“In U.S. State efforts to reach Arab audiences through hip-hop, both the whitewashing of the legacy of American hip-hop (by aligning it with U.S. State policy) and blackwashing of the U.S. abroad (by associating it with popular music like hip-hop) become clear.”
Rayya El Zein takes up a global analysis of how ideas of blackness, whiteness, and Arabness circulate in post-9/11 media accounts and argues that these concepts work to mediate Western understanding of politics in the Arab world. This is an excerpt from her entire paper written for the Journal Cultural Studies Associaton. Read the full journal entry under the entitled: “From ‘Hip -Hop Revolutionaries’ to ‘Terrorist-Thugs’: ‘Blackwashing’ between the Arab Spring and the War on Terror” here.
The opening shot in the trailer of Jackie Salloum’s documentary Slingshot Hip Hop invites the viewer to identify with its Palestinian protagonists by aligning them with a specific iteration of urban life and political expression. The trailer begins with an interview with Tamer Nafar, of the Palestinian rap group DAM. Nafar holds Public Enemy’s 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet, and he says, “Look how great this title is: Fear of a Black Planet. It’s about how the white man is trying to stop the growth of the Black population. In this country, there’s fear of an Arabic Nation.” The trailer thus introduces the film’s protagonists through a specific racial triangulation. It invites the viewer to understand the experiences of Palestinians under Occupation through the iconic lens of the expression of the struggle of black Americans in a white U.S. Translating Palestinian frustration under Zionist Occupation in this way encourages the viewer to make a set of associations about Palestinian oppression, struggle, and tactics. In this essay, I interrogate the racial representations through which Arab rappers are constructed and circulated in different forms of English language media and the political implications of these representations. In doing so, I attempt to draw into focus the window which often frames Arab protagonists for an audience outside the Arab world.
Slingshot Hip Hop is a documentary film about Palestinians making and performing rap music under the Israeli Occupation. It follows different rap crews from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and inside Israel as they attempt to and are obstructed from taking the stage in one concert in the occupied West Bank. The film was released in 2008 and is screened regularly on US college campuses. DAM, one of the Palestinian groups, featured prominently in the film, arguably put Palestinian hip-hop on a global map—their tracks and collaborations have perhaps done more than any single other Arab rap crew on the Eastern Mediterranean to draw global attention to Arabic rap from the Levant. They are Palestinians from the neglected city of Lyd, inside Israel. DAM’s lyrics and tracks have been celebrated internationally as voices of young Palestinians resisting the Occupation. This continues to be the case despite the questionable politics some have critiqued in examples of the group’s more recent work.1
Interesting here are not the merits of the Slingshot Hip Hop as a film, which by and large works well, especially to introduce US audiences unfamiliar with the realities of the Occupation to a Palestinian perspective, so often missing from media depictions of the Palestinian-Israeli “conflict.” Nor are my concerns here a close reading of the aesthetic or political merits of DAM’s musical work, which, like that of any artistic collaboration, has produced some memorable and some less than memorable ventures. Rather, what I want to highlight here is that the use of Nafar’s testimony in the opening clip of the trailer is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon that triangulates simplistic representations of “whiteness,” “blackness,” and “Arabness” in order to construct easily readable analogies of politics in the Arab world for non-Arab audiences.
Arab Youth through the Lens of Hip Hop
In the full interview in the film, Nafar’s comments about Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet are much more ambivalent than they are in the trailer. The trailer seemingly presents a direct link, in the Palestinian rapper’s perspective, between urban struggle against racism in the US and Palestinian struggle under Occupation. In the film, the camera follows Nafar as he lists the DAM’s musical and lyrical influences. He actually tells the viewer that he was not aware of and had not listened to Public Enemy (besides the track “Fight the Power” in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) before listeners made the connection for him. Only then did he look for and find the album Fear of a Black Planet. As the scene in Slingshot progresses, Nafar rifles through a bookshelf full of Palestinian poetry and then he “breaks down what DAM is.” It is “30 percent hip-hop,” and 30 percent the other literature he’s been pointing to (Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish, Tupac Shakur, Naji el-Ali, Ahlam Mestaghanmi, Nawal Al-Sadawi, Nizar Qabbani, Hanan Al-Sheikh). The final 40 percent, he explains, is “what’s out there,” indicating beyond the bars of his window: that is, the Occupation.
