Dr. Curtis Sandberg, Senior Vice President for the Meridian International Center, asked the question in a recent article: “Does jazz have a healing role in a world divided by conflicting ideologies?” This question could have been posed to a member of the audience at a Dizzy Gillespie concert in Zagreb in 1956. In fact, an attendee, one of many in the region who were given the opportunity to hear Gillespie perform as part of a Jazz Ambassador tour of the region, remarked, “What this country needs is fewer ambassadors and more jam sessions!”
The comment remains poignant today. Tunisian youth activist Achref Aouadi recently asserted, “Remarkable Current has more of an impact on Tunisia than Secretary Hillary Clinton.” What is Remarkable Current, and how could it have more of an impact on U.S.-Tunisian relations on a grassroots level in post-uprising Tunisia than seasoned, internationally recognized politicians?
In 2006, Remarkable Current, the American musician collective founded by Anas Canon, launched a cultural envoy and musical exchange program called “Hip Hop Ambassadors.” This initiative is modeled after an earlier century’s “Jazz Ambassadors,” a program that emerged from the Cold War context of the mid-1950s to the 1970s and was run by the Department of State. Led by jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Quincy Jones, these tours included concerts and “jam sessions” of intercultural dialogue and musical exchange. In keeping with this mission, Remarkable Current (RC) intentionally recruits American musicians who are eminent in their fields and ”exude a loving spirit and a disposition of universal inclusiveness.” Canon explains, ¨When walking on to the stage or visiting an orphanage, you don’t have to speak the local language to communicate that you are there to share yourself with them. People can feel when you are as excited to meet them as they are to meet you.”
Having toured Tunisia, Algeria, Indonesia, Tanzania, Turkey, Morocco and Egypt, Remarkable Current artists have created a unique formula for engagement, building on the successes of their predecessors, the Jazz Ambassadors. Jazz envoys were highly influenced by the cultures they encountered. In many cases they experimented with the traditional musical styles and scales of countries they visited on these tours and learning from largely informal “spontaneous exchanges” with locals. In contrast, RC’s Hip Hop Ambassadors appear to be more intentional with their mission to build cross-cultural relationships through the medium of music and people-to-people interfaces. In every country they tour, the Hip Hop Ambassadors aim to work with local musicians, speak with press and facilitate workshops with youth around questions of American culture, foreign policy, and music. For example, in Indonesia, RC auditioned local talent to join the band on its 2010 countrywide tour, filling the positions of bass and guitar. In Tunisia they fruitfully worked with their US Embassy sponsors to arrange studio time interspersed among Hip Hop Ambassador tour rehearsal sets, sound checks, and workshops to collaborate with Tunisian hip hop artists such as El Général and Empire, and record tracks about the Tunisian revolution. The first song RC recorded, “A Young Man’s Spark (Bouazizi)”, was inspired by the 26 year-old Tunisian street cart vendor whose self-immolation has been popularly mythologized as the catalyst to the Arab revolutions. Amen Ben Koussa of the rap group Empire testifies, “There was a positive message through the song and that’s what motivated us and connected all of us. ‘Bouazizi’ a martyr, as a symbol of peace, as a call for justice, gave us the power and feelings that bridged the gap between us and that’s what totally impacted our collaboration with Remarkable Current.”
The other song that Remarkable Current recorded while on tour in Tunisia, “Pick Up The Pieces,” was co-written by Anas Canon, Kumasi Simmons and El Général after an inspiring meeting the band had with this notorious rapper in his hometown of Sfax. El Général received worldwide recognition after penning what has been deemed “the anthem of the Arab revolutions.” “I was excited to meet this guy,” Canon said, “because he was into using his music to express an important socio-political message, which is one of the reasons that I still produce hip hop music today.” Canon recognized the unique opportunity at hand. After hearing that local recording studios in Sfax were booked, he set up a make-shift studio in his hotel room for El Général, so that fans in the region and the US could be a part of this collaborative experience.
Both collaborative songs have been played on Tunisia’s national radio station Radio Mosaique and were made available online by RC for free digital download, as were their accompanying music videos. Creatively employing today’s technological innovations in its catalogue of programming is a bold example of how Remarkable Current distinguishes itself from its ancestors, the Jazz Ambassadors. The technology of the time did not allow for the Jazz Ambassadors to record spontaneously on the ground with the local artists during their tours. Advances in technology and Canon’s skill set as a producer enabled him to write, collaborate, record and share these experiences in the form of songs/videos with far-reaching impact.
