March 17, 2011

Why Bring Beyonce to Beijing When Jay-Z Can Bring India to North Philadelphia?

The readings by Cull and Kovach which both talk about the collaborative side of Cultural Diplomacy both made me think of a song by a guy named Punjabi MC and his song Mundian to Bach Ke featuring Jay-Z. The song has a very catchy tune, which is basically a rip off of the Night Rider theme song, and he collaborated (aka sampled, but he still had a part in it) with Jay-Z who added a verse to the song. I wish I could have thought of a cultural collaboration more along the lines of a jazz performance like the articles talk about, but Jay-Z is what popped into my head, and so Jay-Z is what we get.

However, my lack of musical cultural knowledge aside even this song itself is such a mix of cultures, identities and musical genres that I think it’s a great example of cultural diplomacy. I first heard this song at a Bhangra performance in college. The team (composed of mostly Indian students) chose the song and the audience (composed of mostly Indian students) went wild. Even at this micro level the effects of cultural diplomacy permeating everyday life is apparent. Digging deeper into what this song is and who these artists are it is easy to see why this collaboration had a deep impact.

Punjabi MC is actually a British-Indian rapper whose genres include Bhangra and hip-hop. He had sampled some hip-hop songs before Jay-Z but this song became a hit not only in the UK but the US as well. Jay-Z is a major superstar around the world and his music reaches places from urban schoolyards, to college campuses, to corporate holiday parties. But he got his start as a drug dealer in Brooklyn in a broken home. You may be asking yourself why does this matter? Especially when we can look at more legitimate CD acts like the example of the Tunisian/bluegrass band collaboration that Kovach mentions. Well this is why it matters to me. When this song started coming on the radios it reached Philadelphia, where I am from as well. This song came on when I was in the car with one of my cousins, who has never left Philadelphia and never been out of the country in her life. My dad’s side of the family all hale from North Philadelphia, where guys like Jay-Z in his pre-superstar days are a dime a dozen, so he is automatically relatable on a cultural/identity level. As the song started I told her about how I had seen a Bhangra performance of this at school. All at once she started to tell me about how she had looked the song up on the Internet and had seen many of these performances online as well. She said that then she started to search for other Bhangra music and that she had watched many performances and even watched a few short Bollywood films online. She then started to tell me about the history of Bhangra. She concluded with, “… and Jay-Z’s part is pretty cool too.”

I wouldn’t call this a “prestigious gift” on the part of India (especially since its from someone who is British), but the impact of one song on the cultural education of one person about a completely different part of the world shows how powerful cultural diplomacy can be. Not only is it powerful, but it doesn’t have to be something that necessarily seems “culturally enlightening”. Cull brushes aside the Beyonce to Beijing type of CD, and sure it has its repercussions as all of these things do, but if that sort of “base line” culture applies to some people (and lets be real to the majority of our population) then why not use it?

So while Arndt gives a dreary outlook on where CD is today I agree with his optimistic view of the future. But instead of trying to reach new heights never seen before by CD scholars and practitioners, maybe we should take a moment and aim lower.

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