Battle of hearts and minds: music as a tool of US public diplomacy

By Sophie Wilson in Sydney, Australia

27 October 2014

The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Dr. Sarah Graham. You can see more of their posts here

Since the killing of American journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of the Islamic State terror group, speculation surrounding the individual militant responsible has focused on British rapper-turned-jihadist, Abdel Majed Abdel Bary. Some news articles have drawn a link between Bary, his rap music, and hip hop generally, addressing a merging of gangsta rap and jihad.

Sure, this extreme form of hip hop could very well be used as part of one of IS’s slick social media recruitment or propaganda campaigns. However the link between Islamic–US relations and hip-hop consists of much more than the extremist, jihadi rap perpetuated by Bary. In fact, American hip-hop has been harnessed as a positive cultural force by the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in an attempt to generate cross-cultural goodwill in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Rhythm Road, a $1.5 million per annum initiative, sends “hip hop envoys” to perform, conduct workshops and classes, and promote positive, relatable sections of American culture abroad. Those of the envoys who are Muslim speak to local media about living as a Muslim in America.

The US government’s embrace of hip-hop is recent, but the idea behind the initiative is not. Mobilising music as a tool of public diplomacy began during the Cold War, when jazz was employed to improve the nation’s image in the face of communism. Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington were sent to perform their popular "American Music" in the Soviet Bloc, Middle East, and Africa.

Jazz and sphinxWhile designed as a foreign policy strategy to represent America as a whole, the jazz initiative served to particularly highlight the place of African Americans in the US national identity. The benefit of this from a diplomatic standpoint was that it encouraged a favourable opinion of Americans in spite of a disdain for their government, and challenged crude American stereotypes.

Today the US must address ideological difference, restore credibility, and encourage a positive image of America in the Middle East, where anti-Americanism is rife and non-state actors, such as IS, pose an increasing threat. This is not an easy ask, and entrenched anti-American views cannot be reversed via the exercise of hard power. So, the State Department continues to adopt public diplomacy initiatives such as Rhythm Road, using music as an unconventional tool of soft power to tackle equally unconventional threats.

Read More

According to a 2008 Brookings Institute report, the role of art and culture in the US's relationship with the Muslim world has enduring importance in perpetuating or reversing negative stereotypes. Hip-hop is the genre of American music considered most likely to bridge serious present-day cultural divides, and, importantly, encompasses Islamic ideology thanks to pioneering hip hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa.

This sentiment is echoed by Hisham Aidi, author of Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture. According to Aidi, the US Government is aware of the importance of hip-hop to youth identity formation and mobilisation, and recognises the enduring role 1990s politicised hip-hop had in “introducing Muslim youth to black history, the African American struggle, freedom movements, and figures like Malcolm X.” Today, as it has done for decades, the music acts as a "natural connector" between American and Middle Eastern Muslim youth, representing a primary vehicle of global youth culture.

In 2010 — shortly before hip-hop rose to provide a soundtrack for the Arab Spring, and Time magazine named Tunisian rapper El General one of the 100 most influential people of 2011 — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that "hip hop is America," that “there are certainly times when music conveys American values better than a speech,” and that music is integral to using “the full range of tools at [the nation’s] disposal.”

Clinton’s comments make clear the importance of public diplomacy in American foreign policy. By adopting political theorist Joseph Nye’s strategy of "smart power," the government exercises both hard and soft power — a strategy that the United States is in the unique position to advance, given its military capability and the global pervasiveness of American popular culture.

However, the success of such public diplomacy initiatives depends upon other policies operating in tandem, particularly the use of force, and, even then, success of cultural programs is difficult to measure. While there’s no doubt that Syrian youth watching Brooklyn-based hip hop artist Chen Lo and the Liberation Family perform in Aleppo provides a moving and persuasive exchange for all involved, the top-down government initiative could also be viewed as unwelcome and antagonistic. Not only that, the government’s use of hip hop — one of America’s most significant forms of musical protest against social inequality — could be seen as insincere.

Nonetheless, smart power encourages the use of all resources at one’s disposal, and as Clinton has said, cultural diplomacy is but one piece in a very tricky foreign affairs chess game.


Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

No, Nicki Minaj didn't endorse Mitt Romney

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

4 September 2012

Settle down, rap fans and Republicans. Despite excitable reports from Politico, RapDose, and so many others, Ms. Pink Friday probably hasn't gone red state.

