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Obama sends Muslim country singer to Middle East

May 21, 2010 Leave a comment

From my friends at Layalina Productions

The Sound of Music and Public Diplomacy

A statement released by the Department of State in April revealed that the Obama administration is providing funding for a music tour in the Middle East by an Egyptian-American country and pop singer, as part of its attempt to improve the Unites State’s relationship with the Muslim world and promote “respect for diverse cultures, faiths and traditions.”

This latest public diplomacy effort, inspired by the President’s Cairo speech, is aimed at building bridges between the two cultures through providing Middle Eastern audiences with an example of a rising American musical talent, and of America’s diversity of faith and heritage.

The 32-year-old singer/songwriter, Kareem Salama, headed to Cairo on April 26th for the tour’s opening performance, accompanied by three other accomplished musicians: Dan Workman, JJ Worthen and Michael Whitebread. The band is expected to be on tour for a whole month, visiting six other countries including Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Jerusalem and Jordan.

Sending “America’s first Muslim country singer” to the Middle East is regarded as yet another State Department “soft-power” initiative to improve “Washington’s dented reputation across the Middle East,” writes James Reinel at The National.

Art advocates believe that beneficial outcomes may result from utilizing art as a cultural diplomacy initiative. According to Vishakha Desai, the president of the New York-based Asia Society, art has the ability to “humanize and create a more nuanced understanding” of the other and could be utilized to ease tensions and facilitate communication.

Despite the new budget set aside by the State Department for such efforts, Desai believes that funding is still lacking. “Money remains a huge issue. Even under the current administration with its tremendous interest in using arts and culture to advance public diplomacy, the truth is, there isn’t enough support,” she complains.

Still, Salama seems to show genuine interest in spreading the image of his homeland as an “inclusive country that welcomes newcomers” of all faiths. He maintains, “I want to learn from the people we meet, share my music, share my personal experiences and break some stereotypes and preconceived ideas about being an American Muslim,” adding that introducing country music in the region, if it happens, is a secondary goal.

During the Morocco segment of the tour, the band’s drummer, Mohsin Mohi-ud-Din, expressed his hope that their work would challenge the general misconception that all US Muslims suffer under “Islamophobic oppression,” reports The National. He explained, “Muslims have more freedom in America than they do in most Arab nations.”

In similar vein, a new Arab hip-hop movement has emerged consisting of rappers from across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, who “have joined forces to spread their message and their music to audiences worldwide,” writes Joshua Asen for Foreign Policy. Some of the artists behind this movement include Shadia Mansour, the group DAM, Lowkey and the Narcicyst.

Asen describes this Arab hip-hop revolution, which Hamas tried to shut down, as a “powerful and natural ally.” He suggests that the State Department should rethink its approach to utilizing hip-hop, which “embodies both the spirit of diplomacy and that of armed resistance.”

However, Asen warns that the exclusion of the Palestinian territories and Gaza on the tour by the State Department may have seemed like the safer option, yet it comes at the expense of sacrificing the “best opportunity for real impact.”

In Somalia, an 11-member rap band called Waayaha Cusub, including one female, has been exiled to Kenya because its lyrics encourage Somalis to stand up to the Islamist rebel group al Shabaab, reports Asharq-Alawsat.

The group’s founder, Shine Abdullahi, who has survived an assassination attempt said, “We will wipe out the fear of our people that no one can speak out against [Somali Islamist insurgent group] Al-Shabaab… They misread our religion and kill people.”

Adbullahi remains optimistic that the band’s work may contribute to rid the country of the insurgent group. “This is real war. Those who refuse to honor their prophet cannot win,” he said.

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US State Dept. sends Chen Lo to Vietnam

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

After a successful tour of the Middle East and North Africa, the US State Dept. has dispatched Hip Hop ambassador Chen Lo on a tour of Vietnam.

