Hip-Hop Diplomacy, Part 1

By: Felicia Miyakawa (Austin, TX) //

Earlier this year, Hisham Aidi published a book (Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, Pantheon) that drew public attention to a new phenomenon: U.S. cultural diplomacy that uses Hip-hop as a “weapon.” Cultural diplomacy is not new, of course. During the Cold War, for example, famed jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Dave Brubeck traveled to various hot spots in Europe and Asia as part of a U.S. State Department agenda to spread American goodwill. More recently, Wynton Marsalis has informally joined the Jazz Ambassadors bandwagon, touring London and Havana with his Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra in 2010. What’s new in cultural diplomacy is the use of Hip-hop music and culture as the weapon of choice.

Whereas jazz diplomacy during the Cold War was about proving to the Soviets that American culture was viable and healthy, Aidi reveals that Hip-hop diplomacy has an entirely different purpose: to prevent the rise of Islamic militants.

Why Islam? “European Muslims,” Aidi explains in Foreign Affairs, “facing economic hardship, the rise of far-right parties, and intrusive counterterrorism policies—increasingly feel under siege in their own countries.” According to Aidi, the U.S. State Department is hoping to reach non-radicalized Muslim immigrants throughout Europe before they become radicalized and incite terrorist acts. (It is worth reminding ourselves that categorizing all Muslim immigrants as potential terrorists is a false reduction. In most cases, Muslim immigrants leave their home states because of sectarian violence and want nothing to do with Islamist militancy, as a recent Pew research study finds.) To simplify a long, complex argument, the State Department has chosen Hip-hop as a tool to reach these Muslim immigrants because of its long record of effective political engagement. Or, as Aidi puts it, “Washington believes that the example of U.S. civil rights movements and race policies, and the history of black freedom struggles in the United States more broadly, can offer a vocabulary to make sense of their own grievances and the motivation to address those grievances through politics.” It doesn’t hurt that rap is also one of the most popular forms of music throughout the world.

Aidi goes on to explain that one key to the State Department’s approach has been to focus on particular aspects of rap music and Hip-hop culture: all of a sudden, official policy is to endorse Islamic rap (that is, rap music that embraces and celebrates aspects of Islam). Aidi cites cables that came to light on WikiLeaks in 2010 that reveal the motivations of the U.S. Embassy in France. Convinced that the French government would not proffer a good solution to the race issues behind the suburban unrest feeding into Islamist radicalization, U.S. embassy officials suggested “engaging directly with the French public, and French Muslims in particular, through exchange programs, festivals, conferences, and media appearances to show that the United States respects Islam and ‘is engaged for good in the Arab-Muslim world.’ ” This particular focus has backfired on at least one occasion, as Aidi reports. A French group called K.Ommando Toxik was invited to perform at the house of the U.S. Ambassador to France. Their subject matter—police brutality—did not win the sympathy of either French or U.S. government officials. Using local artists (in this case, French rappers for initiatives in French suburbs) risks opening up possibilities for those local acts to critique the local government. Though such governmental critique is certainly typical of Hip-hop culture, it is probably not the best diplomatic course.

K.Ommando Toxik, “Ils savent pas (qui nous sommes)” from 2007, drew attention to the suburban rebellion that grew out of several instances of alleged police brutality. The title, “They don’t know (who we are)” proffers a double meaning: “they” (rap rivals) don’t know who “we” (the members of K.Ommando Toxik) are and underestimate our skills at their peril, a kind of boasting typical of rap lyrics; and “they” (government officials, police, and other authority figures) don’t know who “we” (diverse, overcrowded, largely immigrant suburban communities cut off from sufficient government support) are and ignore us at their peril. Images in the video focus momentarily on a map of Villiers-le-Bel, epicenter of the 2007 riots, and pan through crowded urban neighborhoods, with flashes of news coverage, presumably of the riots.

I find this hyper-focus on Islamic rap particularly odd coming from U.S. officials. Islamic rap has mostly been underground in the United States (that is, not in mainstream, commercial venues) since the first attack on the Twin Towers in 1993. This is not current, popular music; it is historic and largely forgotten by the American public. Using “Islamic” rap—which flourished for only a brief time in rap from the United States—skips over several musical generations of rap’s history, grabbing only a particular tool for a particular job. (In this instance, cultural diplomacy does not, apparently, include sharing gangsta rap or reggaeton with the world.) Also, rap that is generally referred to as “Islamic” in the United States has little in common with Islam itself. Groups and individuals identified by the mainstream as “Islamic”—such as Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, X Clan, Brand Nubian, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Rakim Allah—usually claimed allegiance with the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE) or the Nation of Islam (NOI).

Rakim Allah’s “Mystery (Who is God?)” explores the mysteries of the universe and the nature of “God.”

Poor Righteous Teachers’s “Gods, Earths, and 85ers” teaches principles common to the Five Percent Nation, such as “each one, teach one.”

In traditional Muslim communities, the NOI and NGE are not recognized as Muslim. The NGE actively denies an “Islamic” identity. (See my lecture at Harvard University’s 2012 Islamic Studies conference for a longer discussion of the relationship between Islam and the NGE.) In short, the U.S. government is on the hunt for “moderate” Islamic rap in order to convince would-be terrorists that in America, we have Islam, too. But, in fact, the United States is not currently wealthy in Islamic rap and was never a solid source of “moderate” Islamic rap. In the end, this is a fabricated tool.

Given that I’ve written a book and several articles about Islamic rap in the past, I am tempted to write more here about the complex cultural negotiations at stake when a government decides what kind of Islamic rap is appropriate as a cultural weapon and what effects this weapon can have. But Aidi has this covered. Instead, I want to construct a counter-narrative based on a few key assumptions:

  1. Rap music and Hip-hop culture have been recognized as complex parts of larger political systems for many, many years. (I invite readers to take a look at the work of Bakari Kitwana, who has been writing about Hip-hop politics for well over a decade and travels the lecture circuit with his Rap Sessions panels.)
  2. Not all rap is about Islam. In fact, “Islamic rap” is, these days, a very quiet minority.
  3. Hip-hop culture is more than rap. (For those unfamiliar with rap and Hip-hop, KRS-One has offered a useful way to think about this: “Rap is something you do; Hip-hop is something you live.”)
  4. Because Hip-hop culture is a living thing and can address issues outside of religious conflicts, opportunities for artistic interaction once Hip-hop artists are on the ground have the potential to be richer than a limited Islamic focus.

As a way to dig into these issues, my next three posts will focus on the efforts of Next Level, a diplomacy project co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the University of North Carolina’s Music Department. Their mission, as stated on their Facebook page, is “to send artists around the world to use hip-hop as a tool for cultural diplomacy and conflict resolution.” And instead of writing about the political issues behind these diplomatic missions, I want to focus on what happens with/to the artists once they are on the ground engaging in diplomatic work. How are the artists selected? Where does Next Level operate? What happens when Next Level artists listen and share their craft with local artists, and local artists listen and share their craft with Next Level artists? Professor Mark Katz, director of Next Level, will join us for these discussions.

For Discussion

What are the benefits of sending artistic and cultural ambassadors to tense political areas? What other kinds of current popular music might be good diplomatic tools?

Given that orthodox Islam does not condone music as part of sacred practice, what might be the pitfalls of using music to reach Muslims as part of diplomatic outreach?

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