Here's what The Hill has to say:

Rapper Nicki Minaj gave Mitt Romney an expletive-filled endorsement in a Lil Wayne song released Monday.

The pop star, rumored to be a new judge on "American Idol," also took a shot at President Obama on the eve of the Democratic convention.

“I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney, you lazy bitches are f------ up the economy,” she rapped on "Mercy," the fifth track on the Lil Wayne's "Dedication 4" album.

Only... that's not what happened at all. Do any of y'all listen to rap music? 

I don’t know how Nicki Minaj plans to vote, but this doesn’t sound like an endorsement; it sounds like a song. It’s very much in the mould of rappers asserting their success by parodying the habits of the financial elite. (c.f. Obama supporters Jay-Z and Nas claiming to be “Black Republicans” or Kanye West saying he'll make his son vote GOP.) Voting for Mitt Romney is something rich people do, and Nicki is demonstrating her wealth by claiming to engage in behavior identified with rich people. Also, and most importantly, it means she gets to rhyme “Romney” and “econ’my,” which seems to be her overriding concern.

See, something you don't understand if you don't actually listen to rap music is that hip-hop involves a lot of play-acting. We don't really think Snoop Dogg is a pimp or Rick Ross a drug kingpin. We expect rappers to stretch the syntactic and semantic possibilities of words. Minaj, after all, also claims on record to have male genitalia and commonly raps as gay male alter-ego Roman Zolanski. But fiction aside, in real life, Minaj's beliefs on healthcare seem to be to the left of most Democrats.

EDIT: She's done this before. From the "All I Do is Win" remix:

You could talk slick all the way down to the welfare
Ask the IRS, bitch, I'm paying for your healthcare

Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

Tuning up in Dixie

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

13 March 2012

Next up on the Republican primary calendar are the votes tomorrow in the deep South states of Mississippi and Alabama. Southerners are apparently too polite to poll reliably, but if you believe the forecasts, Mitt Romney has a slight lead in Mississippi, Newt Gingrich has a slight lead in Alabama, and Rick Santorum is surprisingly unpopular. There isn't too much at stake in these contests, but a good showing from Romney might help convince his rivals that this race is indeed over.

It's become a bit of a tradition on this blog to warm up for each state's primary with a relevant song. In that spirit, here's "Mississippi Girl," Faith Hill's ode to the women of the the Magnolia State:

"A Mississippi girl," the country singer informs us, "don't change her ways just because everybody knows her name." No mention on whether Massachusetts men have a similar aversion to flip-flopping.

After the jump, an Alabama tune. (Though not one by Alabama.)

Read More

This is "Let's Roll," by Alabama rapper Yelawolf, with some help from Mitt Romney-supporter Kid Rock. Yela's not your everyday Southern rapper; he's a white boy who looks like a skate rat and spits thick, fast syllables about life in the boondocks of Gadsden, Alabama. His view of Southern life is a melange of Confederate flags, violence, poverty, American cars, methamphetamine abuse, and local pride. It's a place where a black music born in New York City sits comfortably alongside the white tradition of Southern rock, too: "Why's he playing Beanie Sigel?/Cause his daddy was a dope man; Lynyrd Skynyrd didn't talk about moving kis of coke, man," he raps on another song, "I Wish." The modern South is more complex than stereotypes will allow.

Incidentally, I didn't post a tune for Kansas, because its primary was held on a weekend. If I had, it would have been "Campfire Kansas" by revered Lawrence, KS emo group The Get Up Kids.


Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

Annals in celebrity babies: Blue Ivy

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

13 January 2012

Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z

This isn't a bad point by Damon Young, about Beyoncé and Jay-Z's six day old daughter:

...I wonder if, 20 to 25 years from now, the birth of Blue Ivy Carter will be an historically relevant moment. I realize this seems like hyperbole — she’s not even two days old and it sounds like I’m already reserving her star on the Walk of Fame — but she’s already made history. She’s the first African-American ever who was famous before she was even born.

Think about it. There have been black child stars (Michael Jackson, Emmanuel Lewis, Raven Symone, etc), black stars who had children at the height of their fame, famous children of uber-popular black people (Malia and Sasha Obama) and even established black stars who had children while at the height of their fame and saw those children become famous while they were still children (Willow and Jaden Smith).

But, never has there been a child produced by an African-American couple while both mother and father were A-list celebrities...

