In September 2009, Charles Rivkin, the U.S. ambassador to France, drove to northern Paris for the unveiling of a mural at the Collège Martin Luther King, a middle school in the suburb (or banlieue) of Villier-le-Bel. “President Obama invites us to build a better future for our children on the basis of mutual understanding and equal opportunity,” Rivkin declared before an audience of local officials, students, and residents. The ambassador explained the importance of Martin Luther King Day and the relevance of the civil rights leader’s ideas to the surrounding area, which had recently been racked by riots. Then, standing in front of a colorful, just-completed mural of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rivkin sang “We Shall Overcome” with dozens of African and Muslim schoolchildren.

Those in attendance, by all accounts, appreciated the event. But the French media were less than pleased by the efforts of the U.S. ambassador, who they claimed was in no position to educate France on racial justice. One newspaper columnist referred to it as evidence of “secret American manipulation” of French culture. But U.S. cultural diplomacy efforts have continued in France and across Europe nonetheless. The reason? For Washington, Europe’s inability to integrate minorities has become a national security risk; officials have argued that European Muslims, alienated from their home countries, may seek to inflict harm on the United States. And they’ve decided that one way to mitigate that risk is by leveraging the popularity of African American culture -- and of hip-hop music, in particular.

European Muslims -- facing economic hardship, the rise of far-right parties, and intrusive counterterrorism policies -- increasingly feel under siege in their own countries. Washington believes that the example of U.S. civil rights movements and race policies, and the history of black freedom struggles in the United States more broadly, can offer a vocabulary to make sense of their own grievances and the motivation to address those grievances through politics. In the United States, after all, African Americans developed an effective critique of race and empire, ably connecting events in local ghettos with decisions made in international forums. U.S. diplomats now hope to persuade European Muslims that this style of critique is relevant to their own lives.


Washington’s current cultural diplomacy has its roots in the Cold War. In 1955, the State Department began to organize high-profile tours by racially integrated jazz bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman in the Soviet Union and other parts of the Eastern bloc. The bands were intended to be symbols of the triumph of democracy, with jazz serving as an embodiment of the United States’ liberal ideals. As the historian Penny Von Eschen wrote in Satchmo Blows Up the World, her pioneering study of the tours, the State Department in the 1950s felt that African-American culture could convey to populations chafing under Soviet rule “a sense of shared suffering, as well as the conviction that equality could be gained under the American political system.” The pianist Dave Brubeck may have overstated the case when he said that jazz ambassadors helped end the Cold War, but many scholars agree with the assessment by the Harvard historian Ingrid Minson that the jazz tours were an “extraordinary success” in winning support for the United States.

Similar thinking underpins hip-hop diplomacy. In 2005, as riots raged through the Paris suburbs, the State Department started sending hip-hop envoys -- rappers, dancers, DJs -- to perform and speak in Europe, as well as in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Toni Blackman, a spoken-word artist, was the first such hip-hop ambassador, agreeing to perform at embassy-sponsored events everywhere from Senegal to Indonesia. The artists who followed her likewise staged performances and held workshops, talking to local media about being Muslim in America and trying “to correct the prevalent misperception that Muslims in the United States are oppressed,” in the words of the U.S. embassy in Malaysia. Today, American Muslim rap artists are invited regularly to perform at embassies in Europe. Local Muslim hip-hop artists are invited as well.

It might seem surprising that the State Department chose hip-hop to represent the United States around the world. But State Department officials, like Farah Pandith, who until recently was Obama’s special representative to Muslim communities, recognized that the music was a new lingua franca for young people -- especially marginalized young people -- around the world. In a Brookings report, Cynthia Schneider and Kristina Nelson, the program’s intellectual architects tried to explain the music’s appeal. Hip-hop, they argued, began as an “outsiders’ protest” against the American system but now resonates among marginalized Muslim youth worldwide because it “reflects struggle against authority” and expresses “pain” that transcends language barriers. 

