Winning Hearts and Minds in Pakistan with Hip-Hop

The United States embassy in Pakistan brought a hip-hop troupe from Chicago, called FEW Collective to Islamabad this week as part of a program designed to promote cultural exchange between the two countries.

In the new brief reporting this event, Reuters quoted an opinion poll from earlier this year that discovered that “only 12 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable opinion of the United States, according to a July poll by the Pew Research Center, while 73 percent have an unfavorable opinion and 16 percent don’t know”. However, what Reuters failed to mention was that Pakistanis have a negative opinion of the United States not because the Pakistanis don’t have enough hip-hop, but because of the U.S. presence in the region which has increased militancy, the regular drone strikes that often kill innocent civillians, American acts such as the Osama bin Laden raid violating the sovereignty of Pakistan and people like Raymond Davis killing civilians in the middle of a city.

According to Reuters, the audience was “Westernized, educated elite” young Pakistanis and a member of the hip-hop group admitted that “while we may be preaching to the choir here, what we came to do is to hand over tools so the Pakistani people can represent themselves”. I find that statement somewhat condescending as Pakistan actually has a long history of politically motivated poetry and music.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the most popular poets who called himself a Marxist and openly criticized the civillian government of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was imprisoned in early 1950s. To this day his fiery poetic work remains a popular source of musical inspiration and poetry among the young and old generations of Pakistanis.

A widely recognized band called Junoon (Passion), which was the first most popular rock band in Pakistan during 1990s and early 2000s released a song called “Ehtesaab” (Accountability) in 1996 that led the band being charged with sedition and treason by the Ministry of Culture. The song which portrayed fictional politicians was a jab at the corruption and greed of actual politicians such as Asif Ali Zardari. It also led to a prolonged ban on showing Junoon’s music on Pakistan’s state television. The band which is internationally recognized no longer plays together, however the lead guitarist Salman Ahmad (also a UN Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AID) and Ali Azmat, the lead singer, remain politically and socially engaged through their music and other projects.

In most recent examples, bands like Laal (Red) and Beygairat Brigade (Shameless Brigade) have critiqued Pakistani politicians and military elite and their failure to achieve social justice, political reform as well as speak about issues such as rampant poverty, inflation and religious extremism.

In short, Pakistanis have always been using various art forms such as poetry and music (and theatre) to speak about political repression, human rights violations, religious extremism and other social, political and economic issues. Moreover, in addition to the small number of elite youth who attended the hip-hop event, Pakistanis in general are very familiar with American culture thanks to satellite television and the Internet. More often than not they are very much in sync with the latest Western fashions, movies and music. Therefore, the United States doesn’t need to try that hard on the cultural diplomacy front. Instead, they need to rethink their political strategy.

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