Celebrity babies are one of the more esoteric measures of racial progress, but it certainly seems that, until Blue Ivy Carter came along, the only couples famous enough to have the birth of a child be an event of national pop-cultural obsession have been white. Suri Cruise, Lourdes Leon, and Frances Bean Cobain all look distinctly diifferent to the progeny of Jay and Bey, but America's tabloid fascination with a black newborn is the logical next step to its adoption of an African American couple as its first celebrity couple.

Read More

Jay-Z's place in supermarket checkout fame is remarkable in itself. He is, after all, a man who first came to public attention thanks to gritty tales of drug dealing and violence, ostensibly based on his own life growin up in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects. Middle America has tentatively embraced hip-hop over the past three decades, but that a man whose musical output still includes stories of routine criminality, and whose most recent album was one of the most fascinating artistic engagements with American racial conflict of the year, could become the object of the country's most banal cultural product — the celebrity press —  is oddly cheering.

On that most recent album, a collaboration with Kanye West called Watch the Throne, the men included a song, "New Day," addressed to their hypothetical children. Jay dwelled on the state of black fatherhood, and contemplated his own unusual place in black America: "Sorry junior, I already ruined ya/Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya." For his actual daughter, Jay released a quickly recorded (and artistically dubious) tune called "Glory." It features snippets of his daughter's babbling, and has made its way on to the Billboard charts. Blue Ivy Carter might or might not be the first African American celebrity baby, but she's definitely the youngest person to ever be credited with a hit single.


Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

I'm no fool, I'll make it up in summer school

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

22 November 2011

Like Brandon Soderberg, and unlike Gawker, I have no problem with Georgetown University teaching a sociology course based on Jay-Z. In fact, I wish I had the chance to take it. Here's Brandon:

Jay-Z's lyrics would work just fine in a literature or poetry class (Decoded is basically his own Norton Critical Anthology of Jigga), but that's irrelevant to this discussion because, as nearly everyone who mocked the course seemed to ignore, [Michael Eric] Dyson is teaching a Sociology course! And Jay-Z's career is perfectly suited for the study of that discipline.

Born in 1969, towards the end of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Jay is old enough to recall the first rumblings of hip-hop, yet young enough to have come of age during the crack era. He then flipped all of those experiences into a hip-hop career, and from there, into a successful business career, as well. Unlike most rappers who endlessly mine the complexities of thug life as if they just left the corner yesterday, Jay-Z, especially on his bumpy but fascinating "post-retirement" work, has truly wrestled with his criminal past even as he becomes more superficially "distant" from it.

I've talked before about how hip-hop is a useful lens for examining US culture, particularly the culture of some of the country's more marginalised populations, who may not have as easy access to traditional media to discuss ideas important to them. In fact, I've made reference to Jay-Z specifically while making those arguments. Academics have developed a respectable body of work in hip-hop studies, and Georgetown and Dyson should be congratulated for furthering that study. In the words of the man who calls himself Young Hov: Damn, where's the love?

Read More

Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

Cruisin' in the ATL

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 September 2011

Goodie Mob - Dirty South (Soul Food, 1995)

This may only be pertinent to those of us with a niche interest in hip-hop or American cities, but Pitchfork has a great interview up with one of my favourite writers, Kelefa Sanneh, about his contribution to a photobook titled Atlanta, about the Southern city's rap scene. Sanneh's a snart critic who describes well the cultural terrain of one of the most important cities in contemporary African America:

Another thing that's interesting about Atlanta is that it's a real magnet. A lot of the people that define that music aren't from there; they're drawn there. Gucci Mane comes from Alabama.Waka Flocka was born in Queens. The amazing producer Lex Luger comes in from Virginia. T-Pain's from Florida. Even when Lil B launched his own first co-sign post Pack, he goes and hooks up with Soulja Boy. Machine Gun Kelly, from Cleveland, goes to Atlanta and hooks up with Travis Porter. I think one reason why the city has sustained itself so well is that it has welcomed artists from all over the place ... There is this industry infrastructure. Maybe it's because Atlanta is known as a comfortable place to live if you're African-American and have some money, and people generally enjoy living there. Can it become the Nashville of hip-hop? With Nashville, it's not even about a Nashville sound anymore. It's just that if you want to go into country music, that's where you go. It's not impossible to imagine that Atlanta can get there.