From Vietnam News

US consulate sponsors hip-hop programme

HCM CITY — Three hip-hop performers from the US will conduct training programmes in Ha Noi, Hai Phong, HCM City and Can Tho between May 9 and 22.

Break dancer Brandon “Peace” Albright, rapper Chen Lo and DJ Scan will take part in the programme sponsored by the US Department of State and the US Consulate General in HCM City.

The programme is part of a series of events which the consulate organises to promote cultural exchange and mutual understanding between the people of the US and Viet Nam.

American hip hop is at the centre of a worldwide music and fashion trend that crosses social barriers and cuts across racial lines.

The group will conduct a two-day training and exchange programme (May 17-18) at the Dance School of HCM City for 35 local break dancers, rappers and DJs.

The training will include a brief history of hip hop and hands-on demonstrations of artistic techniques.

After HCM City, the group will travel to Can Tho City to conduct a similar programme on May 20 – 21 at the Can Tho Cultural Centre.

Each American hip-hop envoy has previously participated in US Department of State cultural exchange programmes in other countries.

Awlaki’s other admirer: MC Abu Nurah

May 10, 2010 Leave a comment

As the Western newsmedia went back into panic mode last week after the failed terrorist attack in Times Square, we learned very quickly that the main suspect, Faisal Shahzad, was not only linked to the Pakistani Taliban and other Al Qaeda affiliates, but was yet another follower of the prolific Yemeni-American Islamist cleric  Anwar Al Awlaki. Awlaki was a source of inspiration, if not direct encouragement, for the so-called “underwear bomber” from Christmas, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as well as the army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in November, Nidal Malik Hasan. Even before Mr. Shahzad parked the Pathfinder in Times Square, President Obama had  signed a secret order authorizing the killing of Awlaki, making him Global Terrorist #1.

However, there are many who would argue that the targeting of Imam Awlaki is little more than the latest attempt by the US government to create a public enemy in order to justify increased military action against countries like Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  One such skeptic whose own profile resembles that of the “well-educated, well-heeled”  Abdulmutallab and Shahzad, is American-born, Harvard-educated rapper Abu Nurah. His defense of Imam Awlaki, though it may land him on the Terrorist Expatriation List, calls neither for violence nor terror, but rather a transition from blind patriotism to informed activism, which he captures in the title of his new album: “Don’t Be A Citizen”.

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Salah Edin goes to Mali for Islamic Relief

In case anyone out there ever doubted the deep huminatarian commitment of Dutch-Moroccan rapper Salah Edin, here’s a 2-part video covering his recent trip to Mali on behalf of the Islamic Relief Project, during which he visited different development projects, from water wells to schools, milk factories to widows creating small businesses with micro credit loans. This is the same dude who pissed off a whole country of Dutch Islamophobes by turning the mirror on their ugly fear in his debut single “Het Land Van [This Country Of]” and then later by using a faux mugshot for his album cover, which a major newspaper and right-wing politician both mistook for the convicted Muslim killer of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.

I guess Salah is growing up and mellowing out, though his recent video for “Tfoe/Fuck” would suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, the man showed love and support last month for his fellow Africans, under the aegis of an Islamic NGO, and I would like to formally recognize his efforts. We need more artists, especially in Hip Hop, standing up publicly for the causes that matter to them, not to mention challenging the stereotypes that politicians and the media perpetuate for their own profit. Did someone say SalahShadia collabo…???

