Leveraging hip hop in US foreign policy

Diplomats and officials use the music of the oppressed to connect with disaffected Muslim youth.

mos def

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. 

In 2005, the State Department began sending “hip hop envoys” – rappers, dancers, DJs – to perform and speak in different parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The tours have since covered the broad arc of the Muslim world, with performances taking place in Senegal and Ivory Coast, across North Africa, the Levant and Middle East, and extending to Mongolia, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The artists stage performances and hold workshops; those hip hop ambassadors who are Muslims talk to local media about being Muslim in the US. The tours aim not only to exhibit the integration of American Muslims, but also, according to planners, to promote democracy and foster dissent.

“You have to bet at the end of the day, people will choose freedom over tyranny if they’re given a choice,” Clinton observed of the State Department’s hip hop programme in Syria – stating that cultural diplomacy is a complex game of “multidimensional chess”.

“Hip hop can be a chess piece?” asked the interviewer. “Absolutely!” responded the secretary of state.

Much has been said about the role of hip hop in the Arab revolts. French media described [fr] the Arab Spring as le printemps des rappeurs [“The spring of the rappers”]. Time Magazine named Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor (aka El General) – a rapper who was arrested by Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – as one of the “100 Most Influential People of 2011”, ranking him higher than President Barack Obama.  

Hip hop revolution

It is true that since protests began in Tunisia in December 2010, rap has provided a soundtrack to the North African revolts. As security forces rampaged in the streets, artists in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi were writing lyrics and cobbling together protest footage, beats and rhymes, which they then uploaded to proxy servers. These impromptu songs – such as El General’s Rais Lebled – were then picked up and broadcast by Al Jazeera, and played at gatherings and solidarity marches in London, New York and Washington.

But the role of music should not be exaggerated: Hip hop did not cause the Arab revolts any more than Twitter or Facebook did. The cross-border spread of popular movements is not a new phenomenon in the Arab world – the uprisings of 1919, which engulfed Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, occurred long before the advent of the internet, social media or rap music.

And the countries in the region with the most vibrant hip hop scenes, Morocco and Algeria, have not seen revolts. Western journalists’ focus on hip hop – like their fixation on Facebook and Twitter – seems partly because, in their eyes, a taste for hip hop among young Muslims is a sign of moderation, modernity, even “an embrace of the US”.

Interviewer: “Hip hop can be a chess piece?”

Hillary Clinton: Absolutely!

What is absent from these discussions about rap and the breakdown of Arab authoritarianism is the role that states – in the region and beyond – have played in shaping and directing local hip hop cultures. From deposed Tunisian dictator Ben Ali’s mobilisation of hip hop culture against Islamism to the embattled Syrian regime’s current support of “pro-stability rappers”, to the US government’s growing use of hip hop in public diplomacy, counter-terrorism and democracy promotion, regimes are intervening to promote some sub-styles of hip hop, in an attempt to harness the genre towards various political objectives.

The jazz tours of the Cold War saw the US government sent integrated bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman to various parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East to counter Soviet propaganda about American racial practices, and to get people in other countries to identify with “the American way of life”.

The choice of jazz was not simply due to its international appeal. As historian Penny Von Eschen writes in her pioneering book Satchmo Blows Up the World, in the 1950s, the State Department believed that African-American culture could convey “a sense of shared suffering, as well as the conviction that equality could be gained under the American political system” to people who had suffered European colonialism.

Similar thinking underpins the current “hip hop diplomacy” initiatives. The State Department planners who are calling for “the leveraging of hip hop” in US foreign policy emphasise “the importance of Islam to the roots of hip hop in America”, and the “pain” and “struggle” that the music expresses.

A Brookings report authored by the programme’s architects – titled “Mightier than the Sword: Arts and Culture in the US-Muslim World Relationship” (2008) – notes that hip hop began as “outsiders’ protest” against the US system, and now resonates among marginalised Muslim youth worldwide. From the Parisian banlieues to Palestine to Kyrgyzstan, “hip hop reflects struggle against authority” and expresses a “pain” that transcends language barriers. 

An ironic choice

Rappers whom Muslim youth relate to often disagree with US foreign policy [GALLO/GETTY]

Moreover, note the authors, hip hop’s pioneers were inner-city Muslims who “carry on an African-American Muslim tradition of protest against authority, most powerfully represented by Malcolm X”. The report concludes by calling for a “greater exploitation of this natural connector to the Muslim world”.    

The choice of hip hop is ironic: The very music blamed for a range of social ills at home – violence, misogyny, consumerism, academic underperformance – is being deployed abroad in the hopes of making the US safer and better-liked. European states have also been disptaching their Muslim hip hop artists to perform in Muslim-majority countries. Long before the fall of the Gaddafi regime, the British Council was organising hip hop workshops in Tripoli, and sponsoring Electric Steps, “Libya’s only hip hop band”, as a way to promote political reform in that country.