Read More

I've talked before about how hip-hop tells stories about American cities that don't often get told elsewhere. Atlanta is a hip-hop locus, but part of that story is that, allowing with the rest of the South, it's growing in importance as a homeplace for black Americans. The African American population has grown faster in the South over the past decade than at any time since 1910. After spending close to a century heading north and west, looking for economic opportunity and to escape segregation and racism, African Americans are increasingly moving back to the South. Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about this as a "homecoming":

Moreover, as surely as Chicago was the mythical "Promised Land" for blacks in the early and mid 20th century, Atlanta is the mythical "Promised Land" for blacks in the late 20th and early 21st Century. This seems to be the week of killed stories for me, so I'll quote from a long dead piece I wrote about about black New Yorkers decamping for Atlanta to illustrate the point, "Growing up, especially in New York, you'd see pockets, but very few of us doing well," said Debra Harper. "And if we were doing well, we were living in white communities. In Atlanta you can do well and still live among African-Americans who are also doing well. I had never seen that before."

I'm always a little wary of using rap as a means to talk about African American issues. After all, it is a music that speaks only for part of the community — usually the younger, male part — and, obviously, there are plenty of black folks who have no interest in rap or actively dislike the way it presents them. And since it's primarily a form of entertainment, the language hip-hop uses and stories it tells are stylised and sometimes unrealistic. It takes familiarity with the genre to learn how to read the music as a text.

Yet at the same time, hip hop was the first exposure I ever had to black people talking about American politics, culture, and history on their own terms, and it continues to be one of the most common means in pop culture for black voices to be transmitted. It's only part of the story, but it's an instructive part if you pay attention to it.


Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

Jay-Z, small government, and the declining Tea Party

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

27 July 2011

Jay-Z and Oprah at Marcy projects in Brooklyn, NY

Earlier this month, I put up a post explaining how hip-hop can function as an important and insightful voice for marginalised communities, using the DC rap scene as an example. Coincidentally, I came across a section in Jay-Z's book Decoded in which the rapper argues the same thing:

But even when we could shake off the full weight of those imposing buildings and try to just live, the truth of our lives and struggle was still invisible to the larger country. The rest of the country was freed of any obligation to claim us ... Hip-hop, of course, was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens — not through the lens of outsiders.

Decoded is a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it, but it needs to be understood in context. Jay-Z is an entertainer, not a politician, and the book functions, in part, as his attempt to make a case for his own legacy. Even so, when read in that light, he has much to say worth heeding. (It also recounts a conversation the rapper had with President Barack Obama, in which the rapper recounts the then-candidate Obama saying "he wanted to close it out like Jordan." If so: awesome.) I found the following passage says a lot about America as well about hip-hop:

Poor people in general have a twisted relationship with the government. We're aware of the government from the time we're born. We live in government-funded housing and work government jobs. We have family and friends spending time in the ultimate public housing, prison. We grow up knowing people who pay for everything with little plastic cards — Medicare cards for checkups, EBT cards for food. We know what AFDC and WIC stand for and we stand for hours waiting for bricks of government cheese. The first and fifteenth of each month are times of peak economic activity. We get to know all kinds of government agencies not because of civics class, but because they actually visit our houses and sit up on our couches asking questions. From the time we're small children we got to crumbling public schools that tell us all we need to know about what the government thinks of us.

Then there are the cops.

Read More

In places like Marcy there are people who know the ins and outs of government bureaucracies, police procedures, and sentencing guidelines, who spend half of their lives in dirty waiting rooms on plastic chairs waiting for someone to call their name. But for all of this involvement, the government might as well be the weather because a lot of us don't think we have anything to do with it — we don't believe we have any control over this thing that controls us. A lot of our heroes, almost by default, were people who tried to dismantle or overthrow the government — Malcolm X or the Black Panthers — or people who tried to make it completely irrelevant, like Marcus Garvey, who wanted black people to sail back to Africa. The government was everywhere we looked, and we hated it.

You don't need to agree with Jay-Z's framing of the relationship between government and poor urban America to recognize that parts of the American population subscribe to it. This is a description of people with a decidedly anti-government viewpoint, but one that manifests itself in a different way to the anti-government viewpoint of conservatives, Tea Partiers, and libertarians.

