America's Hip-Hop Foreign Policy

How rap became a battleground in the war on terror
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A rapper performs at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012. (U.S. Embassy Kabul/Flickr)

For several years now, American and German officials have struggled with how best to respond to Deso Dogg. The Ghanaian-German artist, whose legal name is Denis Cuspert, gained popularity during the mid-2000s as a pioneer in Germany’s gangsta-rap scene, performing with DMX and recording tracks like “Gangxtaboggy,” “Daz Iz Ein Drive By,” and “Meine Ambition Als Ridah.” In 2010, following a car crash, he embraced Islam and began documenting his Malcolm X-like transformation—from a life of women and bling to the “straight path”—in lyrics and music videos. Soon enough, he left hip-hop altogether and became a Salafi named Abu Maleek, embracing an ultra-conservative strain of Sunni Islam that frowns upon music and the use of instruments. He began describing his hometown of Berlin as a kuffar metropole (infidel metropolis). Instead of rap, he started composing and performing a cappella nasheeds, or devotional chants.

The hip-hopper-turned-Salafi evangelist or a cappella preacher is not an unusual figure in Muslim youth culture today: Napoleon of Tupac’s Outlawz, Loon of Bad Boy Records, and Sean Cross of Ruff Ryders Entertainment have all recently found God, quit rap, and toured European and Muslim-majority states speaking out against hip-hop culture. Their sermons and poems tend to be apolitical, focusing on atonement and self-improvement. 

Deso Dogg, however, went in a different direction. In his nasheeds, he excoriated U.S. foreign policy and expressed support for insurgents in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. German officials even sought to arrest him for a song that allegedly inspired a 21-year-old Kosovar to fire at a busload of American servicemen in Frankfurt in March 2011. And then Deso took his own advice and went off to Syria to fight the “apostate” regime. For much of 2013, the ex-rapper released a cappella songs against the Assad government, and posted photos online of him splashing around in creeks and playing with a rocket launcher. But last November, a video posted to a German Islamist website appeared to show Deso Dogg unconscious on a stretcher, his shirt caked in blood and his lifeless, bearded face framed by a white cloth (an image strikingly reminiscent of the photograph taken of Malcolm X before his burial in February 1965). A man in the video pumps Deso’s heart desperately, in an effort to revive him.

Is Deso Dogg dead? No one really knows. His supporters claim he’s still at large, while others say he was killed in an aerial attack by the Syrian government. Meanwhile, Western officials are worried that, dead or alive, his songs and videos could draw more European youth to Syria.

Over the last decade, the question of how to deal with so-called “jihadi rap” has bedeviled American policymakers and terrorism experts. And the answer appears to be broadcasting “good Muslim hip-hop.” The State Department has sponsored hip-hop academies and workshops in Lebanon and Syria, and is gearing up for a new round of hip-hop diplomacy—this time in partnership with the University of North Carolina. Just how did rap come to be seen by European and American governments as both a radicalizing genre and a tool of public diplomacy and de-radicalization?

Deso Dogg, going by the name Abu Talha al-Almani, gives an interview in December 2013. (YouTube)

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Islamic motifs and Arabic terms have been part of hip-hop since the genre’s genesis in 1973, when Afrika Bambaataa founded the Zulu Nation, reflecting the range of Islamic and quasi-Islamic ideologies and cultures that have coexisted for decades in America’s urban centers. In March 1991, The Source magazine devoted an issue, titled “Islamic Summit,” to the relationship between Islam and hip-hop. In that golden age of “politically conscious hip-hop,” Rakim and Public Enemy peppered their rhymes with Arabic phrases invoking Islam—al-hamdu lillah, al-salam ‘alaykum—and excerpted the speeches of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. As the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, gained traction in the 1990s, mostly among youth in the Northeast, the movement’s wordplay found its way into the lyrics of Gang Starr, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Brand Nubian. In the 2000s, Sunni Muslim artists—Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Rhymefest, and others—became popular, introducing their fans to Islamic references like salat (prayer), zakat (alms), and shahada (profession of Muslim faith).

Beginning in the mid-90s, these allusions were broadcast around the world as hip-hop went mainstream, transforming cultures and identities. Through rap, Muslim youth were exposed to black history and non-Muslims were introduced to Islam. Just as reggae disseminated Rastafarianism in the 1970s, hip-hop showcased African-American Islam in all its variants. Muslim youth abroad are keenly aware that, as popular wisdom has it, “Islam is hip-hop’s official religion,” and that Muslims like Busta Rhymes and Mos Def are some of rap’s biggest players. Not only has hip-hop absorbed Islamic and Arabic references, but it’s also adopted some Salafi styles—the mustache-less beard and calf-length pants, for example.

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.”