Rap is also being used in de-radicalisation and counter-terrorism initiatives. American and European terrorism experts have expressed concerns over “anti-American hip hop”, accenting the radicalising influence of this genre. Others have advocated mobilising certain sub-genres of hip hop against what they call “jihadi cool”. 

Warning that Osama bin Laden’s associate Abu Yahya al-Libi has made al-Qaeda look “cool”, one terrorism expert recommends that the US respond “with one of America’s coolest exports: hip hop”, specifically with a “subgroup” thereof.

“Muslim hip hop is Muslim poetry set to drum beats,” explains Jeffrey Halverson in an article titled Rap Is Da Bomb for Defeating Abu Yahya. “Add in the emotional parallels between the plight of African-Americans and, for example, impoverished Algerians living in ghettos outside of Paris or Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and the analogy becomes even clearer.”

But it’s unclear how “Muslim hip hop” will exert a moderating or democratising influence: Will a performance by an African-American Muslim group trigger a particular calming “effect”, pushing young Muslim men away from extremist ideas? Nor is it clear what constitutes “Muslim hip hop”: Does the fact that Busta Rhymes is a Sunni Muslim make his music “Islamic”?   

Moreover, while references to Islam in hip hop are – as these public diplomacy experts note – legion, they are not necessarily political or flattering. In December 2002, Lil Kim appeared on the cover of OneWorld magazine wearing a burqa and a bikini, saying “F*** Afghanistan”. 

50 Cent’s track “Ghetto Quran” is about dealing drugs and “snitchin'”. Foxy Brown charmed some and infuriated others with her song “Hot Spot”, saying, “MCs wanna eat me but it’s Ramadan.” 

More disturbing was the video “Hard” released in late 2009 by the diva, Rihanna, in which she appears decked out in military garb, heavily armed and straddling a tank’s gun turret in a Middle Eastern war setting. An Arabic tattoo beneath her bronze bra reads, “Freedom Through Christ”; on a wall is the Quranic verse: “We belong to God, and to Him we shall return” – recited to honour the dead, and not an uncommon wall inscription in war-torn Muslim societies.

The point is that not all Islam-alluding hip hop resonates with Muslim youth. Those hip hop stars – Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Rakim – who are beloved among Muslim youth are appreciated because they work their Muslim identity into their art and because they forthrightly criticise US foreign policy.

At the recent BET hip hop Awards, Lupe Fiasco performed his hit “Words I Never Said”, with a Palestinian flag draped over his mic. (“Gaza Strip was getting burned; Obama didn’t say sh**,” he rapped.) But neither Lupe nor Mos are likely to be invited on a State Department tour.

For State Department officials, the hip hop initiatives in Muslim-majority states showcase the diversity and integration of post-civil rights America. The multi-hued hip hop acts sent overseas represent a post-racial or post-racist American dream, and exhibit the achievements of the civil rights movement, a uniquely American moment that others can learn from.  

But it’s unclear how persuasive this racialised imagery is. Muslims do not resent the US for its lack of diversity. Where perceptions are poor, it is because of foreign policy, as well as, increasingly, domestic policies that target Muslims. 

Perhaps the greatest irony of the State Department’s efforts to showcase the model integration of US Muslims, and to deploy the moral and symbolic capital of the civil rights movement, is that these tours – as with the jazz tours – are occurring against a backdrop of unfavourable (and racialised) media images of Quran burnings, anti-mosque rallies and anti-sharia campaigns, as one of the most alarming waves of nativism in recent US history surges northward.

US diplomacy’s embrace of hip hop as a foreign policy tool has sparked a heated debate, among artists and aficionados worldwide, over the purpose of hip hop: whether hip hop is “protest music” or “party music”; whether it is the “soundtrack to the struggle” or to American unipolarity; and what it means now that states – not just corporations – have entered the hip hop game.

Hip hop activists have long been concerned about how to protect their music from corporate power, but now that the music is being used in diplomacy and counterterrorism, the conversation is shifting.

The immensely popular “underground” British rapper Lowkey (Kareem Denis) recently articulated the question on many minds: “Hip hop at its best has exposed power, challenged power, it hasn’t served power. When the US government loves the same rappers you love, whose interests are those rappers serving?”

Hishaam Aidi is editor, with Manning Marable, of Black Routes to Islam (Palgrave Macmillan 2009), and a fellow at the Open Society Foundation in New York.  For more on race, hip hop and geo-politics, please see this longer study by Dr Aidi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.