Unsurprisingly, the State Department has preferred to emphasize certain aspects of the music over others. Above all they have stressed “the importance of Islam to the roots of hip-hop in America,” and the Islamic influences that still permeate the genre. The Brookings report noted that hip-hop’s pioneers were inner-city Muslims who carried on “an African-American Muslim tradition of protest against authority, most powerfully represented by Malcolm X.” And Pandith, in a speech to the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center in April 2010, has argued that hip-hop can convey a “different narrative” to counter the foreign “violent ideology” to which youth are exposed. 

European governments have been warier of hip-hop’s influence. Since the early 1990s, French officials have expressed their worries about the spread of the music -- and black culture generally -- among French Muslim youth. French commentators (like many of their U.S. counterparts) have labeled hip-hop a cultural pathology, and blamed it for bringing the social ills of U.S. ghettos to France, including “belligerent Afro-American lifestyles,” and popularizing African-American culture (“an adversary culture”). In 1994, fearing Americanization and the introduction of English words into the French language, the French government even passed a law placing limits on the extent to which U.S. hip-hop could be played on French radio stations.

In recent years, however, French policies have been more concerned with the type of Islam that is being broadcast over rap airwaves, and have intervened to sideline artists considered “radical.” In the rest of Europe, as well, in response to attempts by extremist rappers to use hip-hop to call for violence, governments have started supporting hip-hop that promotes a “moderate” Muslim identity. In April 2007, the British Home Office introduced a program called PREVENT, which gives funding to Muslim organizations to produce hip-hop concerts featuring American and British Muslim rappers who offer “mainstream interpretations” of Islam. The German and Dutch governments have done much the same.

Of course there are inevitably differences of opinion over the definition of “moderate” Islam. The French cultural establishment, for instance, has embraced the Sufi spoken-word artist Abdel Malik -- who raps about his love for the republic -- rather than his more militant, Black Power–inspired rival Medine. Washington, by contrast, has often had a more permissive conception of the kinds of Islam that should be promoted in Europe.

In February 2010, the U.S. ambassador to France invited the controversial rap group K.Ommando Toxik to perform at his residence. French officials were not pleased; the group performed a tribute to two boys who were killed by the French police in November 2007, an incident that triggered a wave of riots. Another U.S. program, in which French rappers are flown to the United States to meet with artists and civil rights activists in Harlem, has also raised hackles. One of the artists whom the State Department invited was rapper Ekoué Labitey of La Rumeur, one of the groups that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy had charged with libel for its lyrics about the impunity of French police.


The tensions that arise from hip-hop diplomacy highlight one of the major differences between this and the Cold War­–era efforts: earlier programs were directed at the Soviet Union, an enemy state, whereas the current initiatives focus on friendly European states. The United States now spends millions of dollars to win the hearts and minds of Europe’s disaffected Muslim communities, often competing against European states’ own programs. And that has angered local officials who believe that the United States is infringing on their countries’ sovereignty in order to pursue its own national interests.

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in December 2010 proved the point. Several of those cables included private castigations of the governments of France, Britain, and Holland for mistreating their Muslim minorities. U.S. diplomats seemed genuinely worried about the potential consequences for transatlantic relations, and mostly unimpressed with European efforts to combat this “new threat.” The missives from the embassy in Paris were most damning: “The French have a well-known problem with discrimination against minorities,” one cable read. “The French media remains overwhelmingly white . . . Among French elite educational institutions, we are only aware that Sciences Po has taken serious steps to integrate.” For these problems, the cables blamed the French government’s “official blindness to all racial differences.” The U.S. diplomats expressed fear that young French Muslims would gravitate toward extremism, but also that ethnic conflict would soon begin to weaken France; if France, over the long term, were unable to give minorities true political representation, “[the country] could become weaker, more divided and perhaps inclined toward crises . . . and a less effective ally as a result.”

