"I seen people abuse power, use power, misuse and then lose power/Power to the people at last, it’s a new hour/Now we all ain’t gon’ be American Idols/But you can least grab a camera, shoot a viral/Huh? Take the power in your own hands."--- Kanye West, evaluating (presumably) the Egyptian revolution in the Power remix
Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West may not prove to be the enduring hip hop classic that many people expected when news of the project leaked. But the album itself is hardly the point. Watch the Throne represents a fascinating gambit in the consolidation and extension of Jay-Z's hegemony over the hip hop world, and in Kanye's rehabilitation of his image following a catastrophic collapse in his global standing. How they did it offers important lessons for how the United States can handle its own changing position within a turbulent world.
Two years ago, I wrote a series of essays using Jay-Z as a window into international relations theory. They ended up provoking an astonishing outpour of debate, dissent, and commentary across the blogosphere. I recorded what remains to this day my all-time favorite radio appearance. And it landed me in an unforgettable, if short-lived, rap beef with Game himself. My basic argument was that Jay-Z handled his hegemonic position by exercising restraint, declining to engage in most provocations in order to avoid being trapped in endless, pointless battles. Jay-Z battling the Game would have risked being dragged down into combating an endless and costly insurgency with little real upside. Better for the hegemon to show restraint, be self-confident, and to carefully nurture a resilient alliance structure to underpin leadership.
Blueprint 3, released shortly afterward, largely vindicated that analysis. The opening track pointedly dismissed his beefs ("I ain't talking about gossip, ain't talking about Game") in favor of addressing "real" issues ("let's talk about the future, we've just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther, you could choose ta sit in front of your computer posing with guns, shooting YouTube up, or you could come with me to the White House"). "Run This Town" asked everyone to "pledge allegiance" to his label Roc Nation. "Already Home," breezily dismissed all of his would-be challengers as not in his league and "only excited when they mentioning Shawn" and taking them to task for not carrying their share of the burden ("I taught 'em about fish scale they want me to fish for them/They want me to catch clean, then cook up a dish for them"). D.O.A. did take the rising generation to task for singing too much with Auto-Tune and generally being soft, and took a few shots at competing power centers ("send this one to the mixtape Weezy"). But overall, the album was a self-confident, knowing blueprint for hegemonic restraint.
The structure of the balance of power in the rap world continued to evolve towards multipolarity over the last two years, if not an actual hegemonic transition, in the midst of a serious financial crisis afflicting the entire industry -- a situation not unfamiliar to the White House. The relentless rise of southern rap mirrors the economic and political rise of Asia. What had once been a marginal, derivative, and largely dismissed regional genre has risen to be a legitimate contender for hegemony. Lil Wayne and his Young Money label racked up success after success alongside older southern powers like T.I. and newcomers like B.o.B. The West Coast, like Europe, has declined significantly since its old great power days. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg still do their thing, but rarely have a major impact anymore (RIP Nate Dogg, by the way); Detox remains an urban legend, and we'll see if Game's new RED album does better. 50 Cent, a great power only a few years ago, has largely collapsed -- Russia, perhaps? Eminem returned strong after a long struggle with depression to make the ferociously brilliant Recovery album; but like, say, India or Brazil he has always been a powerhouse in his own world, neither influencing nor affected by the wider field.
In short, the environment facing Jay-Z over the last two years was turbulent and challenging, and he could not simply assume continued hegemony despite his track record or skills. Rap's center of gravity was being pulled relentlessly away from its New York roots, taking on a more southern and more international feel. The entire industry faced a massive financial crisis, as the internet and market fragmentation continued to contribute to the steady collapse of the business model for albums and record companies. What is more, there was every reason to view Jay-Z himself as a declining power. While a Jay-Z album could still dominate the rap space as completely as the U.S. military could dominate any global battlespace, that dominance rested on deteriorating foundations. Jay-Z should have seen his skills declining at the age of 41 (yeah, he's 10 months younger than me - and for what it's worth I think his rhymes are better than ever). He could hardly avoid being distracted by the competing pulls of running Def Jam or Roc Nation, and the comforts of marriage to the divine Beyoncé.
