Released a year before 9/11, Outkast’s hit single Stankonia “B.O.B.” was cultural commentary misinterpreted as outright patriotism.
In 2018, Istanbul-based conflict and human rights journalist Shawn Carrié headed to Baghdad to report on the city’s post-war reconstruction. As he’s done throughout his career in the Middle East, he stuck with the same cab driver for his entire reporting trip.
“As a journalist, I always befriend taxi drivers because we need help navigating the city,” Carrié said.
Inevitably, that means exchanging music recommendations. And, for Carrié, that meant playing some Outkast. Growing up in Jamaica, Queens, Carrié remembers heading to Manhattan’s since-closed Virgin Megastore to preview Stankonia in 2000. Besides, one single in particular seemed fitting.
“I have to play this song for you. It’s called ‘Bombs Over Baghdad,’” Carrié recalled telling the cab driver. “It’s not a song about that at all, it’s just called that.”
Fortunately, the driver didn’t take offense, now that ombing has ceased and ISIS is gone. “It’s a sign that things are OK — we can relax now. We’re not at war anymore, “Carrié said. “Being able to chill with somebody and play music really loud in a car is a party in and of itself.”
In every sense, “B.O.B.,” the first single from Outkast’s third album, Stankonia, conveyed how the Atlanta duo’s worldview was expanding. Its “power music, electric revival” was inspired by drum-and-bass pioneers like Photek and Roni Size, and American music revolutionaries like Jimi Hendrix. Amid the flurry of activity, its lyrics predicted the age of the cable news ticker and Twitter. And the hook, sung by the Morris Brown Gospel Choir, was literally ripped from headlines. In the decade prior, when reporters nationwide referred to “bombs over Baghdad,” they recalled how, on January 17, 1991, the United States and its Gulf War allies air raided Iraq at the start of Operation Desert Storm. (TIME named CNN founder Ted Turner its “Man of the Year,” in part for how his network broadcast the bombing from a city rooftop, making viewers “instant witnesses” of history.)
By 1999, Outkast was touring London when André, soon to become André 3000, overheard a newscast. This observation then became some inside joke: “Every time there was a problem in the house, girl was trippin’ or whatever, we’d be like, ‘Bombs over Baghdad’ — like trouble,” Big Boi said. Once “B.O.B.” hit the airwaves, Outkast’s missive was solely aimed at mainstream rap. Yet, because the bombing had yet to cease, “B.O.B.” is to Outkast what “Born in the USA” is to Bruce Springsteen — cultural commentary mistaken as outright patriotism.
Outkast’s music was famously misinterpreted once before, when Rosa Parks’ estate sued for defamation and trademark infringement for their 1998 Aquemini single. But the group insisted that the intent for “Rosa Parks” was “enlightenment,” in Big Boi’s words. Dr. Regina N. Bradley, Kennesaw State University professor and author of the forthcoming Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South, points out that Parks’ name isn’t mentioned anywhere in the lyrics.
“It’s a subversion of these prominent tropes, of how folks recognize, think through and synthesize the significance of the Civil Rights Movement,” she said.
But “B.O.B.” arrived during Outkast’s biggest audience yet, after opening for Lauryn Hill during a U.S. tour following The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which could explain all the ways listeners interpreted the song. An early cosign came from Zack de la Rocha, formerly of the leftist Rage Against the Machine, whose unauthorized remix got rock radio play. (This version will finally be released officially this month, as part of Stankonia’s 20th-anniversary reissue.) Yet a year later, as Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia) ordered over 1,100 stations to purge Rage’s catalog, “B.O.B.” gained new meaning when the Twin Towers fell.
“Even if Stankonia is Outkast working through the social and cultural anxiety of Y2K, its aftermath is grounded in 9/11 and what that meant for military recruitment — what that means for people’s twisted ideas of what patriotism is and what it’s not,” Dr. Bradley said.
As cable news introduced the news ticker, Outkast’s reportage could no longer be read as neutral. In the immediate aftermath, author and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda fantasized of “blast[ing] these sounds out my Inwood window to drown out the sounds of jet planes riding very low and loudly over my building.” Two years later, after President George W. Bush announced Operation Iraqi Freedom, tennis pro Jennfier Capriati requested to play “B.O.B.” during her warm-up, saying, “I like the song, and I want to support the troops.”
