama-bumper-sticker Democrat, the type usually courted by political fundraisers, despises Kanye West. And they're not here. The Democratic National Committee apparently banked on the hope that Kanye would attract younger voters to the event, and from the average age of the crowd, it's worked.
I take my place in line and wonder how many other cities have a millennial population both willing and able to shell out $250 for an Obama-Kanye lineup. I get to talking to the girl in front of me in line, a Kanye fan, and it turns out she just moved to Cupertino one month ago to take a high-paying job at Apple. Bingo.
After a bag check and metal detectors and pat-down, we're in. The floor is reserved for the big donors ($5,000 for a photo with Obama; $10,000 for a reception), but the general-admission balcony fills up quickly. At one point, Stephen Curry walks in and the place goes bananas.
Mostly, we wait.
We talk amongst ourselves, strangers getting to know each other over the next two hours. I talk with a young woman from Atlanta, here on an exchange program at Stanford for the semester, about the rappers Future and Young Thug. I talk with a Vallejo native about his challenges in teaching math and science at a community college. I talk with an Apple employee about The Circle, and about the similarities between Dave Eggers' novel and her daily life. We all talk about Obama.
Onstage, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf introduces your NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors, and Stephen Curry has to talk loudly to overpower the cheers from the crowd. But that's nothing compared to the uproar that comes next.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” intones the voice over the loudspeaker, “the President of the United States.”
I will now tell you something you already know: Obama is a stellar public speaker. After the audience mayhem subsides, he cruises right into teasing Kanye for his maybe-serious / probably-not-serious presidential bid, which he announced at the MTV Video Music Awards Awards while stoned.
Obama throws in a subtle dig at the Kardashians by warning Kanye that the presidency means “you've got to spend a lot of time dealing with some strange characters who behave like they're on a reality TV show.” He advises Kanye against airing his beautiful dark twisted fantasies, quipping that "there are a lot of people who have lost their congressional seats saying things like that.”
Obama's third suggestion brings the house down: “Do you really think,” the president asks Kanye, “that this country is going to elect a black guy from the South Side of Chicago with a funny name to be president of the United States?”
Experiencing important events in the modern world has become strange. We all feel pressure now to not simply experience them, but to document them. I film Obama for a while, and take some bad photos, until I remember that he is already the most documented man in the country. I put my phone away, and listen.
Obama talks about specific issues like marriage equality and climate change. Nine days after the Roseburg, Ore. shooting, he reiterates the need for stricter gun-control laws, garnering sustained applause. But it's when he veers into broader messages about the democratic process that he really hypnotizes the crowd, ruminating on a responsibility all Americans share to make the country better; to expect the best of our fellow man; to participate, instead of resign oneself to disillusionment.
Someone yells from the nosebleeds: “FOUR MORE YEARS!”
“Well, that we can’t do because Michelle is not going to let that happen,” Obama jokes, “and the Constitution forbids it. But I will be a citizen again, and I am going to be working alongside you.”
When Obama's finished with his 22-minute speech, the community college teacher from Vallejo tells me that he's constantly feeling that he should do more for his students, and that it gets overwhelming. Obama's comments about gradual change, he tells me, help him remember that he just has to do something to help every day, and over time it'll add up. The long game. Pure Obama.
Kanye opens with “Power,” and the Warfield crowd erupts at his modified lyrics:
They say I was the next one up in Obama's nation
Well that's a pretty good way to start a conversation *
I've seen Kanye West three times, and I've never seen him as restrained and well-mannered as he is in this performance. He's glossing over or dropping some lyrical obscenities, or else letting the crowd sing them; he's not screaming lines; he's not stopping songs halfway through to speak his mind.
In fact, he's not talking between or during songs at all, which, for Kanye, is definitely unusual. During the bridge to “Runaway,” he doesn't even serve up his usual stream-of-consciousness monologue. Reports surfaced before the event that Kanye had been restricted by the feds from giving the President any advice; I can only wonder if they've placed any requirements on the content of Kanye's show itself.
This clean, polite Kanye is oddly fascinating. I think about an MTV interview with Obama from 2008, in which he opined that laws banning hip-hop fashions like sagging pants were a "waste of time," adding, "Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What's wrong with that? Come on.”
Onstage, Kanye starts singing “Only One,” a sweet ballad to his two-year-old daughter.
The jackass has been tamed, I think to myself. Kanye's actually pulling up his pants for Obama.
At the end of his nearly hour-long set, during “Good Life,” Kanye hops off the stage and parades through the crowd, navigating a torrent of selfies. The lights come up. Flush-faced fans file toward the exit.
Was this a success, I wonder? Did the Democratic National Committee reel in the coveted millennial vote?
On the sidewalk outside, I get my answer talking with a college student who flew down from Eugene, Oregon, an hour away from Roseburg. She's a Kanye West fan who doesn't want to give her name, but she says Obama's comments on gun control hit close to home, and his message resonated about each person doing their part. She hasn't yet voted in any election, but tells me she plans to in 2016.