Local artists were not the only in-country collaborators. On the last day of RC’s Tunisian Revolution Tour, the American Corner library and community center hosted a workshop with the Hip Hop Ambassadors and local university students. “I have been waiting for this opportunity since I saw this on Facebook,” began Institut Superiour de Science Humaine de Tunis (ISSHT) student Amir Weslati during his enthused introduction to the roundtable. “I love hip hop music and rap. I cannot spend a day without listening to music.” During the workshop, he shared “Free Tunisia,” a rap written on his phone during one of the nights he and other community members volunteered to guard their community from Ben Ali’s militia. The song demanded the collective action, “Let’s get rid of Ben Ali’s ghost.” Multifarious views on the US role and response to international conflicts, and even an artist’s allegedly creative responsibility to “speak out” against “injustices” were complicated. Also complicated were monolithic, and for the most part mass mediated, impressions of African American culture.
RC rapper Kumasi Simmons reflected on the exchange during the workshop, arguing that it, and others like it, “are bigger than a concert.” This is an educational moment for Tunisian college students trying to design incorporation into their state’s democratic transition and for band-mates from the US, who learned from the people they encountered and grew from those exchanges. Throughout the workshop, RC artists were surprised to hear Tunisian college students’ well-versed backgrounds on African American history. At times they exhibited their veneration for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X by quoting them. The students even explained how they appropriated American civil rights movement sit-in tactics to protest certain decisions made by the transitional government.
Beyond valuable interpersonal exchanges, the tours have been a dramatic personal growth experience for the young Hip Hop Ambassadors, who tour under the mentorship of older, more experienced artists in the collective. Twenty-one year-old Hip Hop Ambassador Quanti Bomani’s reactions to touring Tunisia and Algeria in the summer of 2011 exemplifies this sentiment: “As a young artist, Remarkable Current amplified the power of the voice I have as a musician. My passion for the arts lay in the fact that true appreciation for music still exists. My horizons were broadened and love for the universal language reassured, while first-hand I got to witness the power a small group of musicians can have on a country that rarely sees visitors or one in the midst of a revolution. When the music begins to play, the smiles and entranced movements of the spectators instill a hope within my soul. Co-existence lies within the arts.”
In keeping focused on youth outreach in the era of social networking, Hip Hop Ambassadors continue to collaborate with artists they have met on the road and have made lifelong friendships with concert-goers, workshop attendees, and embassy staff, which are now easily sustained through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The success of RC’s Hip Hop Ambassadors program can be attributed to its emphasis on people-to-people exchanges at a grassroots level, speaking the global youth language of hip hop. Canon explains that, “what jazz was for earlier generations, hip hop is for today’s generation.” Canon clearly understands what former Jazz Ambassador Louis Armstrong knew, “A note is a note in any language.” If cultural diplomacy can be characterized as an “exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding,” as political scientist Dr. Milton C. Cummings defines it, then Remarkable Current’s Hip Hop Ambassadors are an innovative update to the 1950s and 60s Jazz Ambassador program and to the entire field of cultural diplomacy. The initiative’s vision, one that centralizes the use of today’s music, continues the tradition of the soft power of cultural outreach and using music to build bridges of understanding.
*(co-producers of the photographic exhibit “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World”) (http://www.meridian.org/jazzambassadors)
“A Young Man’s Spark” Free Download Here: http://soundcloud.com/remarkablecurrent/anas-canon-a-young-mans-spark
“Pick Up The Pieces” Free Download Here: http://soundcloud.com/remarkablecurrent/pick-up-the-pieces-anas-canon
Maytha Alhassen is a Provost Ph.D. Fellow in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Alhassen regularly appears on the Al Jazeera English program “The Stream” as a co-host and digital producer and is a co-editor of the forthcoming book on the Arab revolutions “Demanding Dignity: Young Voices from the Front Lines of the Arab Revolutions” this Fall 2012.
 “A Young Man’s Spark (Bouazizi) – Anas Canon & Guests,” Youtube.com, September 17, 2011. Accessed Web May 5, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKFpkfPXqaU&feature=youtu.be