Beats and Bombs?
According to Hillary Clinton, “hip-hop is America.” This might be surprising to anyone who remembers her playing the race card during her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination. Those of us old enough to remember her husband Bill’s attacks on Sista Souljah during his own run for the White House back in ‘92 are surely scratching our heads even harder at this quizzical embrace.
For those who don’t know, Chen Lo and the Liberation Family are a Brooklyn based jazz-rap group who are now the crown jewel in Clinton and company’s attempt to “rebuild” America’s sullied image. The program she’s referring to is called “The Rhythm Road,” an initiative launched by the US State Department in collaboration with Lincoln Center in 2005 to “share America’s unique contribution to the world of music and to promote cross-cultural understanding and exchange among nations worldwide.” Though primarily a jazz-based project, it didn’t take long for it to spread its vulturous wings into the world of hip-hop. Since ‘05, the tour has made its way into West and North Africa, the Middle East and reached well into Asia, specifically targeting heavily Muslim nations.
The irony here might seem obvious: a musical style and genre that (much like jazz in its hey-day) gestated as a response to America’s vicious history of racism, poverty and outright brutality, now being used to paint a pretty picture of this nation as a dynamic, equal-opportunity nation even as its own inequalities stubbornly persist. And yet, not long after the CBS piece broke, there were elements in hip-hop’s grassroots stumbling over themselves to praise the development.
Biz Jones, writer for SOHH.com, titled his own piece “US Drops Hip-Hop Envoys, Not Bombs, to Kill Overseas Tension.” And though Jones’ article touched on the criticisms of the Rhythm Road project, even the title is more than a bit disingenuous.
Just to review, even as the media has remained fixated on the “victory” in Iraq, Barack Obama’s administration has sent more troops to Afghanistan (even presiding over the country’s deadliest month since the beginning of the occupation). He has overseen covert drone-bombing missions into Pakistan, Yemen and who knows where else. And, he sat on his hands while deals were made for the Saudi crushing of the Bahraini revolution in exchange for a NATO bombardment of Libya. A more accurate title for Jones’ article would be “US Drops Hip-Hop Envoys and Bombs...”
That SOHH.com has soft-pedaled this contradiction isn’t necessarily a surprise. During the ‘08 campaign its writers were among the chorus proclaiming Obama “the first hip-hop president,” fixated on his youth and apparent affinity for the culture. The term itself became the subject of endless debate, especially after the inauguration. After all, if rap and hip-hop provided the soundtrack for struggle in Black America, and if a country built on slavery could finally elect an African American to the highest office of political power, then maybe the struggle of hip-hop had finally succeeded. Maybe the fact that Jay-Z was being name-dropped from the corridors of power and Common invited to the White House signified a final end to the poverty, the brutality, the colonization and abject bigotry long leveled against people of color in the US.
As we all know, liberal utopias aside, this hasn’t been the case. The Great Recession (you know, that one we’re being told is supposedly over?) has taken its greatest toll on African Americans. And just as Obama has provided a continuity for America’s imperial ambitions abroad, so has he done nothing as the axe of austerity has fallen on social services, public sector unions and our most deprived schools, all of which have had a disproportionate fallout for communities of color.
At best, all of this makes state-sponsored programs such as the Rhythm Road into a smokescreen--and a rather shoddy one to boot. At worst, it’s simply a confirmation of the very thing the program is suppose to be covering up-America’s continued denial of basic rights and dignity at home and abroad. Hip-hop acts may want to seriously ask themselves whether they’re doing this rich, bottom-up resistance culture any favors by being associated with the Rhythm Road.
This isn’t the US government’s first arrogant attempt at harnessing rebel music for its own aims. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the State Department organized tours of jazz luminaries like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington to Asia, Africa and the Middle East on similar diplomatic tours. The overarching aim of these tours was to promote, in the words of jazz biographer Penny Von Eschen, "a sense of shared suffering, as well as the conviction that equality could be gained under the American political system.”
Whether these artists were aware of the propaganda role they were playing is debatable (especially in the case of Ellington and Gillespie, both of whom played fundraisers for the Communist Party in the ‘30s and remained sympathetic to socialist ideas for their entire lives). Much more obvious was the hypocrisy at play. As the US trotted integrated jazz groups to audiences around the world, back home that same American political system was turning dogs and fire-hoses on Southern Blacks attempting to gain that same integration.
What seems most pompous--then and now--is the notion that America has some kind of ownership over this music, and that it’s vitality can be brought from above rather than gestate from below. Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim were learning trumpet and piano under the conditions of apartheid South Africa well before Goodman and Armstrong showed up on their shores. The jazz influenced highlife genre had been thriving for decades in Ghana and Liberia without the aid of the US State Department.
Today, the most vibrant songs in hip-hop aren’t being taught by Americans to Arabs, but Arabs to Americans. The past year has seen songs like “Raid Lebled” by Tunisian rapper El General, “Not Your Prisoner” and “Rebel” by Cairo’s Arabian Knightz, rocket round the world on a wave of revolution. Often these songs have been enough to earn their composers stints in jail or death threats for the crime of criticizing their countries’ regimes--regimes that, more often than not, are backed to the hilt by the US.
Sphinx, a member of Arabian Knightz who for years has endured police harassment and censorship, recently told me in an interview:
“Whether the US is using hip hop as a tool for ‘diplomacy’ or not doesn’t change the fact that hip-hop was already growing in the region. They might have just realized that and tried to infiltrate it for their own gains as they always do, but hip-hop in Arabia is still pure and for the people by the people.”
Viewed from the bottom up, these artists reveal that while the American music industry has been doing its best to file down all of rap’s rough and rebellious roots, young people in the world’s most oppressed corners have brought it back with a vengeance. And with it, they’re reminding the rest of the planet that the people of these nations have the right to determine their own culture, their own destinies.
And that, in essence, is what the US is attempting to halt, not promote, with the Rhythm Road. It’s why, even as Chen Lo and the Liberation Family grace stages in Syria and other nations, the United States remains mum on Morocco’s imprisonment of Casablanca-based rapper Haked. Likewise for Israel’s censorship of Palestinian rappers.
Legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, when asked in the ‘50s why his music’s anti-racism was so often couched in hidden messages, responded “those that don’t know and those that don’t need to know, don’t need to know.”
In other words, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. Hillary Clinton, who views hip-hop as little more than a chess piece (her own words) doesn’t get it. Neither, really, does Barack Obama. Hip-hop isn’t a culture of manipulation, smoke and mirrors spoken in the language of the pith-helmeted emissaries of “Western civilization.” It’s a voice of the voiceless, a cry against invisibility coming from those who have tasted repression’s boot the most. And while it might be a kind of America, it’s certainly not the oppressor’s America (or Egypt or Morocco
Lately, it’s rebel spirit is manifesting in a lot more than just our music. Sooner or later, Obama, Clinton, and the rest of the empire’s benefactors are going to find themselves mic checked.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist based in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies, and is a columnist for SOCIARTS. He has appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics, TheNation.com and other publications. Earlier this year he helped fount Punks Against Apartheid and is currently a member of the Arts & Recreation committee for Occupy Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.