As for those troops, “B.O.B.” became a personal anthem, to where radio stations fielded requests to play the song and CNN coverage of attacks reportedly used the instrumental as a music bed. The Stankonia single rang at the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina. Before they departed, soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, lined up and saluted their families to the song’s beat. Aboard the USS Shiloh, as American soldiers launched some of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s first airstrikes on Baghdad, the public address system blared “B.O.B” and Guns ‘N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Big Boi, whose father served in the Air Force and Marines, didn’t hold “B.O.B.”’s resurgence against the troops.
“You have guys over there with families here, and you have to support the troops and pray for them. So if the song helps them keep their spirits up, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. But Outkast joined the ranks of millions worldwide when the group publicly opposed the Iraq War. On 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Big Boi’s “War” more pointedly admonished the Bush administration: “When will we all wake up out this dream / Come here and smell the Folgers, the soldiers are human beings / Man acting as if he were the supreme being / clockin’ the souls of men out like he was G-O-D.”
Still, the damage was already done. Aside from John McCain and, surprisingly, Joe Biden, US presidential candidates are well past the days where they commissioned official campaign songs. They’ve become well accustomed to adopting (or, in the case of Republicans, co-opting) songs for their rallies, to invite new subtext. For decades, artists have fought back against their music being used without permission, to suggest an endorsement of any kind. Last July, Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Elton John, Sia, and Lorde signed an open letter addressing campaign committees, demanding that they seek “consent from featured recording artists and songwriters before using their music in campaign and political settings.”
Case in point: Twenty years after Ronald Reagan name-checked Bruce Springsteen during his reelection campaign, sisters Barbara and Jenna Bush introduced their father at the 2004 Republican National Convention by swearing that their parents can actually be cool.
“When we tell them we’re going to see Outkast, they know it’s a band and not a bunch of misfits,” Jenna said. “And if we really beg them, they’ll even shake it like a Polaroid picture.”
This is yet another example of “records are often auditory Rorschach tests; we hear what we want to hear,” as Springsteen wrote in his 2016 memoir Born to Run. But artists can’t always predict what audiences will want to hear, nor should that be the goal.
“Did Outkast think about being misinterpreted or did they just make a piece of music and put it out?” Yasamin, a pop-rock singer from Auckland, New Zealand, asked. “B.O.B.,” which she first heard 17 years ago, inspired the name behind her forthcoming sophomore album — Songs Over Baghdad.
As a self-proclaimed “artivist,” Yasamin realizes her new songs complicate the overly simplistic Hollywood depictions of international conflict. As the daughter of Iraqi immigrants, Yasamin thought, “No one’s going to tell the Arab story, my story, if I don’t do it. If I don’t, it means the Arab story will be told through Hollywood movies where Arabs are terrorists.” (See also: DC Universe’s action shooter Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. The trailer prominently features “B.O.B.,” while the bloodshed is more neon than the music video’s rolling purple fields.)
Yasamin’s single goal with Songs Over Baghdad is to “not create more division than what is already in the world.” But she recognizes that once her music is out, it’s available to the masses — and open for interpretation. That subjective interpretation also extends itself to Yasamin and “B.O.B.,” with the artist now interpreting aspects of the song — particularly its drum machine breakdown — “as if it’s like bombs dropping.” In her mind, those plummeting sounds reinforce not just lingering stereotypes, but painful memories of the American invasion.
“I actually think Americans and Iraqis have so much in common,” Yasamin said. “We both have governments that don’t represent us. We both care about our people, and we actually care about the world. Both countries have been villainized because of the bad governance we had, and then we were turned against each other in war. We lost people from both sides while these politicians weren’t affected. … I’m sure there’s lots of American mothers that lost their sons in that war.”
“What I mean is that — I feel like we’re the same people,” she added.
Twenty years after its release, “B.O.B.” may be an imperfect way to spark that conversation. But it’s a conversation starter nonetheless.
Christina Lee is an Atlanta-based music and culture journalist. Her writing can be found at Atlanta magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Billboard, The Guardian, NPR Music, Pitchfork and more. She co-hosts the podcasts Bottom of the Map, Racket – Inside the Gold Club and Sum’n to Say.