by Jeffry R. Halverson
Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking about the diplomatic potential of Muslim hip-hop when I posted a blog about it for COMOPS Journal back in September of 2009. Recently we heard from Tyson Amir, one of the Muslim artists that I featured in the blog, and he had some interesting news to report. Amir is from San Jose, California, and currently performs with the Remarkable Current Musician Collective, founded by Anas Canon in 2001. As described on the group’s website, Remarkable Current is “an American artist collective consisting of musicians, writers, and producers who are bonded not only by their love for music and art, but also by their shared Islamic-American tradition.”
“Some of the artists that I work with,” wrote Amir, “have actually submitted a proposal very similar to what Jeffry Halverson articulated in [his] article to the US government.” Unfortunately, the government has thus far been unresponsive to the group’s overtures. Amir further added that: “We hoped the US government would be open to allowing us to utilize our art to try to bring about some type of change in the world.”
In the meantime, Tyson Amir and his colleagues have been going forward without government support. They were on tour in Turkey in 2009, where they recorded a music video for a song entitled “Granada Rap,” a reference to the Andalusian city where Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted together in southern Spain before its downfall in 1492. And if you’d like to see the way American hip-hop can appeal to Muslim youths, just take a look at the Turkish kids in Amir’s video: LINK.
“The entire proposal,” Amir further explained, “was based on the State Department’s usage of Jazz musicians in the late 1950s for the purpose of diplomacy; the first artist they sent was Dizzy Gillespie.”
In 1956, the State Department under the Eisenhower administration sent Gillespie to bring the uniquely American art form of jazz to the Middle East, Southern Europe, and South Asia during the height of the Cold War. Other Jazz ambassadors soon followed, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. As Dr. Curtis Sandberg of the Meridian International Center has noted: “In this battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the world’s peoples, the United States developed an unlikely but remarkably effective response to Soviet initiatives: building international friendships through jazz.”
As Tyson Amir sees it: “In the 1950s we used Jazz ambassadors, today we need hip-hop ambassadors.”
I couldn’t agree more.