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Mea culpa to the OG Arab League

In my recent post at ForeignPolicy.com, “The Arab League of Hip Hop”, I made a critical and glaring omission, which I wish to correct here. One simply cannot speak of the “Arab League of Hip Hop” without mentioning the founders of the original Arab League, the Arabian Knightz, who have brought together Cairo’s top talent, including MC AminWighit Nazar, and The PharoZ, as well as Saudi superstar Qusai, Palestinian-American producer FredWreck, and the one and only Shadia Mansour, not to mention affiliations with DAM, Don BiggThe Narcicyst, Eslam Jawaad, and other Arab rappers across the world. My apologies to Rush and the homies in Cairo for not payin homage. As they say f’el Maghreb, 7ashouma 3lia! And I can’t believe I still ain’t posted this banger:

Arabian Knightz & MC Amin (Arab League), featuring Snoop Dogg, “I Wanna Rock-Remix”

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Arab Hip Hop All-Stars assemble in Brooklyn

May 2, 2010 4 comments

This past Friday night will go down in the history of Hip Hop as the night that the leaders of the Arab Hip Hop movement, DAMThe NarcicystLowkey, and Shadia Mansour, first performed together on stage. And where else could an event like this take place? None other than Brooklyn’s own Southpaw. For anyone who was there, it was a truly remarkable evening, with each artist building on the excitement of the others to take their individual performances beyond where they might normally be at a solo show. And the energy from the crowd, over 500 strong, rockin their “Slingshot Hip Hop” t-shirts and, of course, their black and white kufiyas, was more than just people having a good time. They were giving their own energy back to the artists, with their bodies and voices, as if to make their own physical contribution to what, in this case, amounts to a musical rally. Truly a testament to the force of this supergroup, and the force of the Arab Hip Hop movement as a unified force, to garner support for the political causes that they address, including, perhaps most crucially, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, as articulated in the anthem “Long Live Palestine”, which they performed together here (lyrics here):

Witnessing the massive crowd of young people in Brooklyn bumpin their heads and pumpin their fists in solidarity gave me one of those rare glimmers of hope that our generation may yet have a positive and lasting impact on relations between the Middle East and the West. By creating a transatlantic union of Hip Hop fans and artists who are willing to speak out for justice and freedom, at concerts, rallies, and on social media networks, Shadia, DAM, Narcy and Lowkey are multiplying the impact of their music, and their message, exponentially. I commend them for this unified effort and encourage them to continue on their mission. After all, this is the highest (and perhaps only true) goal of Hip Hop: to effect change through music, as opposed to violence.

On that idealistic note, let me join brother Narcy and sister Shadia in saying, Hamdu’llah.

Videos & photo via Joe Seago

Shadia Mansour wins back the Arab Kufiya

May 1, 2010 8 comments

Photo Credit: Ridz Design (via Illuminarcy Blog)

Last month, Palestinian Hip Hop star, Shadia Mansour, released the much-anticipated first single from her forthcoming debut album, “El Kofeye 3arabeye”/”The Kofeyye is Arabic”, featuring M-1 from the pro-Palestinian US rap group, Dead Prez. Prior to the release of the single, Shadia posted the following teaser video on Youtube, with this message about the song:

“In this song, I am claiming back its historical, political and revolutionary purpose. As you are aware, the ‘Kofeyye’ has been tastelessly commercialized and economically exploited worldwide. I feel that it is only right to give the people a thorough introduction and understanding of its symbolic existence.”

Already, the response has been remarkable, from impassioned messages of solidarity, to debates over the true origin of the so-called ‘Palestinian scarf’, to criticism of the attempt to reclaim as ‘Arab’ what has become an international symbol of resistance. Anthropologist and Hip Hop scholar Ted Swedenburg, in his recent lecture on the history of the kufiya at the Palestine Center, argues, “To try to reclaim the kufiya as simply Arab would be analogous to trying to reclaim rap music as African-American.”)

