World Music and Soft Power: Who's Playing Whom?

Cultural diplomacy for musicians - why we need to be careful

A 17 minute read

Joseph Nye on soft power

Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from attraction. If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to use carrots or sticks to make you do it... The ability to establish preferences tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions.

Joseph Nye, founder of the theory of neoliberalism

Cultural diplomacy is the linchpin of public diplomacy; for it is in cultural activities that a nation’s idea of itself is best represented. And cultural diplomacy can enhance our national security in subtle, wide-ranging, and sustainable ways. Indeed history may record that America’s cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership, including the war on terror. For the values embedded in our artistic and intellectual traditions form a bulwark against the forces of darkness.

Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy, US State Dept.

The usual position of governments to culture is as to a charity – something they are compelled to throw small amounts of money at so they don't get shouted at.

Simon Anholt, cultural engagement strategist

Governments love us world music people, and rightly so. What's not to like? Wholesome, positive and as clean as a toothpaste commercial: when you're feeling a bit depressed, and there are clouds gathering over your neighbourhood and/or popularity ratings, world music can be relied on to make everyone feel good, both about themselves and about you too.

3 Mustaphas 3 with a song about a girl in a barn.

We're not loud or aggressive; half of our music is instrumental and looks as pretty as our national dress; and as for the other half, the songs are mostly about waiting for a lover in a barn or a group of friends coming together as one, and anyway most of the people we play to can't understand the lyrics anyway. We don't make too much money or promote values that might offend anyone, but as long as we sound different enough from our neighbours and don't mind waving the flag, our governments love us, and will send us abroad to spread the message of what it is that our great country stands for.

For a brief moment, whatever else our governments might have done that people don't like will be forgotten, and other nations will respect ours for its creativity, humanity and diverse cultural traditions.

We could be forgiven for pinching ourselves. The music business claims to be in a crisis, and those who aren't in crisis are keeping quiet to save money. It's getting more and more difficult for world music artists to get signed, distributed and launch an international career for themselves, and even if you get lucky, tough visa procedures and lower fees are making it harder than ever to tour an average sized band. So the current love affair between regional and national governments and world music artists has, one might argue, come at a very useful time indeed. World music is now a key plank in – whisper it – 'cultural diplomacy'.

Simon Anholt on culture's role in the battle for our heads.

I prefer the term 'cultural relations': 'cultural diplomacy' sounds very elitist to me, as if you are doing something weaselly amid high level negotiations to persuade other elites your culture is worth paying attention to. What you try to do is to get people in other countries to know about and to like your culture – whatever culture means.

Simon Anholt

British Council Music Director Cathy Graham agrees:

We are in the business of creating a dialogue. Different governments have different reasons for doing cultural relations work – most governments understand the value of people to people rather than government to government engagement, and direct contact with the positive bits of each other's culture can do a lot of good.

This year's storm over the Wikileaks cables means that 2011 hasn't been a great year for the image of diplomacy, but semantics aside, cultural diplomacy seems to be on the up. The concept of attraction as being a more effective form of international relations than coercion may have been around for centuries, but it has taken until last year for it to become a central part of UK foreign policy. Put plainly, in an age of severe budget cuts and messy foreign military campaigns, the 'soft power' arsenal of culture, values, policies and institutions is both more palatable at home and abroad, and a lot cheaper too. The era of 'hearts and minds' in international relations has well and truly arrived – and music is a crucial tool in the diplomatic handyman's toolbox.

There is an intelligent, modern approach, and a dumb old approach – which is basically culture promotion, putting a lot of taxpayer's money into sending out art exhibitions and touring orchestras and forcing people in other countries to swallow your culture. The modern approach is the one taken by the British Council among others – mutuality: rather than trying to project a stream of culture, it's about doing culture together with people in other countries, so that they are enriched by us and we by them.

Simon Anholt

But did Khrushchev like jazz?

Top American jazzmen featured heavily in US diplomacy at the height of the Cold War – Benny Goodman's tour to Russia in 1962 and Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington going to Africa in the fifties and sixties, a tradition continued by artists like Winton Marsalis in more recent times.

Classical music has an illustrious diplomatic history too, from Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci's present of a clavichord to Ming Emperor Wan Li in 1607, to the New York Philharmonic's trip to Pyongyang in 2008. In world music, however, the American outreach flag these days is being flown by Los Angeles multi-ethnic rock/hip-hop band Ozomatli.

