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.


Trafficking in Narratives

The narratives circulated about human trafficking, both by governments and by nonprofit groups, have a big impact on how trafficking is understood by the general public, what kind of policy is passed about it, and what kind of action is taken towards stopping it. The United States acts on these narratives through the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which works on legislation, gives grants to international groups fighting trafficking, funds US-based anti-trafficking programs, and publishes the annual Trafficking in Persons report, which reports on the phenomenon worldwide. And while the narratives promoted by nonprofits and by the Office often have the best intentions, they end up restricting the kind of action that can be taken to fight trafficking, and promoting ethnocentric, narrow views of the problem itself.

The most prevalent narratives of trafficking go something like this: human trafficking occurs when someone  is forced to leave their home — usually involving the crossing of borders — in order to perform labor for little or no pay. Usually trafficking is said to affect women and children, though they are certainly not the only victims of trafficking. Imagery of abduction, sweatshops, and child prostitutes is common. The final piece of this narrative is that the only way for this global atrocity to end is through the intervention of large-scale NGOs and/or government intervention.

The reality of trafficking is far more complicated (especially with regards to sex trafficking*). Movement across borders for purposes of labor often straddles a murky line between coercion and willful migration, and the forces of structural poverty and oppression often force those in the developing world to make the least-awful out of several pretty awful choices when it comes to generating income. In addition, cultural understandings of sexuality, childhood, and debt can complicate the one-size-fits-all explanations of the problem (or solutions) that the TIP report seems to promote. In terms of sex trafficking, for example, narratives of what trafficking is — and isn’t — means that the United States probably isn’t going to give international grant money to an organization that is not explicitly abolitionist when it comes to prostitution, even when many women in the developing world see sex work as their best option (and, once they are forced out of the industry, end up in sweatshops). And trafficking happens in the United States, too — But we hardly talk about it as such, and the United States wasn’t even included in the TIP Report until fairly recently. Furthermore, these narratives of trafficking never seem to include the bigger picture: globalization, industrialization, government inefficiency, cultural attitudes towards gender, etc., all interact to make trafficking a reality, and if we don’t take a critical look at these structures, we’re just putting a band-aid on the larger social ills. Narratives of trafficking are narrow enough so that we pity the child forced to weave a carpet in Nepal — and feel that we must act to make other nations fix their trafficking problems — but we don’t think twice about who is picking our fruits and vegetables right here in the US. Until our narratives of trafficking include these structural forces, and ask us to take a good hard look at our own impact on global trafficking (for example, the way that our demand for $5 tee shirts relies on sweatshop labor), they are not going to be sufficient to ensure fair-labor practices worldwide.

(*If you want more links than that, I’ve got plenty. I actually wrote my undergrad thesis on the discourses of sex work and sex trafficking, so I could help fill your brain with more information/opinions on these narratives than you would ever ask for.)


Government, Governance, and Consensus

At first, it’s easy to say that the difference between government and governance is grammatical, or that it’s purely semantic. The difference seems more relevant, though, when you consider the connotations of power distribution between these two systems. From what I can understand, a system of “government” seems to imply a system with one governing body, which more or less solely holds responsibility for governing. “Governance,” however, implies the act of governing: not necessarily in a traditional, government-centered way, but with several actors and less rigid and historically-bounded precedent. “Governance” is a more fluid, active concept that can be performed by governments or by other actors (or by both, working together).

What is interesting to me about governance as a concept is the diverse number of interests that can then be considered in the governing process. In a system of shared governance, everyone approaching the process brings with them their own interests, meaning that in a best-case scenario, more facets of a particular problem will be accommodated and taken into account. In a worst-case scenario, though, it seems possible that so many issues will be brought up that the governing bodies can end up in a state of paralysis.

This is, of course, especially relevant in the area of Internet governance. I’ve been working for the past few weeks as a research assistant for a professor who researches cooperation among international organizations in the realm of Internet governance. In particular, I’ve been looking at conversations that happened at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) this past year. Although it is far from the worst-case scenario, there is certainly a struggle of competing interests when debating potential Internet governance policy that led to pretty slow movement at the conference. If I have learned anything from reading the transcripts of IGF meetings, it is how hard it is to reach consensus when dealing with multi-stakeholder governance. There was even a time in one IGF meeting in which the attendees debated how much consensus they would need before releasing any suggestions or documents from the meetings; in other words, a struggle for consensus about how to reach consensus! But beyond that, reading through IGF transcripts has shown how much the many stakeholders in Internet governance care about the platform remaining open, diverse, and truly multi-stakeholder, relegated not to one (or many) governments but to an active system of governance that involves all relevant actors.


White People Problems: Participation and Diverse Representation

(From last week’s SNL episode; found @ http://thumbs.mic.com)

Recently, it seems that the “participatory turn” has allowed consumers to make their voices heard about personal and political issues in the media. This case is made especially clear with the issue of diverse representation in the media, especially regarding the depressing lack of actors of color (and especially women of color) chosen for major roles on mainstream television (the HBO show “Girls,” with its purported desire to represent the female millennial experience and its total lack of non-white main characters, faced heavy viewer criticism for this). This lack of representation is not new, but the way that content creators are hearing viewers’ demands for better, more diverse representation is new, and relates to the audience’s ability to voice their opinions and connect (especially via social media) with content creators.

