The Soft Power Shuffle
It may seem obvious that the U.S. government is at war with Islam at home and abroad. The reality is more complex. For example, in the excellent new book Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (Vintage, $19.95), Hisham Aidi describes the work of Jihad Saleh, Congressional legislative assistant and head of the 45-member Congressional Muslim Staffers Association.
Working with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, Saleh helps to host Islamic religious scholars, giving them tours of the Capitol. “They cannot believe that every Friday afternoon a hundred Muslims come out to pray in Congress,” Saleh told Aidi.
“I know, in many ways, we’re tap dancing for the State Department,” adds Saleh, “that they’re using us to show Muslims around the world how affluent American Muslims are, and how tolerant America is.”
The tune the State Department calls for tap dancing is often an explicitly musical one. Muslim hip hop artists from America do shows at U.S. embassies in Europe, where millions of Muslim immigrants now live. In France, the U.S. ambassador sponsors hip hop conferences while French rappers are given free trips to the U.S. The U.S. embassy in Yemen puts on hip hop shows for local youth while State Department brochures feature photos of Wu-Tang Clan.
Aidi writes: “In 2010, State Department-sponsored break dancers were doing shows in Morocco and Algeria; rappers 50 Tyson and Kumasi were performing in Indonesia. Along with these tours, films about Islam and hip hop in America were screened at US embassies in Asia and Africa…. In 2010 the State Department sent a Brooklyn-based rap group named Chen Lo and the Liberation Family to perform in Damascus.”
Hip hop outreach is a significant part of U.S. government strategy. “Rap is at the heart of the embassies’ outreach….Farah Pandith, the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities, believes hip hop can convey a ‘different narrative’ to counter the foreign ‘violent ideology’ that youth are exposed to.”
The violent reality of U.S. foreign policy excludes some types of music from soft power consideration. Hard rock and heavy metal have been used as the soundtrack of choice for American troops and bomber pilots and have also been used by the CIA during interrogation and torture sessions. Another reason hip hop is the first choice of the State Department is the music’s longstanding relationship to Islam. Since its early days in New York, much hip hop has been informed by Islamic thought and many prominent rappers have been Muslims.
Following Chen Lo’s show in Damascus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boasted that “Hip hop is America,” claiming that it could “rebuild the image” of the United States. It would have been no surprise if Clinton said she loved hip-hop, considering that rap producer Timbaland raised $800,000 for her at a Florida soiree in 2007. But her hip hop bona fides are highly suspect. Hillary Clinton was a compliant member of Walmart’s board when the company was the most active censor of hip hop; she attacked hip hop in a speech to the Democratic National Convention; and as Secretary of State Clinton worked to guarantee the continuing flow of billions of dollars to prop up the Saudi regime. Hip hop music is illegal in Saudi Arabia.
The problem the State Department has with using hip hop to “rebuild the image” of the U.S. is that hip hop tends to give an all too accurate image of America: poverty, police brutality, the world’s biggest prison system. From the government’s point of view, that problem is solved by pre-screening all lyrics. You wanna get paid? Rap how we tell you. American artists need the money precisely because they live in the poverty that they end up having to help cover up. Meanwhile, Yemeni youth may enjoy hip hop shows at the U.S. embassy, but when they return home they are still in danger of being killed by a U.S. drone strike.
The use of black American Muslims in pursuit of foreign policy goals isn’t new. Aidi writes: “The American Colonization Society, founded by Henry Clay in 1817 to ‘repatriate’ African slaves to Liberia, saw Muslim slaves with their Arabic literacy as a valuable tool for opening up West Africa to American economic and religious interests. America’s African Muslims were seen as natural intermediaries…the Muslim slaves…were indebted to the U.S. for their newfound freedom, and could help spread the gospel of American civilization in Africa…Some would feign conversion to Christianity and be sent to Liberia and Sierra Leone bearing Arabic-language Bibles.”
Today the State Department sponsors showings around the world of Arabic-language slave narratives to demonstrate that Muslims have been in America for four hundred years.
The current foreign hip hop cavalcades are used to distract from the reality of oil-driven military invasions. Similarly, in the 1950s and 1960s the State Department organized tours in Asia and Africa by integrated U.S. jazz bands to “rebuild the image” of an America busy overthrowing governments from Iran to Guatemala to the Congo, an America where black people could not vote or go to college or safely walk down the street. “Many of the jazz tours appear to have moved in tandem with CIA operations,” writes Penny Von Eschen in Satchmo Blows Up The World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.
Since there was no way to cover up the revolts collectively known as Arab Spring, the U.S. decided to just stand reality on its head. Despite the fact that the U.S. government strongly supported the oppressive regimes targeted by the Arab peoples, American officials blithely claimed they supported the uprisings. Well aware of the worldwide respect not just for American black music but for the freedom movement here as well, they moved to try to gain control of the discussion.
To that end, the State Department produced rap tributes to Arab Spring and, Aidi writes: “In 2011 the U.S. embassy in Tunis organized a public speaking competition for youth who want to be like Malcolm X, [asking] ‘Are you the next Martin Luther King? The next Gamal Abdel Nasser? The next Malcolm X? Can you inspire and move people with your words?’…American and European officials…note the centrality of Malcolm X to Muslim youth politics and argue that a ‘moderate’ understanding of the ‘Malcolm X narrative’ is critical to protecting ‘at risk’ Muslim youth.”
Aidi describes how Muslim youth are using culture and organizing as they strive “to imagine a utopian future for themselves.” I wondered how they defined that future and whether or not the U.S. was having any success in getting them to limit their understanding to “moderation.” When I asked Aidi to more explicitly define what type of utopian future was being imagined, he replied: “Muslim youth are drawing on black history to imagine a world where they are not ghetto-bound, where urban-beleaguered communities worldwide form a transnational community, where Islam is not set against the West, where North Africa is not separated from sub-Saharan Africa.”
Or, as Malcolm X put it, in words that allow everyone into the conversation:
“I believe there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based upon the color of the skin.”