From Afrika Bambaataa to Mos Def to Jurassic 5 to Lupe Fiasco, Islam and hip-hop have had a long and close relationship within the United States, and politicized Muslim hip-hop has quickly been gaining in popularity overseas. The US Department of State has been attempting to tap into that sentiment in a few different ways; one of their most recent projects is Next Level, a collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The program plans to send “hip-hop artist-educators” from the United States on an international exchange program. The program will “use popular music and dance to foster cross-cultural creative expression, understanding and conflict resolution in younger audiences in underserved communities and support the professional development of artists in those communities.” Scholar of hip-hop politics and youth culture Hisham Aidi mentions the program as being part of a larger State Department effort to use hip-hop as a means of countering violent Islamism (modeled in part after the way the State Department used so-called “jazz diplomacy” during the Cold War era). Next Level’s website mentions that participants will visit “six countries—in Africa, Eastern Europe, and South Asia,” but according to Aidi, it’s likely that most of them will be Muslim-majority countries.
Next Level, and programs like it, seem relevant because they use an American-born medium that is growing more and more popular with global audiences. The program seeks to empower young audiences by helping them “develop skills and express themselves in ways they wouldn’t have thought possible.” This program will help foster connections between US beatmakers, b-girls and b-boys, DJs, and MCs, and similar folks from other countries, using a political medium (hip-hop) but without an explicitly political agenda, instead couching their mission in the language of things like “artistic collaboration,” “social engagement,” and “outreach”. If Next Level finds success, it will come from being able to simultaneously engage with young people on their own level and promote a distinctly American-born art form.
I see two main sources of irony in the use of hip-hop to counter anti-Western extremism: first, in that mainstream white society has all-too-often demonized hip-hop by making racist or ignorant assumptions about it, but is generally okay with the medium if it promotes American foreign policy goals; and secondly, that so much early, political American hip-hop critiqued these exact institutions that marginalized lower-income communities and communities of color. Both of these things make it seem a bit strange that Next Level is attempting to capitalize on hip-hop’s overseas popularity by promoting a state-sanctioned, sanitized version of it. Furthermore, critics of programs like Next Level ask “how exactly ‘Muslim hip-hop’ exerts a moderating influence on Muslim youth.” With extremist Islamist views coming from both inside and outside the hip-hop world, Aidi asks, “Can a performance by an African-American Muslim group really push young men away from extremist ideas?” and, in a case of hitting the nail directly on the head, asks “What ‘different narrative’ are these groups presenting?” If it is just the narrative of “empowerment” and self-expression promoted on State Department websites, how much does this differ from the narratives ISIS and similar groups use to recruit young Muslim men? But it seems the different narrative is more so one of Western values and pro-American sentiment discreetly encoded into the work of the Next Level artist-educators, and this seems a far more complicated message to ensure is delivered and internalized by participants. But then again, Dave Brubeck said he believed jazz helped end the Cold War; perhaps the State Department has some reason to believe that hip-hop can help end America’s fight against Islamic extremism.