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The Obamas and the Knowles-Carters: Friends With Benefits

With the news that Beyoncé will perform at Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party, a look at the complex relationship between the First Family and the king and queen of popular music.

Photograph of Obamas via White House Flickr feed; Jay-Z and Beyoncé via Featureflash/Shutterstock.

The New York Post’s Richard Johnson announced the “top-secret” news yesterday that Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party festivities will feature a very special guest performer: Beyoncé. While there’s nothing like having your birthday surprise spoiled by a report in Page Six, it’s unlikely the First Lady didn’t have some inkling that the superstar, a personal friend, might be present: Beyoncé has a history of showing up to sing at important Obama family occasions, from her belting out a cover of Etta James’s “At Last” at the President’s first inaugural ball to her performance of the national anthem at the second inauguration ceremony a year ago. (Also, the singer’s husband, Jay-Z, a.k.a. Shawn Carter, happens to be stopping by the Verizon Center this Thursday on his Magna Carter tour, so the timing is convenient for everyone involved.)

The five-year friendship between the Obamas and the Knowles-Carters is unique. Few other musicians have had such enviable connections with the White House­—Jay-Z has told reporters he texts the President regularly—and Obama was the first mainstream political candidate to declare himself a fan of hip-hop. While Jay-Z’s endorsement of Obama was a valuable one in 2008, energizing young voters and establishing the candidate’s cool factor, it also came with controversy, giving the media a leader who not only acknowledged but celebrated his close family friendship with a hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur whose history includes selling crack as a teenager and stabbing a record executive at an industry party in 1999.

While Michelle Obama’s attachment to Beyoncé is less divisive, it doesn’t dodge scrutiny, either: The First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign targeting childhood obesity doesn’t gel well with Beyoncé’s sponsorship deal with Pepsi, and while the Obamas have made community service and charitable giving a cornerstone of their presence in the White House, the Knowles-Carters have been criticized for limited involvement in that sphere. High-profile celebrities such as Jay-Z and Beyoncé have “turned their back on social responsibility,” said singer and activist Harry Belafonte in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter in 2012.

Jay-Z, by way of response, said the comments “offended” him, and in a reply that ignited critics, told journalist Elliott Wilson, “This is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity.” Reports noted that Jay-Z donated just $6,431 to his Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund in 2010, and that his wife, who earned $87 million that year, donated nothing. During the same year, the Obamas donated 14 percent of their taxable income to charity.

The Knowles-Carters’ generosity may be up for debate, but their support for Obama both as candidate and as President has been solid. Jay-Z raps about the first phone call he received from the presidential contender in the 2009 song “What We Talkin’ About,” saying of Obama, “I told him I got him when he hit me on the jack.”

“Obama’s nurtured a relationship with Jay-Z over the years,” says Michael Eric Dyson, who teaches a class about Jay-Z as professor of sociology at Georgetown University. “Having appreciated some of his music, he got Jay-Z to support him in the first presidential campaign even though Jay-Z had met and been friendly with the Clintons. That jump-started their relationship, and they’ve been friendly ever since.” The pair first met in 2008, after which Jay-Z performed at rallies in support of Obama and campaigned in voter drives. In 2012, he and his wife raised $4 million for Obama’s reelection campaign by hosting a $40,000-per-plate fundraiser. While Jay-Z praised Obama in his lyrics and in interviews, Obama was equally magnanimous, recording a video for a Jay-Z concert in Philadelphia that praised the musician’s success as being emblematic of “the promise of this country.”

Cynicism aside, the relationship between the two high-flying couples makes sense. “If you look at both, the relationship between the men and the women is far more balanced and productive than in some similar relationships,” says Dyson. “All four of them are famous, and yet the men in those relationships acknowledge that they’re married to extraordinarily famous and powerful women. Jay-Z is married to the greatest performer in the world, and he and Beyoncé feed off each other’s energy, as do Michelle and Barack Obama. Although Obama’s the President, he acknowledges the central place of his wife in his life, and she’s extraordinarily accomplished herself: undergrad at Princeton, law school at Harvard. These couples embody the best and the most productive features of the black family, with the professional, highly educated Obamas on one side and the enormous success in the entertainment world [of the Knowles-Carters] on the other.”

The relationship between Beyoncé and Michelle Obama has been openly affectionate over the years. Mrs. Obama has twice taken her daughters to see Beyoncé perform in concert and both she and her husband have praised the singer as a role model. In an interview with People magazine, the First Lady even said she’d choose to be Beyoncé over anyone else in the world. In April 2012 Beyoncé published a handwritten letter to Michelle Obama on her website in which she described her as “the ultimate example of a truly strong African-American woman. She is a caring mother, she’s a loving wife, while at the same time, she is the FIRST LADY!!!!” And shortly before she appeared at the President’s second inauguration, Beyoncé published a poem dedicated to Michelle Obama on her birthday. “Happy Birthday to a beautiful soul. Happy birthday to a leader. Happy birthday to a ray of light. Happy birthday to an inspiration,” read the note.

As friends do, the couples have had their ups and downs, notably Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba in 2013, which press secretary Jay Carney was forced to deny the President knew about in advance after a song released by Jay-Z boasted about White House clearance. In “Open Letter,” Jay-Z raps, “Obama said, chill, you gonna get me impeached. We don’t need this **** anyway, chill with me on the beach.” Obama joked about the controversy at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, saying, “I got 99 problems and now Jay-Z is one,” and later told Savannah Guthrie that the White House had “better things to do” than get involved with the Knowles-Carters’ vacation plans.

Ultimately, it would be naive to assume the relationship isn’t political: The President is too savvy an operator to nurture an association with people that would hurt him. Touting his street cred by reeling off a list of his favorite rap songs may have burnished his identity as an anti-establishment candidate, but as President (and as very the embodiment of the establishment), his relationship with the king and queen of popular music helps keep him relevant with younger voters. And for Jay-Z, who long ago traded outsider status for enormous personal wealth, having the most powerful man in the world a text away is the ultimate commodity. “They’re trading on each other’s credibility and cultural/political relevance,” wrote Gene Demby in a post for NPR last year.

“It’s a neat little symbiotic relationship: Personally, there’s real warmth, but obviously there’s a payoff,” says Dyson.”There’s no secret about the utility of the relationship, but beyond that there seems to have blossomed a genuine affection for each other.”