Hip-Hop Diplomacy & “Good Muslims”: The Case of Next Level

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.

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8 thoughts on “Hip-Hop Diplomacy & “Good Muslims”: The Case of Next Level

  1. Yuyang says:

    I find this program very interesting and the idea behind reminds me of “dance diplomacy” during the Cold War era as well (very similar to Jazz diplomacy I felt). I agree with all questions you raise and these questions come across many public diplomacy programs. The assumption made is that such program can alter people’s perception but this assumption often does not holds well. In this case, I even wonder that whether such movement can have some counter-effect that Muslim youths may feel that Muslim hip-hop is a production of stereotype and propaganda. Furthermore, even if they do buy it and like it, so what? Kim Jong-un studied abroad as student before and loves Disney secretly, does that change his attitude towards the Western country or his diplomatic approach for North Korea? The connection between “love pop culture” and “change perception/approach” especially extremist ones are illusive. And we may hope for the best while the reality is not as optimistic as we would like to assume.

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  2. First I would say using culture elements like music or sports in diplomacy always look great on paper.
    Music is a international language and with the internet and social media there are very few genres that didn’t break out of their national borders.
    And although hip-hop is popular all over the world, trying to use it as public diplomacy, unlike jazz or classical music, is problematic.
    I wont touch on the whole irony of anti-establishment music being used by “the MAN” I would just say that is what usually happens with most good underground culture – it ends up center stage.
    The problem is, which I think you touched on, is the fact that hip-hop in its core is very political. Just look at the artist you mentioned, Mos Def stuck a tube up his nose to protest against force feeding inmates in Guantanamo and Lupe Fiasco has a lot of pro-Palestinian lyrics.
    When approaching young musicians in Muslim countries the state department has to have a larger plan than “let show them how to brake dance.” Because essentially they are giving them a very strong protest tool in the music, and those kids who will later see a drone strike over their village wont hesitate to rap against the US and lead the protest. Daniel

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  3. Cat Marte says:

    Yuyang’s response was awesome! I completely agree with everything that has been said here. It seems American’s look down on hip hop as an aggressive and vulgar art form that is left aside for the underprivileged African American and “trailer trash” White American. Even so, I can see the genius behind this initiative because, art is a powerful driving force in most communities around the world. It can transcend beyond difference and speak a common language. To that extent, I am sure the government has taken note on the power of hip hop in the States, regardless of “White America’s” personal distaste towards the genre. In fact, it is widely used in this same manner throughout urban areas in America. There are numerous programs, including Words, Beats and Life, Hip Hop Education and Literacy Program and so many more. So why not try to use such a powerful tool in public diplomacy? Especially considering that it was already popular in the areas of interest.

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  4. Cat Marte says:

    This is awesome! I completely agree with everything you have said. It seems really silly that American’s would push forward a musical genre that they constantly put down as aggressive and vulgar. The paradox here is that the greater American audience looks down on Hip Hop, yet it has been proven to help mitigate some of the domestic conflicts we have had in urban cities. As we all know, art is a powerful tool for inspiration and motivation that speaks to people all over the world, despite language and cultural barriers. Hip hop in particular is a very powerful tool that has been used in Urban America for years to educate and uplift inner city youth with programs such as the Words, Beats and Life program, and Hip Hop Education and Literacy program. In this way, it seems only reasonable that we use it to mitigate conflict elsewhere while hopefully promoting a pro-America campaign.

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  5. I think it’s very obtuse for the State Department to this mainly because it’s operating under the view that regardless of background, “all Muslims are the same” and they’re ignoring cultural and historical differences of the American Muslims and Muslims they’re trying to reach abroad, in addition to there being many different sects of Islam. Hip hop as a medium works best in an organic form; by being co-opted and essentially cultivated by the government it’s loses it’s intentions and ignores it’s foundations as a counterculture movement. The reason why so many people from other nations can identify with rap artists despite cultural differences is that the music points to certain universal struggles and themes, especially in the social justice sphere. I’m not putting down other initiatives like this that are designed to engage and educate but I think the State Department being behind it makes it a joke. Personally, I detest anyone trying to co-opt something they don’t even engage with on any level for there own personal gain. It would serve them better to put funding into programs and non-profits already in place (and who do a much better job) than this initiative.

    – Laurel B.

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  6. I think that the State Department should be careful when trying to introduce programs. I find it is more effective for the State Department to fund organization that are trained and tested to organize and implement programs such as teaching music. There is an organization called MIMA that teaches music to communities from all over the world. They have been doing this for 10 years and they set up schools that support the education of music from the culture where the school is located. The students then can take their own path in style. I think to implement rap is to marginalize the music of the community which they are working within.

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  7. jpouyes says:

    I want to piggy-back Daniel and Laurel’s idea. Hip hop artists are wonderful in that they provide great persepectives on the American culture and social life, particularly as it pertains to the black experience. The problem is some of our most “conscious” artists include Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco who are political to their core. They tend to be the staunchest critics of the U.S., and I think they’re messages are counteractive to the U.S. public diplomacy objective.

    Yasiin Bey released a song named “Katrina Clap”in light of Hurricane Katrina which just so happens to sample the classic New Orleans jam “Nolia Clap” (performed by Juvenile aka Juve the Great). Lupe Fiasco has often referred to President Obama as a terrorist. Kendrick Lamar constantly alludes to the “ronald reagan area” which propogates the concept that the ex-president is synonyomous with the devil.

    I’ve found that more neutral artisits (i.e the black eyed peas) are more suitable for public diplomacy purposes. Hip-hop inherently leans left and “bucks” the system.

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  8. I agree with a lot of the points made in your post and in the comments, but it is also important to consider the interaction between the “hip-hop artist-educators” and participants in the Next Level program. I’ve seen a lot of these educational opportunities be really valuable. In Iraq, the university I worked at flew out some actors and artists to work on projects with students. The program was called The Art of Social Justice and everything produced during the 10-day program was related to social justice. What came out of the exchange was pretty phenomenal: students learned some new skills ([photography, improv), formed friendships with the visiting artists, and the visiting artists developed a more nuanced understanding of Iraqi culture and what social justice means to young Iraqis. It was a win-win project and totally worth the funds/effort (the State Department put up the cash). What I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t dismiss this idea because its goal is to counter “violent Islamism.” I think that’s a pretty lofty and ridiculous goal. However, on the interpersonal, cross-cultural relations level, a project like this might be successful.

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