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April 08, 2008


David Blatt

Great comments, Marc! I hope they were well-received. I'm only slightly bitter that my own public presentation this week was on Oklahoma's structural budget deficit to the Cleveland County Democrats Okay, very bitter)


Hey Marc,
I don't know if you ever read the book A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. The author was caught up in the middle of the civil war in Sierra Leone and eventually recruited to fight for the government. The reason I thought you would be interested is because there is a great scene in which the boy is about to be killed by the members of a village worried that he may be a soldier. They take off his clothes and find some tapes in his pockets, the only possessions he still has. The village is about to kill the boy when he persuades them to put the tapes on the tape player, which they do. The tapes happen to be Public Enemy, if I remember correctly, which the boy is able to rap to perfectly, having grown up listening to hip-hop whenever possible. When the village elders saw the boy singing and dancing to the hip-hop, they realized he wasn't a threat and decided not to kill him. True story.

I love this story because it shows how music and hip-hop in this case was able to show the humanity of this boy in a way normal communication couldn't. Hip-hop saved his life. I think you're absolutely right in your comments on the power of music, and hip-hop more specifically, in acting as some sort of cultural bridge. Also, may I recommend K'naan, if you haven't already heard him, a Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist whose album The Dustyfoot Philosopher is really interesting, lyrical and fun. Thanks.


"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."

KRS doesn't even write the material he took credit for and Chuck D hosts a show on Air America[!], In fact he's exactly what you're looking for. But Nas is as vulgarly materialist as anyone. But like the best gangsta rap his lyrics describe the cost of what he celebrates.

Your relation to culture is related to your tastes in intellectualism and politics: you subsume all within the logic of loyalty to a class and a government. "What's good for The US is good for Iraq." Or was it what's good for General Motors is good for the country?

Brubeck is a lightweight and the best comment on Louis Armstrong from those years came from Billie Holiday: "He Toms from the heart." You have to give him credit for that. But the vulgarity of rap is matched by its anger, It makes sense that it's spread, but government sponsored enlightened[sic] intellectualism doesn't have much to do with its success, and it won't in the future.

"I'm a'ride with my rap shit and my body armor
Ride like a Taliban suicide bomber
Four five six feet, I off ya feet
I kill ya with a pillow when you fall asleep
Your records can't sell, your company is buyin' em
Give it up, Burger King is hirin'
You shoulda been a cop, cause you snitch a lot
Talkin' to the jakes, you bound to get shot
I used to watch Big Bird and Scooby Doo
Now I'm choppin' big birds and them bundles too
For that Master P money, that shoppin' spree money
That coke, that dope and that ecstasy money"

David Martin

Brubeck's a hardy perennial. I heard him at the Cody, Wyoming high school auditorium, circa 1983. Sen. Alan Simpson managed to be there, too.


Some of us are very suspicious about leveraging the US hip hop industry to reach out to Middle East audiences because of the "mixed messages" problem. There are urban youths in saturated markets--Cairo, Amman, Casablanca--who hear Nas' fiery critiques of racial inequality, or 2Pac's penetrating pleas about violence and motherhood. But they hear them alongside Eminem's declarations about killing his wife and child, Three 6 Mafia's odes to burning down clubs and gutting prostitutes, and P. Diddy's anthems about bling and beamers. But they can't tell the difference. If you go to a typical CD chop-shop in these cities frequented by 14 to 28-year old males, you'll know what I mean.

Nor would you expect those who aren't steeped in American hip-hop discourse to understand why wealthy lyricists wearing gold chains deriding women as b*tches and h*es, or calling young brothers "n*ggas waitin' to get smoked," is a message much of the black community in America itself wants to stamp out. There are evocative and socially conscious Arab hip-hop artists now who use affinities with some American hip-hop, and these linkages can be constructive to State and PD enthusiasts. But there are also hordes of Arab youths who, despite the academic spin we put on it, do listen to the full-range of hip-hop in urban nooks and crannies that we can never reach. We can't censor what rap reaches them, and you'd be shocked at how much of this hip-hop isn't the pop-friendly mainstream stuff shown by MTV. (Fancy... finding Insane Clown Posse in Damascus.) This is not the rap that we think is constructive because a Muslim New Yorker happens to perform it, or because it preaches on about justice that everyone can relate to. These are songs that would convince you that Brooklyn is full of ghetto brothers shooting each other in nightclubs with semi-automatics, or that raping your girlfriend who betrays you is par for course.

In other words... be very, very careful.


are any of the people who want to send black hip-hop artists to the mideast actually black themselves?

there are many blacks like myself who would be ashamed to send out anyone, no matter how socially "aware" they are, to another country when they call me n$gga. i don't *want* other people to think this is my culture. spike lee said it best. most whites (even the well-meaning intellectuals) don't get why the word "n$gga" is so destructive because they've NEVER been called one themselves.


Spike Lee? "It's gotta be the shoes"

David Sutton

At its worst hip hop demonstrates misogyny and lyricised violence in the worst degree, but at its best it represents the voice of the disenfranchised, the lonely and the disconnected. Exactly the type of people that we want to extend public diplomacy to.

When my mother was working for WHO in Mozambique she found her way in through copied CDs I had sent her with Public Meany and Run DMC. The kids loved her and to this day I have a tape of Mozambique hip hop on my record shelf.

There will always be those who abuse a music form, who seek only to demonstrate their own superiority and blatant disregard for the things that make us better not worse. But for those whose utilise hip hop as a tool to demonstrate their verbal skills, their cutting edge wit and their need to shout out, not just about the worst case scenario but the best case, well than it trumps soft rock and disco for it ability to permeate the youth audience.

Have a listen to some Australian hip hop, we avoid the garbage, demonstrate critical cynicism mixed with outrageous optimism, all bound together with a sense of humour that picks me up each and every day and get me going.

Hip hop may not be the perfect voice, but it may be the most effective.

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