Reminder, for those interested: tonight I'll be appearing on a panel about jazz legend David Brubeck on the 50th anniversary of his pathbreaking jazz diplomacy tours. The event is from 6:00-7:15 in Room 212 (The Harry Harding Auditorium) of the Elliott School, 1957 E Street. If all goes well, I'll post at least an outline of my remarks some time soon.
... okay, here are my remarks as prepared for delivery - an odd thing, writing this talk while listening to the Petraeus-Crocker hearings. I improvised a bit, which is probably appropriate. It seemed to go over quite well, which was a relief. If nothing else, I'm possibly the first person to quote Talib Kweli in a formal event at the Elliott School. And I got to hear Brubeck play, which was just exceptional.
Cultural Diplomacy and David Brubeck
Remarks prepared for forum at Elliott School of International Relations
April 7, 2008
This panel brings together some of my favorite things: jazz, public diplomacy and… hip hop. No, really. It is an honour and a thrill to be able to talk about these topics to this audience, and with a long-time hero, David Brubeck, in the front row. Hopefully he – and Dean Grier – will approve!
As I understood my mandate this evening, we are here tonight not only to celebrate the great jazz tours of the 1950s but to think about what lessons might be drawn about today’s cultural diplomacy efforts to the Islamic world and beyond.
Jazz diplomacy tours such as David Brubeck’s marked a high point in the attempt to turn American popular culture into a weapon in the Cold War. In the public diplomacy and “war of ideas” crowd today, these tours are carefully studied as guides to how to approach the problem of anti-Americanism in a more holistic fashion. That Washington DC looks to the successes of 50 years ago for new ideas is something I leave for another day. It was Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., I believe, who in 1956 urged the State Department to fund a tour by Dizzy Gillespie with stops in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia, and South America. Other government tours featured icons such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and of course David Brubeck.
It is worth recalling that jazz was an unusual and inspired choice on the part of the State Department. The product of black culture and of youth culture, with an edge of danger and mystery, it cast light upon American racial discrimination at a time when Soviet propaganda often used this as a weapon and when American race relations were deeply divisive. Its unpredictability was at sharp odds with most diplomats’ preference for control. This was not a safe choice.
But it was an inspired one, for exactly that reason. It showed a side of America that some diplomats would perhaps have preferred not be shown – and others, perhaps, wished to present as evidence of a color-blind America. But it also showed America as an ongoing answer to those problems – not perfect, but a hothouse of creative, restless energy striving for new answers to old qustions. The musical form itself epitomized this America. As my friend Nick Cull, a great historian of public diplomacy, once put it: “in jazz, you are not afraid to improvise. In jazz, you have to listen. And those are both profoundly central aspects of the American political system. And you could not listen to this music without experiencing those principles and sharing in that freedom."
I would argue that hip hop is the closest thing we have today to the jazz of the 1950s: the product of black culture embraced by many whites, such as myself. Like jazz, the best hip hop features rapid improvisation, irresistable beat, rapid responses and a careful ear, a rapier wit expressed through a musical idiom. These are two genuinely American art forms, rooted in the black American experience, which have become genuinely global.
So can hip hop today take the place of jazz as a tool of cultural diplomacy? What about hip hop today? Things are very different, of course: the marketplace, the political problems, the anti-Americanism that public diplomacy needs to address. But I find reason for hope, that hip hop today can help to build bridges and a common language across youth culture. That will not overcome “anti-Americanism”, or improve America’s favorable ratings in Pew surveys. But that, I suggest, should not be the point.
First, there have been tremendous changes in the global information marketplace. American culture is no longer a tantalizing secret, to be found by huddling over short-wave radios. Today’s Arabs are saturated with media of all sorts, on the internet and on satellite television. They do not suffer from cultural or informational blackouts, but from overload. No shortwave radios are needed to find America’s culture. They are drowning in it – and indeed, resentment of this culture can be easily found among Islamists, among worried secular intellectuals, among angry parents who don’t like their kids listening to Eminem anymore than do American parents.
Hip hop is a key part of this emerging culture. It is played everywhere in the Middle East – and not just by Americans. I’ll never forget the first time that I was approached in a shaabi café in Cairo by a scruffy, bearded young man – well, actually he was my age. I was fearing the worst, but the first words out of his mouth were “Eminem? Dr Dre?” We bonded. One of my best students recounts learning Arabic in Damascus from an intense, eager young Syrian intent on decoding the rhymes of 50 Cent – who then took him to underground clubs to hear the local MCs. I’ve heard and lived countless other examples.
The Muslim world produces its own hip hop and its own pop music. From the MTV style starlets singing Arabic-inflected Europop to the hard edged Rai music of North Africa to young Iranian, Saudi, and Palestinian rappers – the inspiration has been offered, the spark taken up. MTM from Egypt won the award for best modern Arab act in the first Arabian Music Awards in 2004. Israeli and Palestinian rappers have generated great international attention. DAM’s 2001 song Meen Erhabi was reportedly downloaded more than 1 million times from an Arabic hip hop site. Saudis, Iraqis, Syrians, Tunisians… As the rapper Khalifa E rhymed, “We used to dream of western rap, [but] I’m singing Hip hop Arabi.”
The State Department has begun to tentatively explore these opportunities. This is not easy. Much of today’s hip hop scene is dominated by crass materialism, roughly hewn gangsta rap, foul language, macho posturing and no small amount of misogyny. There are great lyricists and social critics like KRS-One, Taleb Kwali, Nas. But most share a deeply critical political worldview, shaped by a black experience of alienation and marginality. It would be a brave State Department employee indeed who sent Public Enemy or Eminem out to represent America.