Watch the Throne then can be seen as a shrewd move to institutionalize Jay-Z's hegemony before feeling the effects of likely decline in a rapidly shifting and potentially hostile environment, through more robust partnerships and a fully-realized new alliance system. The key moves came years earlier: Jay-Z allowing Kanye to produce Blueprint 3 instead of trying to destroy him after his 2007 diss track "Big Brother"; his signing of key rising stars to Roc Nation and Kanye's doing the same at GOOD Music (especially reaching beyond his comfort zone to bring the incredible Pusha T on board after the breakup of the Clipse -- Turkey, perhaps, given the religion issue?); his participation on Kanye's brilliant GOOD Friday series of free online downloads and on Kanye's remarkable comeback album My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy; and then finally Watch the Throne.
It's actually hard to say, and ultimately may not matter, whether Jay-Z or Kanye West is the architect of this new alliance. Kanye had become a lightning rod for political attacks after his post-Katrina outburst during a live telethon that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," and then had struggled with his mother's death. Kanye's reputation had been shattered in September 2009 by his drunken display at the Video Music Awards where he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech to declare that the award should have gone to Beyoncé instead. "Imma let you finish" became a national punch line and he suffered massive ridicule even on South Park. There have been few public gaffes of such magnitude in the entertainment world, and amidst much whispering about his alleged drinking problems and erratic personality many doubted whether Kanye could ever recover. This was a reputational collapse on a par with what the Bush administration did to America's standing in the world. (How ironic, then, that Bush described Kanye's Katrina outburst as the lowest moment of his Presidency.)
How Kanye brought himself back to the top has some intriguing lessons for public diplomacy. He didn't rely on one big speech to apologize, try to respond to every critic, or retreat into a shell. As someone who thinks that internet has a transformative impact on world politics, I find it fitting that Kanye's return from his lowest days relied on innovative internet activism (paging Alec Ross). I'm referring partly to Kanye's hallucinogenic Twitter feed and online video interviews, but mainly to the GOOD Friday series of free music releases. It should be no surprise that he turned to the internet to seize control of his own image. The hip hop industry has been transformed by the internet, obviously. Unauthorized leaks have wiped out album sales, while most of the new generation of young rappers have built their careers on free mixtapes released online -- it's hard to believe that J.Cole, for instance, is practically a hip hop legend already without yet even releasing his first studio album.
Even in that context, it is almost impossible to exaggerate how good the GOOD Friday releases were. For months, Kanye release a world-class new track free over the internet every Friday. The Good Friday releases featured a wide range of artists, casting a big tent which signaled broad global support. They featured Jay-Z himself, signaling support from the top of the system. They showcased the prize acquisition for Kanye's GOOD label, the lyrical monster Pusha T, signaling a strong new alliance. They featured hot young artists such as J. Cole, Big Sean, and Cyhi Da Prince, socializing the best of the new generation of rising powers into their alliance system rather than fading away or jealously circling the wagons. And by giving it away free over months, they generated buzz and had far more impact than if they had just released it in one album. Like Warren Ellis with his amazing online comic book Freakangels, Kanye proved that giving top quality material away for free could actually be good business (a lesson, by the way, for academics and their publishers). By the time the albums came out, Kanye's misdeeds had faded in the collective memory in favor of the immense goodwill generated through this exceptional feat of public diplomacy.
Jay-Z and Kanye therefore solidified their place on the throne not by crushing their rivals but by inspiring them to be their best as part of a team, through creative use of the internet for public diplomacy, and by working within rather than trying to dictate new norms. They recognized that "no one man should have all that power." Jay-Z was willing to "lead from behind" and share the spotlight in order to build a broad and effective coalition. This approach to leadership encouraged others to step up and share the burden, even when he could have easily dominated on his own. Like the U.S. did for NATO in Libya, he and Kanye contributed unique assets (the ability to command public attention, tracks from the best producers like Swizz Beatz and Pete Rock, their own skills). And it worked. Potential competitors clamored to get in to this new order rather than bashing it from afar, while the attractiveness of the partnership pushed those invited to join to step up their game and perform at their peak.
