Posts Tagged ‘cultural diplomacy’

Leveraging Hip Hop in US foreign policy

March 11, 2012 1 comment

From Al Jazeera and the longer article,  “Race, Rap, and Raison d’Etat” by Hisham Aidi.

The US government wants to improve its tarnished image abroad by sending out ‘hip hop envoys’ [GALLO/GETTY]

In April 2010, the US State Department sent a rap group named Chen Lo and The Liberation Family to perform in Damascus, Syria.

Following Chen Lo’s performance, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was asked by CBS News about US diplomacy’s recent embrace of hip hop. “Hip hop is America,” she said, noting that rap and other musical forms could help “rebuild the image” of the United States. “You know it may be a little bit hopeful, because I can’t point to a change in Syrian policy because Chen Lo and the Liberation Family showed up. But I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.”

The State Department began using hiphop as a tool in the mid-2000s, when, in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the resurgence of the Taliban, Karen Hughes, then undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, launched an initiative called Rhythm Road. The programme was modelled on the jazz diplomacy initiative of the Cold War era, except that in the “War on Terror”, hip hop would play the central role of countering “poor perceptions” of the US.

Read more…


Shahada x Shadia: bearing witness

October 18, 2010 2 comments

I’m often asked, “What value does Hip Hop have in the realm of cultural diplomacy?” A film review I read today in the New York Times about the new German film, “Shahada” (a thesis project by Burhan Qurbani that has been selected for next year’s Berlinale) struck a chord along that theme. Having not seen the film yet, I can’t comment on its merit as a work of art. However, the title and synopsis alone remind me that the word shahada, from the Arabic for ‘to bear witness/testify’, evokes not only the Muslim profession of faith, but an expression of personal knowledge and belief, which can also take the form of art. This brings me back to Hip Hop, a multi-faceted form of personal expression that serves to bear witness to one’s unique view of the world. It is also a profession of one’s belief that such expression can inspire others, and, in numbers, lead to change.

This explains how the same theme, shahada, can be used by both Hip Hop artists, such as American rap stars Mos Def and Freeway, who have openly discussed their conversion to Islam, and by jihadists, such as American-born Al Qaeda recruiter, Abu Mansour al-Amriki, who invokes shahada in his Youtube propaganda videos.

In response to those who ask me, “Why Hip Hop?”, I would offer that Hip Hop, in its true form, represents an artistic expression of shahada, not necessarily in a religious sense, but in a personal one, and, moreover, in a peaceful one. It is for that reason that I continue to advocate the support of Hip Hop-related programming by cultural diplomacy organizations, as well as others seeking to “engage the hearts and minds of Muslim youth”. One such organization that seems to get it is the British Council, who co-sponsored an event this past weekend at the Dash Arts center in London that featured Arab Hip Hop all-stars from Palestine (Tamer Nafar), Lebanon (Rayess Bek), Jordan (MC Samm), Algeria (Rabah Donquishoot), and London’s own Palestinian queen MC, Shadia Mansour, and US legend Talib Kweli. The event challenged the artists (many of whom had never met before) to take themes from the 6th century Arabian poems, the Mu’allaqat, and riff off of them to create new music in workshops, culminating in a tour throughout Europe. I’m excited to see and hear what these pioneers of the Arab Hip Hop movement came up with but I have no doubt that it will be an honest account of the world as they’ve seen it, just like the original Mu’allaqat, which described in great detail and poetry the world of pre-Islamic Bedouins. Shadia describes the feeling of reconnecting with that legacy in this quote from an article on Mondomix:

“The Mu’Allaqat poems… I thought I knew a lot about that era but after reading the poems, I learned a lot about my culture. The poems are about Bedouin life but the crazy thing is nothing much has changed… the traditions, the customs, our mannerisms… even the mentality, the conservative nature of that time is still alive in certain parts of the Arab world. To be honest, being Palestinian, being Arab and coming from a very cultural background I have taken my experience, my upbringing and what I feel and put that into all the songs we’re performing at the Roundhouse. Obviously we are all from different Arab regions and have different upbringings, but what I’ve learned from the poems is relative to how we are brought up and live as Arabs. I think it all made sense in the end.”

What other medium could so meaningfully connect young Arabs with their cultural heritage and at the same time allow them to connect with one another, and with other young people around the world, to bear witness, faithfully and creatively, to their lives at the turbulent dawn of the 21st century? Only Hip Hop, where followers make their own form of shahada, expressing belief in the power of music and poetry to affect change.


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.