“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
These are quotes from presidential speeches that live in history books and are immortalized in precious, ancient videos. You know the words, and perhaps you even display one of the quotes on your wall. We’ve all found inspiration in the oration of previous leaders, and musicians are no different.
From J. Cole and Coldplay to Muse and Mobb Deep, artists have taken these iconic speeches and sampled them in their work, immortalizing the politicians’ quotes and using them to strengthen their own voice. Some use presidential speeches to make a political statement; others use them in a more civilian manner.
Below, we dive into 11 songs that mix famous speeches into music:
J. Cole, “No Role Modelz”
Samples George W. Bush, 2002: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” (2:43)
For one of his most famous 2014 Forest Hills Drive tracks, J. Cole used a flubbed 2002 speech that George W. Bush gave to a high school in Nashville. If Twitter had existed in 2002, Bush’s tongue-twisted mix-up would’ve gone viral. So 12 years later, Cole resurfaced the fumbled speech in 2014’s “No Role Modelz.” Bush’s quote gives the track a comedic effect, but its main purpose is to reinforce the theme of the song: that J. Cole won’t be fooled twice by gold-digging Hollywood types who pursue him for his money.
Samples Barack Obama, 2015: “Now am found/ Was blind but now I see.”
In the middle of Coldplay‘s 2015 album A Head Full of Dreams, you’ll find an especially moving moment in the song “Kaleidoscope.” First, there’s the voice of Coleman Barks reading a poem by Rumi. The poem, soundtracked by the tranquil atmospheric backing of Coldplay, explains how humans should be prepared for challenges and how they should persevere through change. Then, you hear a group singing “Amazing Grace,” led by President Barack Obama. The clip was taken from Obama’s eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a former state senator and activist who was killed in the South Carolina church terrorist shooting in 2015. Obama’s singing was one of the most touching moments of his presidency, and Coldplay’s members surely wanted to memorialize it in their work, celebrating how humanity can pull through and comfort each other in times of deep tragedy.
?Megadeth, “Foreclosure of a Dream”
Samples George H.W. Bush, 1988: “Read my lips…”
Megadeth’s sample of George H.W. Bush’s iconic “Read my lips” speech is short, but it’s present enough to make its point. The band’s 1992 track “Foreclosure of a Dream” is all about the government’s role in destroying the American dream. Particularly, during this time in the early ’90s, the government had halted grain delivery to Russia, causing a surplus for farmers in the U.S., therefore making their value go down. By using Bush’s “Read my lips” line, repeated a few times, the metal band expressed how the words of a politician can directly affect the lives of their constituents.
Lil Wayne, “President Carter”
Samples Jimmy Carter’s swearing-in ceremony, 1977:
“Carter, are you prepared to take the constitutional oath?”
“Will you place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right hand and repeat after me: I, President Carter”
Lil Wayne used the Jimmy Carter’s 1977 Oath of Office audio for no meaning other than the literal one: Lil Wayne is also President Carter. His last name is Carter, and he’s the president of Young Money. The speech is an ode to his success and his role as a respected label head. And he pays homage to his high seat while also detonating metaphors involving government, war and politicians.
Mobb Deep, “Black Cocaine”
Samples Richard Nixon, 1971: “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse.”
Mobb Deep rose up as “The Infamous” with their gritty street rhymes, and after Prodigy was released from prison for gun possession, that didn’t change. “Black Cocaine,” from the 2011 EP of the same name, had Prodigy and Havoc getting real about their drug-laced come-up: “Keep a ledger in the Macbook/ The crystal ball to us was watchin’ the crack cook.” Using Nixon’s war against drugs speech from 1971 was a nod to how drugs made them successful and therefore, made them an enemy to the state.
Gang Starr, “Above the Clouds”
Samples John F. Kennedy: “The moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there, and therefore as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds” was all about the greatness that lies on Earth, in man and what’s lingering in the cosmos. “Infinite skills create miracles/ Warrior spiritual, above the clouds/ Raining down, holding it down,” Guru rhymed on the 1998 track. Gang Starr used JFK’s famous Rice University speech, which challenged the American space program to reach the moon before Russia. The American ego represented in Kennedy’s speech was mirrored in the raps of Inspectah Deck and Guru, who flaunted their own ego and godliness.
Jay Electronica, “The Announcement”
Samples John F. Kennedy, 1962: “Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind. And its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Put simply, Jay Electronica was all about greatness on “The Announcement.” This song was first rapped at a special ceremony in 2011 when Jay-E was signed by JAY-Z to Roc Nation. Like the Kennedy speech that he sampled, Electronica wanted to make a statement with each bar, declaring his lyrical prowess over his inadequate enemies — just like JFK wanted to lift America’s space missions over those of Russia.
J. Cole, “Miss America”
Samples John F. Kennedy, 1961: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
J. Cole inserted John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address into the beginning of Miss America, using “ask what you can do for your country” as the thesis for the rest of his song. The Fayetteville rapper went on to tell the story of materialism and exploitation of America — how old ladies will donate to churches only for the pastor to drive a Lamborghini; how gangster rappers will rap about drugs only to star in family comedies later in life. Cole rapped about a hypocritical society only interested in money and fame. And perhaps, his use of JFK was ironic. Why would you want to provide for your country and get nothing in return? According to Genius, the JFK speech was also used in reference to JAY-Z’s “Public Service Announcement,” on which you’ll hear producer Just Blaze address “my fellow Americans.”
Samples John F. Kennedy, 1961: A large chunk of the speech given at the American Newspaper Publishers Association in 1961
Muse created the song “[JFK]” as an intro for “Defector,” a song about everything that’s wrong in society — particularly in American politics. For “[JFK],” Muse used the speech JFK gave to the American Newspaper Publishers Association after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to prove their point. His words urged reporters to make sure “mistakes are buried, not headlined.” He called for a media that worked with government, instead of one that tried to expose government. However, the speech was filled with hypocrisy — calling for censorship while also dissenting Russia’s sneaky and censored tactics. Surely, in their 2015 album, Drones, Muse hoped to point out how that hypocrisy still exists in the U.S. government.
Oingo Boingo, “Nothing to Fear (But Fear Itself)”
Samples Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933: “…fear itself”
FDR’s famous speech — and even more famous line — found its way into an Oingo Boingo song from the band’s 1982 album, Nothing to Fear. While the actual audio of the speech wasn’t played, you can hear frontman Danny Elfman paraphrasing, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself” over and over again on the chorus, referencing FDR by saying, “Remember what the wise man once said.” The track was all about fear mongering. Oingo Boingo hoped to make the point that we can’t live in true freedom if we’re constantly afraid of terror attacks, stranger danger and drugs. They used FDR’s words with no irony or conflict — unlike the other examples on this list.
B.o.B’s “Mission Statement”
Samples Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing that we have to fear is… fear itself”
At the very beginning of his No Genre Pt. 2 mixtape, B.o.B laid down his “Mission Statement.” In the introductory track, he kicked things off with the hallowed words of FDR: “The only thing that we have to fear is… fear itself.” Roosevelt delivered the line at his first inauguration, making it his own mission statement. For the rest of the song, B.o.B sort of abandoned FDR’s philosophy and went for his own, which declared that his music won’t be shoved in a box. “Fuck a hater, fuck a genre,” he rapped.