Jay-Z also demonstrated the maturity and self-confidence to avoid demanding credit or singling out weaker players for abuse. Sure, he continues to send out warnings to smaller powers, but he is usually careful not to name names and to keep his messages broad. He complains "I'm just so offended, how am I even mentioned by all these f***ing beginners", but he concludes not with a threat but with a weary shake of the head: "all these little bi***es, too big for their britches, burning their little bridges... f***ing ridiculous." It's not his fault if they destroy themselves -- like Obama eyeing Qaddafi, Mubarak or Assad, it's really up to them to decide whether they will choose their next steps poorly. And he loves to flaunt his wealth and status -- indeed, such displays are part of how he signals his hegemonic standing. But if "planking on a million" can be humble, then this is a strategy of humility.
Watch the Throne therefore should not be judged as an album, but rather as a move in this savvy strategy of institutionalizing hegemony in the face of potential decline. Kanye and Jay-Z's alliance offers a new blueprint for managing decline in a turbulent world from which international relations scholars and American foreign policy practitioners alike should learn. And if political scientists don't want to take lessons from hip hop artists, then allow me to give the last word to Cyhi Da Prince: "my haters got PhDs, y'all just some major haters with some math minors."
Addendum and Commentary:
- Spencer Ackerman warns that we should not just watch the throne, but instead keep an eye on the rising power of the periphery.
- Lil Wayne goes directly at Jay-Z - how should the Jay-Z/Kanye alliance deal with a challenge from a serious peer competitor?
- Game renews attack with "Uncle Otis" - did Jay-Z's restraint embolden challenger because of absence of consequences for defiance?
The scenes of the joyous reception for Libyan "Freedom Fighters" entering Tripoli with little resistance yesterday sent an electric shock through the Arab public. The Jordanian blogger Naseem Tarawnah beautifully captured this regional effect: "Staying up last night to watch the events unfold on the streets of Tripoli, I cannot help but feel the sense of confidence that swept across the region last night; radiating from TV, computer and mobile screens." My Twitter feed could barely keep up with the rush of excited declarations that Assad must be watching Tripoli on TV and seeing his own future.
The reactions yesterday once again show the potent and real demonstration effects which characterize today's highly unified Arab political space.I don't see how anybody watching al-Jazeera, following Arab social media networks, or talking to people in the region could fail to appreciate the interconnected nature of Arab struggles. It's the same sense of shared fate and urgency that those who follow the Arab public sphere could feel in February and March. I supported the NATO intervention in Libya in large part because of that powerful Arab popular demand and the likely impact of the outcome in Libya across the region.
Now, as Syrians march chanting "Qaddafi is gone, now it's your turn, Bashar!" and excited protestors in Yemen's Change Square shout "our turn tomorrow!" there's suddenly a chance to recapture some of that lost regional momentum. It has been a long time since there has been such a unified Arab public sphere, or such hope that the long summer's stalemate might be broken and the momentum of January and February reclaimed. As one put it, "the fight isn't over in Yemen & Syria; Libyan friends remind us when we think its over we're closer to victory than we think."
Everybody understands that there is a long way to go and that the new Libya will face many challenges. Nobody thinks that the new enthusiasm from Libya will on its own magically end the stalemate in Yemen or stop the bloodshed in Syria. But the impact of Qaddafi's fall is resonating powerfully across the region in all the right ways.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Late at night on Sunday, August 7, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia delivered an unusual televised rebuke to Syria’s Bashar al-Asad calling on him to “stop the killing machine” and immediately begin reforms. The Saudi move against Damascus was only the latest twist in Riyadh’s newly energetic foreign policy. Since March, Saudi Arabia has been in the forefront of a regional counter-offensive designed to blunt the momentum of the Arab uprisings and shape the new regional order to its liking. After a decade of a regional order defined by an alliance of “moderate” autocracies aligned with the United States and Israel against a “Resistance” axis, the Saudis have responded to an age of revolution by leading what many now call a regional counter-revolution. This has placed them at odds with the Obama administration in key theaters, disrupted long-standing alliances, and brought Riyadh to the forefront of regional diplomacy.
