The United States can empower youths, temper radicalism and further its own interests throughout the greater Middle East by promoting rap music as an outlet for social discontent.
As budget constraints and a war-weary citizenry blunt the United States’ ability to project its hard power around the world, it must increasingly turn to soft power in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives. While the tactics have changed, an explicit goal of American foreign policy continues to be the promotion of “governments that reflect the will of the people.” In addition, terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, often cite the need to topple oppressive regimes as a justification for their actions, giving the United States a direct security interest in promoting democracy through peaceful means. The recent uprisings across the Middle East have demonstrated the potential of the youth population in those countries to challenge and overthrow repressive regimes. Music was, and continues to be, a catalyst that allows youths to legitimize their grievances and mobilize others in support of their cause.
The United States should place greater emphasis on facilitating and encouraging musical expression throughout the greater Middle East in order to encourage thriving liberal democracies. Rap has already demonstrated its significance in the region. El Général, perhaps the most influential rapper of the past year, is a Tunisian twenty-one year old, whose song “Rais Lebled” became the anthem of the rebellion against former President Ben Ali. “I talk with no fear / Although I know I will only get troubles / I see injustice everywhere,” he delivers. During the 2011 movements, Tunisians sang “Rais Lebled” on the streets, and Egyptians called for him to perform in Tahrir Square. Somali rapper K’naan, whose popularity has spread to the United States, fired his first gun at age eight but has since used rap to speak out against militarism. In Morocco, Muhammad Bahri penned a song condemning Al Qaeda after Islamic radicals bombed Casablanca in 2003. “If you understood the Koran, there wouldn’t be bombs,” he sings. Rap’s regional popularity allows messages of justice and moderation to reach large audiences - El Général recently sang at a 10,000 seat concert venue. Music creates heroes for society to admire and a voice to articulate its desire for peace.
Many American policy-makers have opposed regime change in the Middle East, because they believe it will usher in a wave of “anti-American,” Islamist governments. However, this policy is shortsighted. Free expression and democracy can help neutralize extremist ideologies. Turkey has the second-freest press in the greater Middle East and is one of only a few democratic, secular states in the region, despite being 99 percent Muslim. After democratic elections in Tunisia, the Islamist party Ennahda formed a coalition with two center-left secular parties.12 Sustained democracy will not only provide a true stability unachievable through authoritarianism, but American efforts to empower the populace through music will also better align America’s actions with its rhetoric, thus weakening the polemics who charge America of hypocrisy. While the promotion of rap music is a long-term strategy, the benefits of which may not be immediately tangible, its potential to positively and fundamentally shape a society and its low-cost merits this creative strategy a place in American foreign policy.
The State Department should identify local recording studios and music venues in the greater Middle East that can benefit from the American music industry’s support and advice. This can be accomplished via the State-Department-affiliated Partners for a New Beginning, which facilitates private industry partnerships and is already established throughout the region. The State Department could also help secure grants for the region from recording labels in America, which could then advertise their humanitarian efforts to the American audience. In addition, the State Department should also exert diplomatic pressure aimed at preventing the arrests of musicians as political prisoners.