It is too simplistic to suggest that the trailer is somehow complicit in a misrepresentation of what Nafar explains in more detail in the film. Rather, in distilling a direct, simplified correlation between African American experience in a white US as related in Fear of a Black Planet to the experiences of Palestinians under Occupation, the trailer mobilizes, to the film’s advertising benefit, an immediately attractive and sympathetic way to understand Arab political struggle for an English language audience. What makes this worthy of more extended analysis is that this trailer is not an isolated example.
Considerable activist and academic energy since the second Intifada has sought to draw connections between the anti-racist struggles of African Americans in the US and Palestinians under occupation, many of them using the presence of hip-hop as proof of this affinity and solidarity.2 To be sure, this work has, among other things, sought to unseat the dominant narrative of the violent, repressed Palestinian as “terrorist” in Western media. Neither is this enthusiasm about the taking up of hip-hop only applied to Palestinian subjects.
Dozens of articles appeared in the exciting first weeks of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2011 that similarly sought and explored the creative connections between U.S. hip-hop and Arab street protest. The BBC asked, for example, “Is Hip-Hop Driving the Arab Spring?” and NPR affirmatively answered, “Tupac Encouraged the Arab Spring.”3 How can we explain the enthusiasm to understand some politically vocal Arab youth through the lens of hip-hop? Why has the connection with this interpretation of African-American urban life and political expression proved such a saleable and important connection in framing some Palestinian and other urban Arab perspectives?
These questions quickly become more complicated than a few problematic journalistic forays into the “cultural production” of the Arab Spring. For example, political scientist Hisham Aidi has convincingly explored the deliberate exploitation of African American political and musical expression by the US State Department in cultural programming geared for the Muslim world in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal.4 In marketing Muslim-American rap groups to Middle Eastern and Central Asian audiences deemed susceptible to the advance of Islamist fundamentalism, the State Department (in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Jazz at Lincoln Center) put together the Rhythm Road Tours. These concerts sent Muslim American rappers overseas to perform both their music and their full assimilation into the US’s tolerant, multi-cultural fabric.5
“What is more American today, after all,
Aidi underscores how US state representations of Malcolm X as civil rights’ hero accompanied the Rhythm Road Tour’s cultural outreach to win the hearts and minds worryingly estranged by the occupation of Iraq and the damning behavior of US servicemen and women abroad. Aidi calls this cultural programming (which included whitewashed representations of Malcolm X’s history and politics) attempts to “blackwash” the US’s image abroad. That is, the tours are an example of neoliberal frameworks of representation that, in working to counter the negative backlash against neo-imperial policy, present images of the African-American struggle for equality and history in the US as ideally American. This works because, as Mustafa Bayoumi explains, “What is more American today, after all, than African-American?”6 While the political aims of the Rhythm Road Tours are quite different from the coverage of hip-hop during the Arab Spring and Salloum’s Slingshot Hip Hop, the mobilization of a racial imaginary that uses hip-hop as a lens through which to access Arab or Muslim youth is strikingly similar.
Another documentary film about hip-hop in the Arab world that closely reflects the politics of the Rhythm Road Tours is Joshua Asen, and Jennifer Needleman’s I Love Hip Hop in Morocco (2005). Like Slingshot, it also follows the lead-up to live hip-hop concerts. As an inversion of the Rhythm Road forays in “hip-hop diplomacy,” American student Joshua Asen considered that sponsoring local Arab hip-hop artists would have essentially the same effect as exporting American hip-hop artists to the Arab world. Asen helped organize, and then with Needleman filmed, a “three-city hip-hop festival” in Morocco. The success of the venture was described by the Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Morocco: “Everything was positive and we got no negative feedback… There were American flags at all three concerts that spontaneously appeared—right side up and not on fire.”7 Asen added, “I’m saying flip it, sponsor American art as it’s being reinterpreted by locals, you get infinitely more mileage out of that.” Hip-hop, he concludes is “a democratic message, all about free speech and self-expression, and directly in line with US policy.”8
In US state efforts to reach Arab audiences through hip-hop, both the whitewashing of the legacy of American hip-hop (by aligning it with US state policy) and blackwashing of the US abroad (by associating it with popular music like hip-hop) become clear.9 Ideas about the political impact of hip-hop are used as shorthand towards Arab and Muslim youth and their political aspirations, while the political critique of capitalism and imperialism in strains of US hip-hop are absorbed by the state and neutralized.
