Taming The Rebel Music

by Katie Zavadski

Hisham Aidi’s Rebel Music looks at hip-hop, Islam, and international diplomacy:

The 9/11 attacks brought a new dimension to the relationship between Islam and hip-hop. In December 2001, John Walker Lindh, a young American, was found behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. Just how did this middle-class boy from Marin County end up joining the Taliban? His online postings, analysts argued, offered a clue: in hip-hop chat rooms, Lindh often posed as black, adopting the name Doodoo or Prof J. “Our blackness does not make white people hate us, it is THEIR racism that causes the hate,” he once wrote. Experts traced Lindh’s path to Afghanistan back to his mother taking him, at age 12, to see Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X, after which he read Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X and began listening to hip-hop. After this episode, American and European officials began to speak of rap’s potential to radicalize.

In the mid-2000s, amid the Abu Ghraib scandal and the resurgence of the Taliban, the State Department recast hip-hop as a tool rather than just a threat. Karen Hughes, then undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, launched an initiative called Rhythm Road and sent “hip-hop envoys”—rappers, dancers, DJs—abroad. The tours have since covered the broad arc of the Muslim world, stretching from Senegal and Ivory Coast, across North Africa and the Middle East, to Mongolia, Pakistan, and Indonesia. As part of a campaign costing $1.5 million per year, the artists stage performances and hold workshops; those who are Muslim speak to local media about what it’s like to practice Islam in the U.S. The trips aim not only to exhibit the integration of American Muslims, but also, according to planners, to promote democracy and foster dissent. In 2010, after one such performance in Damascus, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described hip-hop as a “chess piece” in the “multi-dimensional chess” game that is “cultural diplomacy.”

Yet the result, writes Aidi in an excerpt from his book, was often a patronizing interpretation of what fell under the umbrella of acceptability:

[W]hen in April 2007 the [British] Home Office introduced Prevent, an initiative to stop British Muslim youth from being lured into violent extremism, it made sure that hip-hop figured prominently. Muslim organizations in Britain would receive Prevent funding to organize “Spittin’ Light” hip-hop shows, where American and British Muslim rappers with “mainstream interpretations” of Islam would parade their talents. The initiative was directed at younger Muslims, who may not have been associated with mosques or other religious institutions. Prevent’s advocates claim that art can provide Muslims with “an acceptable outlet for strong emotions.” Given Prevent’s involvement in the arts, leaders of cultural organizations—wooed by the American embassy and the British government—are unsure of whether to accept state funds.

“Art is inspiring, art can create conversations that we can’t have in real life, and Muslim artists should be allowed to speak about anything,” says Hassan Mahmadallie, a theater director and officer of the Arts Council of England. “But Prevent is in effect putting limits on the speech of Muslim artists, funding only those the government considers ‘good’ Muslims.”

I wish we had statistics on how successful these programs are. They strike me as somewhat counterproductive: one of the chief complaints levied against the West by purveyors of radical Islamic ideology, after all, is that we try to export our norms onto Muslim-majority countries. Would a youth drawn to that kind of rhetoric be more incensed if he found out the British or American government was purposefully pushing another brand of Islam? Would that push someone on the edge further to the extreme?

In 2007, we covered the Muslim punk rock scene – which Andrew dubbed a type of “South Park Islam” – here.

(Video: Members of the Vice Verse All Stars discuss their participation in the Rhythm Road program in 2010)