The U.S. embassy staff acknowledge that the majority of French society would be unlikely to accept U.S. notions of racial and religious difference, much less to “partner” with the embassy in addressing French Muslim grievances. (France has long viewed itself as immune to U.S.-style racial problems, priding itself on its history of providing refuge to African Americans fleeing discrimination.) Instead, the cables suggest engaging directly with the French public, and French Muslims in particular, through exchange programs, festivals, conferences, and media appearances to show that the United States respects Islam and “is engaged for good in the Arab-Muslim world.” The cables also suggested that embassy officials would aim to explain to scholars and community leaders how U.S. strategies for managing social diversity could help France live up to its egalitarian ideals. The goal would be to generate public debate about affirmative action, multiculturalism, and hyphenated identity, and to persuade French leaders to rethink their “intellectual frameworks” regarding minorities. One cable notes that, “such an effort will continue to require considerable discretion, sensitivity and tact on our part.”

Needless to say, the leaked cables were not well received in France. The one that drew the most ire from the government was written by Craig Stapleton, who was ambassador during the height of the Parisian civil unrest in November 2005: “The real problem is the failure of white Christian France to view its dark-skinned and Muslim compatriots as citizens in their own rights.” Speaking on a television show, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin scoffed, “This [cable] shows the limits of American diplomacy.” He added that U.S. diplomats were wrongly reading the banlieues’ riots through their own history, viewing France’s urban crisis through a religious prism. The French media, for its part, was especially angered by revelations that the United States had quietly tried to shape France’s media discourse about racial integration.

What most outraged the French, though, was the U.S. embassy’s efforts to empower “moderate” French Muslim voices. One of the Muslim organizations supported by the embassy was the online magazine, an online Muslim affairs publication, which was described by the U.S. ambassador as a “remarkable website.” French conservatives, who considered the site extremist because of its alleged sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood, began accusing the U.S. government and French Muslims of conspiring to undermine French traditions of secularism. (The British press expressed similar outrage at revelations by WikiLeaks of the U.S. embassy’s “secret campaign” to reach out to “radical” mosques, including the Finsbury Park mosque in northern London, which was frequented by the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, and the shoe bomber, Richard Reid.) 

Two years after the cable, French hysteria has not died down. Some conservatives have spoken of a Muslim Trojan horse acting at the behest of the United States; others compare the State Department–sponsored trips to Harlem to Soviet-sponsored trips in the 1920s and 1930s that invited French intellectuals to experience the benefits of socialism firsthand. In April 2008, the daily Le Parisien even ran an unsubstantiated story its front page story alleging that the CIA had initiated programs of its own in the banlieues. Today, headlines are more likely to refer to the NSA’s activities.


Washington’s hip-hop diplomacy programs have also been criticized by the hip-hop community. They have fueled a heated debate over the purpose of hip-hop, and whether makers of “protest music” should work with governments or accept invitations from embassies. “Hip-hop at its best has exposed power, challenged power, it hasn’t served power,” the popular London rapper Lowkey said recently. “When the U.S. government loves the same rappers you love, whose interests are those rappers serving?”

The great irony is that, despite the uproar from leftist rappers and conservative European journalists and politicians, the Muslim youth who are the targets of these initiatives are quite appreciative. If the aim is to create positive impressions of the United States among European Muslims, the program is working. In France, in particular, positive opinion of the U.S. has risen sharply since 2008 among young Muslims. They do not seem to mind being targeted for cultural programs by the U.S. government, because they do not feel discriminated against. Widad Ketfi, a 27-year-old blogger who participated in an embassy-sponsored program, told the Times that she knows she was invited by the U.S. embassy because of her Algerian Muslim background, but added, “What bothers me is being the target of the French state.”

Many Muslim activists and entrepreneurs hope that their new relationships with U.S. embassies can help them pressure their own governments to listen to their concerns. “The ambassador of the U.S. is seen in the suburbs more often than the ministers of our own country,” says Rokhaya Diallo, a French-Senegalese organizer, who has worked closely with the American embassy in Paris. “Why is that?” That Diallo feels comfortable raising this question already counts as an achievement of Washington’s hip-hop diplomacy. It would be an even greater one if the French government felt compelled to answer it.

This essay is adapted from Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, by Hisham Aidi. Copyright © 2014 by Hisham D. Aidi. All rights reserved. Posted by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Random House LLC.

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  • HISHAM AIDI is a lecturer at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. This essay is adapted from his book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (Pantheon, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Hisham D. Aidi. All rights reserved. Posted by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Random House LLC .
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