By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, AlterNet
Since 2005, the US State Department has been using hip-hop as a bridge for foreign cultural diplomacy. Operating under the auspices of then-public diplomacy undersecretary Karen Hughes, the “Rhythm Road” program began sending “hip-hop envoys” to, mostly, the Middle East, hoping to promote transnational understanding through music and dance.
Al-Jazeera ran an excellent piece on the program this week, which begins with this quote from Hillary Clinton in 2010: “Hip-hop is America,” she told CBS—certainly a true statement, but not one anyone would have expected to hear before the Obama adminstration, even from culturally savvy Bill Clinton, whose most famous exchange with hip-hop was when he accused Sistah Souljah of reverse racism.
And while President Obama has done a good job of finally welcoming into the White House the most important musical movement of the last 35 years (both culturally and commercially), his olive branch to the culture has been met with controversy. Most recently, right wingers expressed outrage over his invitation to rather innocuous rapper Common on poetry night, with Sean Hannity wrongly painting him as a controversial "cop-killer"—an absurd assertion to anyone who listens to his music.
The aforementioned Al-Jazeera piece, which chronicles hip-hop's relatively new embrace within the state department, also discuss the music's role in the Arab Spring, which was declared "le printemps des rappeurs" by the French and thought to be a spark in both Syria and Tunisia. Of course, hip-hop's role cannot be quantified in those instances, and in Morocco and Algeria—where hip-hop enjoys a vast audience—there has been no revolution. Al-Jazeera blames the enthusiasm of Western media to lionize hip-hop's role in actual revolutions on their idea that "a taste for hip hop among young Muslims is a sign of moderation, modernity, even 'an embrace of the US.'"
Yet regardless of its impact on the revolutions—something that's impossible to gauge—rap has spread everywhere. The State Department is using hip-hop as a diplomatic concern in an effort to piggyback and control it, yet hip-hop has already been its own diplomat. Notoriously begun in the South Bronx of New York in the mid 1970s, flourishing despite urban blight and extreme disenfranchisement by the government, as it grew as a phenomenon its spirit resonated across the world. Nearly every country across the globe has its own interpretation of hip-hop—Russia, Denmark, and Turkey, as well as Tunisia and Morocco and Algeria—and not just because it conveyed cool cache. The rebellious notion of it, and the fact that it's a really effective way to express political malcontent, translates across cultures and languages (Public Enemy's rise to global popularity in the late 1980s certainly had a hand in it.)
And, quantifiable or no, the Arab Spring was not the first time protests have been inextricable from hip-hop. For instance, in 2006, after the banlieues of Paris erupted in response to rampant anti-immigration and racist sentiment in France, President Sarkozy blamed what he called "ruffians" but some of whom were, in fact, rappers who spoke against him. (Take Alibi Montana and Menace Crew's "Monsieur Sarkozy," and feel free to read my 2006 article on the topic in SPIN magazine.)
The State Department's actions mirror its efforts during the Cold War, when they dispatched prominent jazz musicians to counter Soviet propaganda about life in America. The Al-Jazeera piece brings up that this program sends Muslim hip-hop artists, in particular, to Muslim-majority countries to discuss their experience in the United States. It also points out the irony in the concept of using hip-hop in foreign diplomacy, when rap has been blamed for America’s worst aspects for so long. But clearly, rank hypocrisy is embedded in the program: the true rap voices of American youth have long been maligned by the government—and if the government expended more effort helping the blighted and impoverished black communities most of it comes from, it wouldn't be so reviled there. Further, there's the institutional existence of "hip-hop cops"—state-organized task forces within police departments created especially to target rap's high-profile stars—which have plagued the genre since the mid-1980s.
But first, some history. During the Cold War, the jazz musicians who went out in the name of American diplomacy were world-famous, like Dizzie Gillespie. This initiative doesn't parallel that--the groups it sends are generally unknown among hip-hop fans, despite many American rappers being both political and popular. For instance, Legacy, one of the groups in the program, is a four-person, live instrumental hip-hop crew, and while their pedigrees certainly guarantee an underground audience (they are all trained professionals, and have played mostly with jazz ensembles), that probably wouldn’t have much cache among most US hip-hop consumers.
The program's site explains that the groups are chosen for their "artistic integrity, music ability and educational skills." They're also painting a portrait of acceptance and cultural understanding in America that is counteracted daily by reports of physical violence against Muslims.
Plus, as Al-Jazeera points out, most hip-hop artists American Muslim youth respect are, too, making anti-capitalist, anti-regime statements, including Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Talib Kweli (the latter three have given support to Occupy), as well as Philadelphia legend Freeway.
Enlisting these or any number of Muslim rappers—who enmesh their religion with their lyrics—would make more sense from the cultural standpoint of a hip-hop fan, though clearly not an ambassadorship one.
And as for the "society-ruining" rap music that people like Hannity and Bill O'Reilly constantly harp on—nothing would curtail hard rap quicker than if the government ended the drug war, whose racist policies have ruined the lives of so many young black men that discontent is inherent. (And you have to wonder what the State Department would make of Shyne, the immensely popular Diddy associate who, after spending nine years in prison for a 2001 shooting, emerged an Orthodox Jew and began showing support for Zionist spy Jonathan Pollard.)
But nuance is not the most questionable part of this program. It’s the absurd idea that it exists, when other branches of the government—the FBI in collusion with the NYPD in particular—have been so adamant about profiling (and taking down) well-recognized stars of the genre. The “hip-hop cops” are also known as the “rap task force,” and their existence solely for the surveillance of rappers’ movements has deepened the mistrust of police within hip-hop (and young blacks and Latinos by extension).
Certainly some well-known rappers have been involved in illegal activities and have even made millions off of bragging about them (50 Cent, who began his career as a crack dealer and was shot nine times before his career skyrocketed, is probably the best known example). Nevertheless, the purpose of monitoring rappers has echoes of COINTELPRO. For years, the existence of the hip-hop cops was rumored in New York (though the LAPD involvement with the murder of the Notorious BIG suggests it spread elsewhere). Bronx rapper Fat Joe told MTV in 2005:
"It's definitely a task force," Fat Joe said. "You go to hip-hop spots now and they ain't just your normal walking-the-beat cops. There's cops out there in undercover cars like they know something we don't know. Like bin Laden's in the club, B."
Some may have thought it a paranoid conceit, but in the mid 2000s, around the time the monitoring seemed to pique, the NYPD was capturing a disproportionate amount of rappers doing minor offenses. The insane amount of times rapper Busta Rhymes has been pulled over for minor traffic infractions alone suggests the force assigned him his own personal detail. Running red lights, talking on the phone, speeding, you name it—more than just garden variety racial profiling, hip-hop was getting busted and the NYPD seemed out for vengeance. In 2007, Lil Wayne was arrested in New York after performing at a show with a hulking police presence. (I was there, covering the show for VIBE magazine, and the amount of cops made it look something like an Occupy protest.) The popular rapper was charged with possession of a gun the police found on his tour bus, and though he denied it was his, the prosecution used a disputed, highly controversial DNA test to link him to it. He spent a year at Riker's Island as a result.
If it felt like the cops were fiending to arrest a high-profile rapper at that show (it did), they might have been. In 2006, Derrick Parker, a former police officer tasked with creating a "Rap Intel" squad, published the book "Notorious C.O.P.," detailing his experience on the NYPD for 20 years—and proving the existence of the Hip-Hop Task Force.
Ironic, no? It would behoove all to look behind the State Department's motives and wonder whether it’s trying to paint a pretty picture abroad, while punishing citizens at home—even now, with a more hip-hop friendly presidency (for the time being).
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
© 2012 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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