Closer examination of the lyrics, however, reveals a flaw in Dr. Swedenburg’s argument (which he, himself, admitted in a recent email). Shadia is not, in fact, trying to reclaim the kufiya from commercialization as a fashion accessory for hipsters and celebrities. Rather, she is trying to reclaim it from a more dangerous group of kufiya appropriators, the creators of the “Israeli Keffiyeh”, embroidered with blue Stars of David and the words “Long Live the People Israel” stitched across the top. The scarf was designed by a  Brooklyn-based Jewish Hip Hop promoter (I know, I know, it takes one to know one) who claims that his ancestors were wearing variations on the kufiya in ancient Yemen. In response to the “offense” taken by his “Arab friends”, Erez Safar offers this defense:

“I as a Jew am not offended by the Pope who wears a “kippah” and in the same respect, I don’t feel there is any reason for anyone taking offense to a Jewish person wearing a version of the Keffiyah which they identify with; especially considering the significance of this article of clothing in both of all of our histories.”

I, also as a Jew, am not buying this argument (nor the scarf) and feel compelled to call Mr. Safar and his supporters to task. First off, they have broken the first rule of Hip Hop: Be Original. Changing the color of the scarf and adding stars and a Zionist slogan does not make it a “remix”, just a shameless imitation. Furthermore, the claim of historical overlap does not supersede the fact that the kufiya has been recognized as a symbol of Arab/Palestinian pride for close to a century and appropriating it as a Zionist symbol is an inherently antagonistic act, especially given the present political context.

That said, I offer here a translation of Shadia’s lyrics, which win, hands down, this battle of symbols and language. Just ask the nearly 14,000 viewers who’ve watched & commented on her promo video (versus the 52 who’ve watched “Israeli Keffiyeh & DeScribe Live”), or the 500+ that showed up last night at Brooklyn’s Southpaw for an Arab Hip Hop showcase featuring DAM, The Narcicyst, Lowkey, and, of course, Shadia Mansour, with over 50 rockin the black and white checks, by my kufiya kount. As Jay-Z might put it to the creators of the Israeli kufiya, “We don’t believe you, you need more people.”

Translation by Ouassim Addoula (aka. Big Moor)

Verse 1

Good morning cousins, y’all welcome, come in

What would you like us to serve you, Arab blood or tears from our eyes?

I think that’s how they expected us to receive them

That’s why they got embarrassed when they realized their mistake

That’s why we rocked the kuffiyeh, the white and black

Now these dogs are startin to wear it as a trend

No matter how they design it, no matter how they change its color

The kuffiyeh is Arabic, and it will stay Arabic

The gear we rock, they want it; our culture, they want it

Our dignity, they want it; everything that’s ours, they want it

Half your country, half your home; why, why? No, I tell em

Stealin’ something that ain’t theirs, I can’t allow it

They imitatin us in what we wear, wear; from this land enough, what else do you want?

About Jerusalem, Jerusalem, would they be worried, how can you humans?

Before y’all ever rocked a kuffiyeh, we here to remind em who we are

And whether they like it or not, this is our clothing style

Chorus

That’s why we rock the kuffiyeh, cuz it’s patriotic

The kuffiyeh, the kuffiyeh is Arabic

That’s why we rock the kuffiyeh, our essential identity

The kuffiyeh, the kuffiyeh is Arabic

Come on, throw up the kuffiyeh (throw that kuffiyeh up for me)

The kuffiyeh, the kuffiyeh is Arabic

Throw it up, come on “Bilad Al Sham” (Greater Syria)

The kuffiyeh is Arabic, and it will stay Arabic

Verse 2

There’s none yet like the Arab people

Show me which other nation in the world was more influential

The picture is clear, we are the cradle of civilization

Our history and cultural heritage testify to our existence

That’s why I rocked the Palestinian gear

From Haifa, Jenin, Jabal al Nar to Ramallah

Let me see the kuffiyeh, the white and red

Let me throw it up in the sky; I’m

Arab, and my tongue creates earthquakes

I shake the words of war

Listen, I’m Shadia Mansour, and the gear I’m rockin is my identity

Since the day I was born raisin people’s awareness been my responsibility

But I was raised between fear and evil; between two areas

Between the grudging and the poor, I seen life from both sides

God bless the kuffiyeh; however you rock me, wherever you see me

I stay true to my origins, Palestinian