ISLAMABAD: Considered by many Pakistanis to be public enemy number one, the United States turned to the musical descendents of rap groupPublic Enemy in an attempt to counter its highly unpopular image in the South Asian nation.
As part of its cultural diplomacy programme, the US embassy brought the FEW Collective, a hip hop troupe from Chicago to Islamabad on November 14 where they danced, rapped and recited poetry to a westernised, educated and elite audience of young Pakistanis.
The group’s 10-day trip is sponsored by the US State Department as part of its American Festival of the Arts, which is a cultural programme designed to promote exchange between people of the two countries. “It gives a good impression,” said Atroz Abro, 20, who attended the show. “You rarely find such events in Pakistan to pump up the youth by bringing something new.”
According to US assistant cultural attache Jamie Martin, the aim of the performance is to show that, “There’s another layer to the relationship. It’s not just government to government and military to military. It’s people to people.” Such cultural events — which have included the Ari Roland jazz group and country pop star Mary McBride — are part of a long-standing State Department tradition. Jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck toured Pakistan in the late 1950s as part of the same programme.
Where music congregates
As a result of this unique exchange, several musicians and artists associated with this programme and otherwise have started finding commonalities between the two opposing cultures of Pakistan and the US. “I see a trajectory between traditional qawwali music and hip hop,” said Asad Jafri, a founder of the FEW Collective. Jafri was born to Pakistani parents but was taken to America’s Midwest at the age of 10. He said he grew up disliking his Pakistani linage but as he discovered more of his Pakistani heritage, he found common themes between American and Pakistani musical forms.
While explaining the influence of hip hop on mainstream culture, lead vocalist Alsarah, who moved to the US as a child after fleeing political oppression in Sudan, said that this genre is “a movement of the people. It’s a culture of resistance to oppression.” She further added, “I feel like there’s a lot here that’s brewing under the surface and a lot of things that people, especially the youth, might really want to express that are not necessarily easily expressed or allowed to be expressed.”
Hasan Rizvi of BodyBeat — who was one of the hip hop ambassadors chosen by the US State Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’s Cultural Visitors program — stated, “I’m not a politician so I can’t comment on the political benefits but in terms of art and its growth, this opportunity has a 150 per cent chance to improve relations between the two nations.”
Rapper Adil Omar stated that, “While music definitely helps in strengthening the cultural footing of a country, I don’t think it can benefit the political state of two countries as such. I mean it can play a small role but it cannot bring change on its own. There are a bunch of other things like socio-economic and defence factors that help in bridging the gap between two nations.”
(with additional reporting by news desk)
Published in The Express Tribune, November 16th, 2011.