While many in the region now see counter-revolution anywhere, in fact this trope likely gives too much credit to the Saudis and their alleged conspiracy. They are certainly trying to shape regional politics to their liking, but the results have not been particularly impressive. The Saudi effort to broker a transition plan in Yemen has gone nowhere. The near collapse of the Yemeni state left politics gridlocked, with not even the dire wounding of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a mysterious attack and his flight to a Saudi hospital breaking the stalemate. Its early enthusiasm for intervention in Libya, fueled in no small part by long-festering resentment over Moammar Qaddafi’s reported attempt to assassinate King Abdullah, faded. The regime long seemed baffled by the unrest in Syria, unable to decide how to respond to the turbulence, and has not yet translated its newfound urgency into any practical steps to bring about change. It remains to be seen whether the Saudi regime can sustain the level of energetic diplomacy of the last few months as a succession crisis looms and regional challenges mount. And even if it does, little in its diplomatic record over decades suggests that its approach of throwing money at problems will work.
To help understand the Saudi response to the Arab uprising, we have just released POMEPS Briefing #5, "The Saudi Counter-Revolution," collecting Middle East Channel essays by Greg Gause, Toby Jones, Stephane Lacroix, Steffen Hertog, Kristin Diwan, Madawi al-Rasheed, and many more. The rest of my introduction to the Briefing follows below the break:
Al-Shaab Yureed Tatbiq Shari'a Allah! The people want to implement God's Sharia! That chant rang through my ears as I struggled through a jam-packed Tahrir Square on Friday, as hundreds of thousands of Islamists packed the symbolic home of Egypt's revolution to demand that their presence be known. Two days later, the ill-advised occupation of Tahrir Square by mostly secular and leftist political trends which began on July 8 largely ended, as most groups decided to pull out and then security forces cleared the remains. Feelings are running raw in Egypt as the revolution approaches yet another turning point. The galvanizing events of the weekend mark a new stage in one of the most urgent battles in post-Mubarak Egypt: who owns the revolution, and who may speak in its name?
"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on the ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."
That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy today. Ford sharply criticized the Syrian government's continuing repression against peaceful protestors and called on President Bashar al-Assad to "take the hard decisions" to begin meaningful reforms before it is too late. Not, Ford stressed, because of American concerns but because of the impatience of the Syrian opposition itself. "This is not about Americans, it is about the way the Syrian government mistreats its own people," Ford stressed repeatedly. "This is really about Syrians interacting with other Syrians. I’m a marginal thing on the sidelines. I’m not that important."
Some might disagree. Last Thursday and Friday, Ford made a dramatic visit to the embattled city of Hama to demonstrate the United States' support for peaceful protests and its condemnation of the Syrian government's use of violence. His trip to Hama electrified supporters of the Syrian opposition, and marked a sharp escalation in U.S. efforts to deal with the difficult Syrian stalemate. It also sparked a vicious Syrian response, as government-backed mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, inflicting considerable damage. In a caustic note posted to his Facebook page, Ford called on the Syrian government to "stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators." Ford's sharp criticism of the Syrian government's violence against peaceful protestors and detailed outline of multilateral and American diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian regime suggest that the recent U.S. rhetorical escalation does mark a new stage in the ongoing crisis.
Tunisia's post-revolutionary politics are being profoundly shaped by the meteoric rise of the long-banned Islamist movement al-Nahda. Decades of fierce repression during the regime of former President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali crushed almost every visible manifestation of Tunisia's Islamist movement. The banned movement played a very limited role in the revolution. But since Ben Ali's flight and the triumphant January 30 return of exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda has grown with astonishing speed. A recent survey found support for the party at just below 30 percent, almost three times that of its closest rival. Its ascent is fueling a dangerous polarization, leading putative champions of democracy to endorse the postponing of elections, and frightening many secularists and women who fear for their place in the new Tunisia.
