Yesterday I recorded a fascinating conversation with Columbia University's Hisham Aidi which touched upon some of the controversies surrounding the use of jazz and hip hop for U.S. public diplomacy (video of the conversation should be posted soon). Aidi's book Rebel Music recounts the contentious history of cold war-era "jazz diplomacy" and traces the thread through to war on terror-era "hip hop public diplomacy." In his book he recounts the intense controversies within the jazz and hip hop communities over participation in such efforts. How could African-American jazz artists go abroad to promote American culture during the era of Jim Crow? How could Muslim hip hop artists do the same in the midst of the war on terror?
That conversation felt immediately relevant this morning, when the brilliant and famously politicized rapper Lupe Fiasco tweeted out this picture of himself with controversial former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Blair Foundation replied with thanks for his support. Lupe's fans were not amused. Comments on the original tweet ranged from "why are you so happy to be in a picture with a war criminal?" to "Sell Out... Rolling with war criminals. .. shame to you!" to "Goodbye Lupe." "Did yall discuss how Blair's murderous foreign policy was actually a source of radicalization amongst ppl bombed/occupied?" asked one commenter. "No...he did ask about my album though" Lupe responded.
It got worse, as Lupe's angry fans continued to vent. Could this really be the same person who famously rapped "I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit" on Words I Never Said? Or "Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn't say shit. That's why I ain't vote for him, next one either"? How could Lupe, one of the greatest of today's inheritors of the political traditions of old school hip hop, be taking smiling photos with Tony Blair, one of the architects of the Iraq war and the war on terror who only last month made waves with a controversial speech on the global threat of radical Islam?
Lupe eventually explained that "Yeah it was about teaching Islam and other faiths in US schools to curb radicalism based on ignorance and closed mindedness." In other words, a classic initiative of the type Aidi describes, hoping to use a popular and insightful artist to reach "at-risk" communities. And the response he received from his fan base, accustomed to his fiery leftist views, exactly mirrors the angry denunciations Aidi describes in those earlier moments.
"Wallahi I will NEVER publicly speak on Islamic religious affairs ever again Allah has my account & yours the rest is