Saturday Night Live is a great example of this. In the past forty years, SNL has only had four black women as cast members, and after Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007, SNL ran for six years without a black woman in the cast. For the 2013 season, six new comedians were hired for the show; not one of them was a black woman. Keenan Thompson, a cast member, explained this lack of women of color by saying that the SNL producers “just never find ones that are ready,” a comment that sparked an outpouring of annoyance across the Internet. Fans of online comedy knew plenty of black, female comedians who were more than ready for SNL – Why were they not hired?

Eventually, SNL had to answer to the public outcry against the lack of diverse representation on the show; first, with a parody of this problem performed by host Kerry Washington, and later, by hiring comedian Sasheer Zamata to join the cast. While this one new cast member will not solve the problem of SNL’s historical lack of diverse representation in its casting, it does show the power and possibilities of audience participation in mainstream television.


Optimus Prime in Hong Kong


(Optimus Prime, from Transformers 4, on the red carpet at the Hong Kong premiere of Transformers 4: Age of Extinction)

This summer, Transformers 4 — directed by director-turned-mindless-Blockbuster-making-machine Michael Bay — was released to scathing reviews in the United States. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called it even more “dull, dumb and soul-sucking” than the first three, and refused to give it even one star. According to Time Magazine, however, Transformers 4 was “highest-grossing film in [China’s] history.” The Chinese government does not allow many American movies to be screened in Chinese cinemas, but Michael Bay managed to find a way around this by making a movie (according to Time) “set and filmed in China, starring Chinese actors, using Chinese resources and pushing Chinese products.” The result? Chinese audiences loved it, Michael Bay (probably) made an exorbitant amount of money, and we got a fascinating example of the power that Hollywood still has in cinema audiences worldwide.


McDonalds & Gastrodiplomacy: Keeping Globalization Theory Relevant

1) What does globalization theory still provide that is useful for practitioners of international communication.

Although globalization isn’t still considered groundbreaking, I would argue that it is still a useful theory (or set of theories) in the field of international communication today. Globalization is helpful to us newer (or hopeful) practitioners in this field in part because it give us a starting point to understand the ways in which (and the degree to which) the world is already connected in this current historical moment. Understanding the novelty of globalization also helps us put the globalized world we inherited into its historical context, to understand how and why globalization occurred and how our globalized communications landscape differs from older situations. Understanding why the world is globalized as it is today, and how it ended up like this, may also help us understand where processes of globalization are taking us.

In Hanson’s “The Information Revolution, the Global Economy, and the Redistribution of Wealth,” she calls for us to think about the world as globalizing instead of globalized, as these processes are still ongoing (158). I think this is an especially relevant way to frame globalization that highlights why it is still useful: while thinking about the world as increasingly globalized is nothing new, the processes by which the world is growing ever-more connected continue to exist and change. This is especially relevant as we think about culture. In class, we discussed debates within globalization theory about whether globalization would create mass, homogenized cultures or if it would help to define and strengthen local cultures. As we’ve seen and discussed, globalization seems to have the effect of doing both. There may be McDonalds restaurants everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that local traditions of selling and consuming food have disappeared all over the world. In fact, we could maybe even connect the McDonalds-ization of the world to the recent pushes for “gastrodiplomacy” that we discussed in class last week. Are governments starting to focus on supporting their local food cultures (and the export of these culinary traditions) in part because of the influx of American fast-food restaurants? Could we view this as an example of globalization being a force that both pushes some parts of global hegemons’ cultures into other cultures, while simultaneously supporting the maintenance of local culture? Thus, globalization theory enables us to keep an eye on the changing ways in which the world is becoming more interconnected and interdependent, and reminds us that this process is far from simple – or over.


What aspects of international communication in history are still relevant today?

Judging from our discussion in class on Tuesday, I think we picked up on several historical aspects of international communication that are still relevant today. One thing that we touched on a few times but I would have liked to discuss more was the power relations that are implicit in any study of international communication. This was mentioned several times in the readings, especially in relation to the Macbride commission and the New World Information and Communication Order. During that UNESCO commission, several developing nations argued that news media and other forms of international communications skewed towards representing the interests of Western nations, which (according to Masmoudi, cited in Thussu) “created and sustained mechanisms of neo-colonialism” (32).

While I think these concerns are still relevant to today’s international communication landscape, I am interested in the ways that new social media platforms have complicated these power relations. In the time of the NWICO, it would be relatively difficult for a person from, for example, the United States to access local news from growing cities in a developing nation. Now, I can use social media to access journalism and personal accounts of events happening pretty much anywhere. This complicates global inequality in information flows in several ways; not only does it allow for the spread of information from journalistic sources in countries that might not otherwise be able to disseminate their work as easily, but it also allows for people to give personal narratives that may counter the (often biased) information provided by Western media outlets writing about non-Western situations. While this does not necessarily balance out these power relations, it does provide ways for those in non-Western and/or developing nations to have their voices heard, and it does help push back against the hegemony of Western voices in international media. I am interested in keeping these questions of power relations and of whose voices get heard in mind this semester as we continue to see how historical aspects of international communication stay relevant.