I have just returned from a trip to Tunisia focused on the resurgence of al-Nahda. I emerged impressed with al-Nahda's organizational strength, democratic rhetoric, political energy, and by their determined efforts to engage with their political rivals and reassure their critics. But I also emerged with real concerns about the growing polarization and collapse of trust across the political class, which risks dividing the Tunisian public and crippling the desperately needed democratic transition. And I found even al-Nahda's leaders unsure about how to grapple with the rising salafi trend, which may be more of a source of weakness than a source of electoral strength.
There is far more to Tunisia's emerging political arena than just al-Nahda, of course. Its rise and the resulting polarization come at a time of deep uncertainty about the fate of the revolution. Much of the old regime remains in place within state institutions, as well as in the Tunisian media, business sector, and cultural elite. Many of those who drove the popular uprising are deeply disgruntled about how little the revolution has changed their lives; while many of the people with whom I spoke were delighted with their newfound freedom, few saw real improvement in economic conditions. Many, particularly in the southern cities where the revolution began, feel that the world has abandoned them and that their revolution has been stolen. While the world has largely turned away from Tunisia to focus on crises elsewhere across the region, the transition to democracy there is far from accomplished. This is an important time to refocus on the place where the Arab upheavals began. Look for more coverage of these broader issues on Foreign Policy in the coming weeks.
Photos by Marc Lynch
"There’s no outcry in the country to say 'comply with the War Powers Act,' outside of academia." That's what Senator John McCain told Foreign Policy in an interview a few weeks ago. How quickly things change. With House Speaker John Boehner presenting an ultimatum for administration compliance with the War Powers Act, and Congressional GOP leaders hinting at defunding the campaign, the demand that the Obama administration obtain Congressional authorization for the operation in Libya has suddenly become front page news. A full-scale battle over Presidential authority looms.
The administration should have secured authorization for the Libya campaign early on, to put it on solid legal and bipartisan political footing. Congressional oversight is as important for the Obama administration as it was during the Bush administration -- a point which applies to Libya just as it does to drone strikes and global counter-terrorism operations. They probably didn't do so because they (correctly) expected that a Congressional resolution authorizing the Libya campaign would come to the President's desk with riders attached repealing health care reform, reinstating Don't Ask Don't Tell, and abolishing Medicare. But politics shouldn't be allowed to outweigh the importance of effective Congressional oversight and respecting the rule of law.
Beyond the political jockeying, however, the sudden burst of attention to Libya should be an opportunity for the public to take a fresh look at what is actually happening in Libya. This is a good time to realize that the war in Libya was very much worth fighting and that it is moving in a positive direction. A massacre was averted, all the trends favor the rebels, the emerging National Transitional Council is an unusually impressive government in waiting, and a positive endgame is in sight. This is a war of which the administration should be proud, not one to be hidden away from public or Congressional view.
As the violence in Syria grinds on with no resolution in sight, a chorus of voices is predictably rising demanding that the Obama administration do more to hasten the exit of Bashar al-Assad. Their impatience is understandable, as is the outrage which I share about the indiscriminate use of violence by an ugly regime. But Syria will not be solved by Obama deciding to finally use the magic democracy words that he has inexplicably refused to deploy: "Expellus Assadum!"
The administration is right about the limits of Washington's influence over events in Syria and correct to resist pressure to indulge in symbolic gestures such as withdrawing the Ambassador or calling on Assad to leave. Prudence is not weakness. It is the only rational response to the turbulence and uncertainty surrounding Syria today. That does not mean doing nothing. The Obama administration should continue to ratchet up its rhetorical condemnation of Syrian violence. It might use the threat of International Criminal Court referral and targeted sanctions to encourage regime defections. But increasing pressure is not enough. Instead, it should continue to focus on a regional and international approach, in cooperation with regional partners such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League, designed to create a real alternative to the seemingly unstoppable descent into brutality and rebellion.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.