The view from the stage during a concert at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. (U.S. Embassy Kabul/Flickr)

The State Department’s program is modeled on the jazz diplomacy that the U.S. government conducted during the Cold War by sending integrated bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to counter Soviet propaganda and instead promote “the American way of life.” A 2008 Brookings report authored by the program's intellectual architects and titled “Mightier Than the Sword: Arts and Culture in the U.S.-Muslim World Relationship” notes that hip-hop began as “outsiders’ protest” against the U.S. system and now resonates among marginalized Muslim youth worldwide. From the Parisian banlieues to Palestinian cities, “hip-hop music reflects the struggle against authority”—a message that transcends language barriers. Moreover, note the authors, hip-hop’s pioneers were inner-city Muslims who “carry on an African American Muslim tradition of protest against authority, most powerfully represented by Malcolm X.” The study concludes by calling for “greater exploitation of this natural connector to the Muslim world.”

For these reasons, hip-hop has become the music of choice in U.S. foreign policy for “perception management” and “strategic communication” with young Muslims. Neither hard rock nor heavy metal has the same appeal. In Muslim-majority states, heavy-metal artists, with their long hair and black clothes, are often viewed with suspicion, and accused of devil-worship and eating cats. People have become even more distrustful of this genre over the last decade as the music was used on detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay. The U.S., notes one scholar, used metal during interrogations in Iraq not only because the relentless “guitar distortions” could cause “sensory deprivation,” but also because American officers knew that Iraqis found the genre “culturally offensive,” “satanic,” and “anti-God.” With the exception of Eminem’s “White America,” the songs used to break detainees were almost exclusively hard rock and metal, with tracks like Slayer’s “Angel of Death,” Drowning Pool’s “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor,” and Deicide’s “Fuck Your God” topping the interrogator’s playlist. Hip-hop, by contrast, is used for cultural persuasion.

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But is hip-hop diplomacy working?

Debates over the efficacy of the approach mirror a larger policy debate about the roots of extremism and jihadi violence. In the U.S., this debate falls roughly into two camps. In one camp is a coalition of realists, leftists, and post-colonialists who think extremism is a response to American policy, and in the other are neoconservatives and liberal hawks who believe Islamist violence is a product of ideology and narratives, and not just opposition to U.S. actions. While the realists advocate a less interventionist foreign policy—“offshore balancing”—to prevent extremism, the neoconservatives are more likely to support military intervention, and study Muslim scripture and cultural traditions to find ways to disrupt the “narrative.” Herein lie the roots of the new public diplomacy—Public Diplomacy 2.0—that deploys music, art, social media, and the discourse of diversity.

When musicians, among them hip-hoppers, emerged in 2011 as dissident voices during the Arab revolts, with embattled leaders like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad backing “pro-stability” rap and cracking down on anti-government artists, Western journalists characterized hip-hop, along with social media, as a positive, moderating force—a key element of the “counter-jihad” movement and a sign that Muslim kids had embraced “our” culture. But in declaring that “hip-hop was the first voice of political opposition, even before the street protests that erupted in 2011,” these analysts were ignoring a range of musical forms that had served as platforms for protest in the region over the last decade. Others argued that the State Department’s hip-hop initiatives had sowed “seeds” that bore “fruit during the Arab Spring.” At a panel on hip-hop and world politics at the American Mission to the UN in February 2012, then-Ambassador Susan Rice spoke passionately about how she had visited hip-hop studios in Libya at the height of the civil war.

But now that the heady days of the Arab Spring have given way to more chastening ones, and Pew polls show perceptions of the U.S. are largely negative among Muslims around the world, the role hip-hop plays in radicalization and de-radicalization has come under renewed scrutiny. The realist-leftist camp argues that U.S. policies—support for tyrannical regimes and drone strikes, for example—do much more to create opposition to America and extremist violence than jihadi rap does. Critics also note that it’s not clear how exactly “Muslim hip-hop” exerts a moderating influence on Muslim youth. Can a performance by an African-American Muslim group really push young men away from extremist ideas? What “different narrative” are these groups presenting?

Those who argue that hip-hop diplomacy can be as effective as its jazzy counterpart in the 1950s also overlook Washington’s alliances with autocrats in North Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. used jazz to “sell” America behind the Iron Curtain and stoke dissent in Soviet-backed regimes. But can American “soft power” liberate people in U.S.-backed tyrannies? The government’s hip-hop initiatives may generate goodwill in Europe, where Muslims are marginalized but have political rights, or in non-allied dictatorships like Burma, where rap artists are heavily censored, than in authoritarian regimes backed by U.S. hard power.

What’s clear is that the government is pressing ahead with its campaign despite the criticism. In partnership with the University of North Carolina, the State Department recently issued a call for “hip-hop artist-educators” for its Next Level program, which will use music and dance to “foster understanding and conflict resolution.” All those with “Beat Making, DJing, b-boying/b-girling … or MCing” experience are encouraged to apply.


This post is adapted from Hisham Aidi’s new book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture.

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Hisham Aidi is a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Institute for African Studies.

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