A brand of lazy cultural analysis claims political salience by conflating conservative "small government" rhetoric with a long American history of individualism and suspicion toward concentrated power. By claiming a certain set of pro-business economic and political policies as being congruent with minimal government, American conservatives have reduced a shared and varied cultural history to a partisan agenda. Such has been their success in this regard that some liberals believe, as Matt Yglesias puts it, that "for progressive politics to succeed [they] need to raise the social status of 'big government.'"

The kind of anti-government views expressed by the predominantly white, middle to upper class Tea Party is as selective and nuanced as the anti-government views explicated by Jay-Z in his assumed role of avatar for predominantly black, lower class America. The people Jay-Z describes value the welfare they receive and the medical services the government provides them, though they do not appreciate the overbearing bureaucracy that comes with it. Much of their irritation with government springs from its failed presence: poorly-performing schools, for instance. The relationship they have with government power exercised by means of the police force derives from its intrusiveness, but also, as Public Enemy alluded to in "911 is a Joke," its inattentiveness. This is a view of government that demands its involvement but is hostile to its encroachments.

The "small government" stance is concerned with different functions of government, but it is not that different — and certainly does not result in a reduced government presence. "Small government" conservatives tend to value government involvement in broad-based universal programs like Medicare or Social Security, infrastructure projects and regulation that facilitate suburban lifestyles, regulations that shift externalities deriving from polluting industries on to the population at large rather than the polluters, rigorous defence of borders, a strong capacity to extend military power, and strong enforcement of property rights. (Not every conservative endorses all these types of government power, but they tend to support most.) By contrast, conservatives tend to bristle at what they notice as failures of government bureaucracy, such as business regulation, income tax, or services provided to people they consider not worthy of receiving them.

Certainly it's correct to acknowledge certain widespread cultural beliefs common amongst Americans pertaining to government and individual liberty. It is a mistake, however, to suppose these accord with a specific political ideology — that Americans are therefore conservative. (Although some are!)

And as far as specific demands from Americans for their government to do more or less: they fluctuate. At the moment, however, it seems Americans would prefer their government did more. That's what this chart suggests, anyway:

American opinion regarding whether the government should do more or less


Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

Why D.C. rap matters, even if you don't care about rap

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

13 July 2011

Cover art for D.C. rap group Diamond District's 2009 album

D.C. rappers like those in Diamond District offer a perspective on the city that exists outside the Capitol

The District of Columbia has a population of 601 723 residents, half of whom are black, but the daytime population swells when Congress is in session and government workers pour in from the surrounding suburbs. It's a divide Andrew Nosnitsky recently discussed at The Fader:

Like every story, most cities have two sides. Nowhere 
is this more apparent than in our nation’s capitol and its surrounding ’burbs, where the line between the rich and poor is at its most rigid. This divide extends to the hip-hop community where Wale and Tabi Bonney have made national inroads with their brand of upwardly-mobile rap, while the city’s street scene has yet to produce a significant local hero. There, go-go still reigns as the dominant local music, and gentrification fragments any semblance of a gangsta rap scene. But it’s this chaos that birthed Fat Trel, an undeniable talent who could very well grow to be the city’s own brash and hedonistic d-boy champion—if not a more multifaceted rap hero. “I want the [DC area] to know that they got a voice from the street side,” Trel says. “I want to motivate the thugs.”

One of the reasons I think hip-hop is important (apart from its status as one of America's most consistently vibrant and creative cultural exports) is that it gives voice to the sides of cities that don't usually get a voice. In America, social, political, and cultural conversations are dominated and directed by a predominantly white and predominantly male elite. Hip-hop doesn't correct the gender divide, but it is an alternate reality where black voices are the norm. Public Enemy frontman Chuck D famously described rap as "CNN for black people," but it's better to understand this not as an argument that it's a source of political debate, but that it's a realm in which the conversation is controlled by the Tupac Shakurs of the world, not the Anderson Coopers. Not to denigrate Andrew Brissenden or the cultural importance of jazz, but I feel that heading to a D.C. jazz club is an exercise in history, not an experience of contemporary America.