But they have. The State Department has sent several hip hop groups on cultural diplomacy tours in the last few years. Native Deen, a group of Muslim American rappers, went to Jersualem, Dubai and Turkey in fall 2006 with State Dept backing. In 2005 a bright student named Josh Asen won a Fulbright for his project “Eminem in Medina”, and then put together the wonderful project I Love Hip Hop in Morocco with funding from US consulate. The American Cultural Association invited Muslim hip hop group Remarkable Current to play at American Language Centers in Morocco. The Opus Akoben Hip-Hop Ensemble toured Bahrain, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in 2006. In November 2007, American Voices sent 15 teenage hip hop dancers to northern Iraq with SD funding. At the United States Institute for Peace next Friday there will be a panel discussion on hip hop as a force for peace. Ben Chaviz’s Hip Hop Action Summit has tried to marshall the energies of prominent rappers such as Jay-Z for international, as well as domestic, problems.
All of this is wonderful, and it looks back to jazz diplomacy as an inspiration. But 50 Cent does not need the State Department to go to Beirut, Jay-Z does not need USIA to tour Dubai. They go for the money. But their messages, such as they are, are delivered all the same.
Finally, the musical form is different. As Toni Blackman, named US Hip Hop Ambassador by the State Department in 2006, put it, “hip hop is different from jazz in that its focus is on the message, on the words, on what is being said. Since its birth it has been about giving voice to the voiceless.” But this does pose something of a problem. With jazz one could project a wide variety of meanings on to the rhythms and themes. With hip hop, the words are front and center. When the legendary Queens lyricist Nas says “I am an American but I don’t roll with Bush’s crew,” it leaves little to the imagination.
Some might well wonder whether hip hop actually makes America’s image worse, by spreading images of materialism and misogyny… or by spreading ideas and words critical of today’s America. When I wrote about these ideas last year, many critics pointed out that it is the bling and the posturing of commercialized rap which dominate the airwaves, not the lyricists and the socially conscious politicos. I remember Jay-Z rapping “if skills sold truth be told I’d probably be lyrically Taleb Kweli”… and, more recently, Nas declaring that hip hop is dead.
But despite all of this, I find reason for hope, that hip hop today can help to build bridges and a common language across youth culture. As Jeff Chang, a great social historian of hip hop culture, recently wrote: “hip hop is a lingua franca that binds young people all around the world, all while giving them the chance to alter it with their own national flavor… But one thing about hip hop has remained consistent across cultures: a vital progressive agenda that challenges the status quo.” The gurus of American public diplomacy might not want the status quo challenged, but it will be nonetheless. Let's hear the challenge instead of trying to pretend it does not exist or shouting it down.
One of the great services which cultural diplomacy could offer is to break us of our unfortunate habit of lecturing instead of listening, of trying to control our image rather than allowing genuine back and forth. Too much of our public diplomacy is about us talking. We need to listen. Michael Eric Dyson wrote in his excellent recent book Know What I Mean? that “at its best, hip hop gives voice to marginal black youth we are not used to hearing from on such topics.” If young Arabs and Muslims, marginalized and ignored, can speak through hip hop then we should listen to them. We may not like what they say, but it is precisely the voices which make us uncomfortable that we most need to hear, those who are usually silenced whose voices might help us understand Arab and Muslim hopes and fears, anger and secret delights.
Listen to Arab rapper Wlad el-Hara: “why do they talk smack about Arabic rap… we’re always gonna be grateful to rap cuz it gave us the voice to be the advocates of freedom, to put an end to hatred, and to represent the voices of the marginalized minority, rap allowed us to express our pains to voice our criticism it’s from the heart and that’s why there’s a lot of people who criticize the legitimacy of Arabic rap and dismiss it as noisy – we find truth and reality in rap, the truth and reality that you are trying to avoid and escape from.”
Or listen to the great New York lyricist Talib Kweli, on his recent album: “They got us thinking that Muslims like to make bombs/ But real Muslims believe in paradise and in resisting the Shaitan / So it all sound the same to me / That's why when they say one is right and the other is wrong/ it just sound like game to me.”
That’s not a bad starting point for a dialogue of civilizations.
As a theorist of public diplomacy, I always tend to be skeptical about its immediate, “moving the needle” prospects – have we gone up three points in our favorable ratings in the new Pew survey? Jazz musicians and rappers are not going to make up for an Administration’s unpopular foreign policy or for the reality of clashing interests. What it can do is to build linkages and connections below the surface, far from politics, where youth around the world find a common language and a common idiom. Perhaps it can allow youth to talk to each other about their own identities, their own issues, in their own way. Perhaps it can build a wider, broader, deeper understanding across cultural divides. And perhaps that’s enough.
(Notes: among the many sources I found useful in preparing these remarks, I would particularly point out Jeff Chang's book Can't Stop Won't Stop and his recent article in Foreign Policy "It's a Hip Hop World"; Michael Eric Dyson's book Know What I Mean>; Suad Abdul Khabeer, "Rep That Islam: The Rhyme and Reason of American Islamic Hip Hop" The Muslim World 2007; Hisham Aidi, "Jihadis in the Hood", MERIP, and "Verily There is Only One Hip-Hop Umma" Socialism and Democracy 2004; Usama Kahf, "Arabic Hip Hop", Journal of Popular Music Studies 19, no.4; and comments made by Nicholas Cull of USC during last year's celebrations of Dizzy Gillespie's jazz diplomacy tours.)