The mobilizations of ideas of “blackness” in carefully edited representations of Malcolm X’s political legacy; the presentation of hip-hop as an intrinsically American expressive strategy to “speak truth to power”; the media coverage of hip-hop during the Arab Spring; and the framework in the Slingshot Hip Hop trailer all mobilize the same racial imagination. While Asen’s film and the Rhythm Road Tours use ideas about hip-hop to soften the US’s image, the Slingshot trailer and coverage of protest and rap use familiar ideas about rappers “speaking truth to power” to make familiar Palestinians and other Arab protesters. These are potentially very different political ideas. But they rely on essentially the same racialized constructions.
In a time of increased interest in black-Arab solidarity organizing, I consider it worthwhile to examine carefully the navigations of similarity and difference that these political abstractions of race mobilize. That is, I am concerned with how ideas of “whiteness,” “blackness,” and “Arabness”—as racialized frameworks that carry with them simplified notions of the politics or political struggles of various populations—establish who and what is “political” and whether or not these “politics” are desirable or loathsome in neoliberal discourse. If “whiteness,” as cultural studies scholars have deliberated for decades, stands in for the universalizing, normative ideal, “blackness,” in my formulation here, stands in for a range of contrast with and to “whiteness” which is alternatively folded into or cast as outside of the neoliberal body public.10 These representative frameworks are used to make sense of “Arabness.” In addition to identifying that these racial caricatures exist, the point for me here is to interrogate how these racial caricatures assist the construction of neoliberal politics and policy. The proximity and distance that representations of “whiteness,” “blackness,” and “Arabness” navigate are importantly productive gestures that specifically inform neoliberal subjectivity and ideas of ideal political expression, while they parrot polite and predictably racist and orientalist ideas about both black and Arab experiences.
- See, for example, Lila Abu Lughod and Maya Mikdashi, “Tradition and the Anti-Politics Machine: DAM Seduced by the ‘Honor Crime,’” Jadaliyya, November 23, 2012, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/8578/tradition-and-the-anti-politics-machine_dam-seduce.
- See, for example, Alex Lubin, Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); and Sunaina Maira, Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement (Washington, DC: Tadween Publishing, 2013).
- Cordelia Hebblethwaite, “Is Hip Hop Driving the Arab Spring?,” BBC News, July 24, 2011, accessed November 1, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14146243; and Michel Martin, “Tupac Encouraged the Arab Spring,” NPR, March 20, 2013, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2013/03/20/174839318/tupac-encouraged-the-arab-spring.
- Hisham Aidi, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).
- I explore other examples of blackwashing at BAM elsewhere. See Rayya El Zein, “Call and Response, Radical Belonging, and Arabic Hip-Hop in ‘the West,’” in American Studies Encounters the Middle East, eds. Marwan Kraidy and Alex Lubin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 104-134.
- Moustafa Bayoumi, “The Race Is On: Muslims and Arabs in the American Imagination,” Middle East Report, March 2010, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.merip.org/mero/interventions/race.
- Quoted in Patrick Sisson, “The Message: Can Hip Hop Diplomacy Help Fix American’s Tarnished Image Abroad?” April 2008, accessed April 19, 2016, http://patricksisson.com/the-message-can-better-hip-hop-diplomacy-help-fix-america’s-tarnished-image-abroad/.
- Ibid. Included in I Love Hip Hop in Morocco press packet.
- Of course, this “cultural diplomacy” and its appropriation of African American musical experimentation is not new. Hisham Aidi explains how “hip-hop diplomacy” is an extension of the “jazz ambassadors” program sponsored by the Eisenhower administrations during the Cold War; Aidi, Rebel Music. On the Jazz Ambassadors program see Penny Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
- On “whiteness” in cultural studies see, among many others, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Interrogating ‘Whiteness,’ Complicating ‘Blackness’: Remapping American Culture,” American Quarterly 47 (1995): 428-466. I use “blackness” as the assumed counterpoint to “whiteness” the way Susan Koshy does–to deconstruct the binary of racial affinity and difference between “white” and “black.” While she interrogates how this binary can be deconstructed by analyzing how an “Asian” intermediary navigates this binary, I am asking how blackness is used to approximate “Asian,” here rendered as “Arab,” for a neoliberal audience. See Susan Koshy, “Morphing Race into Ethnicity: Asian Americans and Critical Transformations of Whiteness,” boundary 2 28, no. 1 (2001): 153-194.
Rayya El Zein holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her dissertation was about rap and hip-hop concerts in three Arab cities. She lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.