Read More

When I first came to D.C. last year, the town's hip-hop was my way into beyond its government offices, monuments, and museums. My introduction came courtesy of Wale, one of the upwardly mobile artists Nosnitsky identifies as being on one side of the DC rich/poor line. Reflecting on my experiences in Washington after I'd left the city, I wrote the following:

The Metro would be my lifeline from the Capitol to the rest of the city. Certainly, there were places around the building in which Congress bled into the city surrounding it. Pennsylvania Ave, a few blocks away, had bars and restaurants so heavily frequented by Capitol Hill staffers that they felt like outposts of the Capitol itself. But only when I would venture farther beyond that, to the collegiate surrounds of Georgetown, or the African American neighbourhoods around U Street, did I find a D.C. that wasn't purely a government town. Waiting on the Metro platform to go to these places, I would listen to "Nike Boots," a song by a local rapper Wale, predicated on a D.C. united by an austere footwear choice. The rapper sprinkles his verses with locations I could see spread out on the Metro map: "P[rince] .G[eorge County]., Riverdale, Largo, Temple Hills, Cap Heights"; distant places in the far reaches of the District—or even up in Maryland—that, in this conception of the city, were more vital than the monuments and offices at its centre. Wale talks about "getting [his] U Street on," but he also pays heed to the poltical institutions that built his city, making them one and the same as his hometown: "No Congressional reppers, no respectable rappers," he bemoans, as if the two were equivalent. "D.M.V. [D.C., Maryland, Virginia], so we used to the waiting," he puns.

Nosnitsky recently commented on my connecting Wale with D.C. in this way

I think this statement pretty accurately reflects a large portion of Wale’s local or formerly local fanbase. His (pre-Ross) music panders pretty specifically to an informed transient/outsider perspective of what DC is like by crafting simple, short term “home”town recognition through brief and obvious flashes of DC-centricity. Oh shit! Ben’s Chili Bowl! I’ve been there! Nike Boots! I see the kids wearing those on the metro! For the most part he delivers these signifiers through a hip hop template that isn’t otherwise region specific, thereby creating an easily digestible pride for people who have no particular investment in the city. This makes a lot of sense too. Listening to Wale for the DC experience is like going to the Lincoln Memorial for the DC experience. Which is exactly how most people on earth experience DC. So in a weird, backwards way, his superficiality is as authentic a representation of the city as any actual, authentic DC rap would be.

Hey, maybe he's right! I did, after all, come in every day from Arlington, VA. Perhaps the Wale experience is the commuter experience, the tourist experience. I'm not local enough to the city to be able to tell.

Either way, whether talking about Wale or Fat Trel, Tabi Bonney or Diamond District, these are all perspectives of D.C. that don't make it into Politico or The Hill, that aren't a part of Georgetown boutiques and the Lincoln Memorial. They are themselves incomplete, as well; hip-hop cannot be expected to speak for the entire black population, or all urban poor, and it would be a mistake to suppose it does. Nonetheless, it's one product of the parts of D.C. that exist externally to feuds between John Boehner and Barack Obama. That those parts are so rarely heard from makes them even more worth listening to.

The entirety of my time in Washington last year, I wanted to visit a club playing the local D.C. style of funk called go-go. It never happened, partly because I was one of D.C.'s transient residents; spending all day in the Capitol and nights in Virginia made the long trip to a strange part of town that would have been required an ordeal I never had time to undertaken. Next time, I hope. In the interim, introduce yourself to D.C. rap with Wale integrating go-go into his sound on "Back in the Go-Go," Diamond District's "The District" or Trel's chaotic (and profane!) "Respect With the Teck." This is not the Washington you see on C-Span:

Go-go is a different conversation entirely, but if you've never heard the sound, try Trouble Funk's "Pump Me Up" or Chuck Brown's "Bustin' Loose."


Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

Fox News's war on Common Sense

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

12 May 2011

To be fair, the rapper born Lonnie Rashid Lynn dropped the "Sense" to go by the shorter alias of Common years ago now. Either way, Fox News was unimpressed by him being invited to the White House to perform at an Evening of Poetry event. Conservatives are displeased that, to quote the Daily Caller, Common's "poetry includes threats to shoot police and at least one passage calling for the “burn[ing]” of then-President George W. Bush."

That is true, as you can see in this video. I'll explain this quickly: rappers are artists, not politicians. The things they say are not speeches detailing personal positions, but are — as their audience understands — impressionistic collages of character, hyperbole, invective, bravado, and fantasy. That is not to say there is no truth in rap; the spoken word piece that has got Fox News all bent out of shape is a lucid critique of the antagonism between law enforcement and black communities. The truth is, as it often is in art, filtered through aesthetic devices and genre conventions.

But I shouldn't need to tell you Fox News is ginning up controversy where there should be none. More interesting is the story around the story. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, comments on the not-so-subtle racism of this episode:

Read More

David is pointing to something else, something which I tried to get at in my Malcolm piece. Throughout the 80s and 90s, there were a lot of black folks on the public stage who many of us loved, but never really held up as role models or hoped would be "accepted." You can understand why, say, Mike Tyson, Chuck D, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, OJ Simpson, NWA, or Snoop Dogg might be polarizing. A lot of these folks were polarizing even within the black community. You didn't really expect these people to be received as your ambassadors.

But Common is the dude in the Gap ad. His mother is a teacher. Shirley Sherrod is a victim of white supremacist terrorism, who lectures black people on seeing their own prejudice. Eric Holder went to Stuyvesant. Michelle Obama's mother was a homemaker. Her parents forfeited a full athletic scholarship to send Michelle Obama's brother to Princeton. They used to watch the Brady Bunch together.

The point is that Common is not NWA. In fact, though he's deservedly a hip-hop icon, I see him as someone kinda corny these days. He hasn't made a great album in years (2005's Be was aight), he's dropped some seriously wack verses in high profile appearances ("Get 'Em High" on Kanye West's College Dropout is the most egregious offender), and his music has lately devolved into this kind of fluffy, grown-folks wallpaper. If ever a rapper were going to be invited to the White House for a poetry reading, it would be someone as friendly and unabrasive as Common. Which is Coates's point, though I don't know if he shares my distaste for the rapper's latest musical adventures: When conservative opinion-makers get themselves worked up for no good reason about a parade of nice, perfectly innocuous folks, you start wondering whether it might be their skin colour that is the problem.

Even so, Fox News is right on one point. Inviting a rapper to a White House function is a bit out there. Rap is more than thirty years old now, and it has never been accepted by the establishment — musical or political. While listeners outside the genre accused it of being noise, lobby groups tried to ban it for its foul language, its distate for law enforcement, its violence, and its at times lunkheaded attitude to women and gay folks. As you can see from some of the examples Conor Friedersdorf gives of previous White House musical guests, people for some reason get a lot more worried when less-than-kosher speech is coming from the mouth of a young, angry black kid than when it originates from, say, a mop-topped British white man.

So, just like when Barack Obama made reference to the Wu-Tang Clan at this year's White House Correspondents Dinner, or when Jay-Z, Nas, and Kanye West were involved with his campaign or inauguration, it's a small but significant shift in the American cultural landscape. Hip-hop is now considered respectable enough to be heard inside the confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. This is partly because hip-hop is getting older, but it's also, I believe, a conscious part of the Obamas' effort to expand the cultural language spoken by the powerful so as to include a broader swathe of America.


Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 0 Comments

Funked out with a gangsta twist

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

16 March 2011

Warren G and Nate Dogg - Regulate (1994)

"The rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble" was the manifesto for G-Funk, the West Coast musical movement of the '90s that wasn't grunge. Spearheaded by producers like Dr. Dre and Warren-G and rappers like Snoop Dogg, it captured the sound of California in the Clinton era, as the violence of the LA riots faded into economic prosperity. The scene's staple soulman was Nate Dogg, whose smooth vocals added just the right amount of melody to the music's tales of sex and violence. According to Long Beach paper the Press Telegram, the man whose birth certificate read Nathaniel Dwayne Hale died today. He was 41 years old.

Nate Dogg was the consumate hip-hop hookman, and in addition to his handful of studio albums, he had contributed to a slew of other rapper's tunes over the past couple of decades, working with everyone from 2Pac to 50 Cent, Eminem to Ludacris, the Game to E-40. He was an iconic voice in one of America's most important and vital recent artforms. His presence will be mourned and sorely missed.

While it would be terribly tacky to even seem to politicize his passing, I can't help but note Nate Dogg's relative youth, particularly in light of how often other rappers die similarly premature deaths. Considering that most of these musicians are African American and frequently come from poor backgrounds, I wonder how often black folks who aren't well known because of their artistic ability have their lives similarly cut short due to poor health. Nate Dogg had recently suffered two strokes, and in that light, this news wasn't terribly unexpected. Perhaps Nate Dogg was simply unfortunate, but it's a real shame a citizen of the richest country in the world should not have lived to a much older age.

Bookmark and Share

Print This Post 2 Comments

Recent Posts