The band might seem like an unusual choice for diplomatic envoys – they met at the city's Peace and Justice Center, first performing for picketers at a strike, and were approached by the US State Department during the Presidency of George W Bush. The need to combat the swift rise in anti-Americanism at the time found a perfect partner in a band who may not have agreed with US policies, but who projected values that showed a positive, alternative side of American culture. However, it wasn't an easy courtship for either party.

Ozomatli before their US State Dept tour.

The US Embassy in India, which is our third largest, was asked by someone at the State Department to look at bringing us out. It took them a couple years to convince the embassy – they had a lot of concerns about the band's political message, as we were very outspoken about the Bush administration and the Iraq war, and they thought we were too rebellious for this kind of interface. When we finally got the call from India, it took me months to convince the band. They were like 'no way, we hate the government and we won't dialogue with them.' I just kept on and on at them, and since then we've been sent all over the world.

Ozomatli manager Amy Blackman

Herein lies one potential issue with artists taking on the badge of foreign diplomats: Ozomatli were approached not for their music alone, but because their story of cultural fusion, tolerance and diversity was the right one for a country with a serious image problem.

Colin Hicks is a cultural broker who spent 18 years as the Cultural Attache for the Quebec Government Office in London.

The biggest Quebecois export of all time.

What happened during the 2nd Iraq war was that George Bush forgot the central tenet of diplomacy – the reputation of your country is your major asset.” One problem of cultural diplomacy he sees is that what governments want out of musicians and what constitutes good art is not necessarily the same thing. I've seen a lot of artists become instruments of diplomacy provided they were saying the right things. When they were on message they were funded, when they weren't, they weren't.

former cultural attache, Colin Hicks

It isn't just big countries with troublesome military campaigns who are seeing the value of sending out cultural diplomats. Brendan Quinlivan is a Senior Policy Advisor at the New Zealand Cultural Diplomacy International Programme, whose stated aim is to 'maintain a New Zealand cultural presence in key overseas regions or countries in order to boost New Zealand’s profile and economic, trade, tourism, diplomatic and cultural interests.'

Two guys helping to make Brendan's job a lot easier.

As a geographically isolated country, cultural diplomacy is seen as increasingly important in doing business, and there is broad recognition of the value of cultural diplomacy by New Zealanders.

If Quinlivan is right, New Zealanders are a savvy bunch. There are too many countries on the planet – between 192 and 225 according to various criteria, the majority with under 10 million inhabitants – for most of us to have any impression of them at all, and for a small country without a damaged reputation to fix, culture is the easiest way to put a positive mark on an otherwise blank page.

It's almost an a priori requirement, that if a country wants to have the esteem and admiration of people around the world, then it needs them to know something of its culture. People are unable to admire countries whose culture they don't know or respect. For example, Latvia: the general perception is that as an ex-Communist country, it has no culture at all, whereas Latvia has more folksongs than people. People have no interest in anything that happens there as we seem to equate cultural richness with quality and self respect.

Simon Anholt

For linguistically dominant powers, spending on outreach is easier to justify in purely economic terms: by investing in music exchanges now, you help to develop markets that in the future your domestic music industries can exploit by themselves. For smaller countries vying for cultural space in our overcrowded heads, the argument for culture in itself can be much tougher.

Culture is most foreign to governments. These days most officials understand business as they tend to have experience in this sector – but never in culture. It's almost as if it is a completely separate universe. Frequently ministers and even Prime Ministers don't understand what a money earner it can be, how it supports direct investment. I often have to lecture ministers about it in these terms, as it's the only language they understand.

Simon Anholt

So, dear WOMEX-goer, your country has a fantastic music culture that hardly anyone knows about - your band might even be part of it - and a reputation that, frankly, just isn't fair, or maybe isn't there at all. However, before you go banging on the minister's door to throw some money into next year's opening night country showcase, think about tactics.

I'm quite critical of showcases. There is a tendency to throw money at them: they are a tool but they have to happen in context. You need what I call 'gateway producers' or promoters, who it is in the culture you are targeting who will open doors. I think that takes four years in real terms, to build a level of trust not only in quality but in consistency of quality, to the point where they will take a risk. If you have ten of these gateway producers then you have opened up a huge network, as these ten know another hundred who will see that they took a risk, so they will too. That is how you break a market.

Colin Hicks

So the music and diplomacy love affair looks set to continue. Bands love it because they don't sell enough to get to those exotic locations by themselves, and governments love it because it's a lot better than going to dreary meetings, and if they're lucky, they might just get a trade deal out of it.

Cash vs conscience made clear by the master.

However, a couple of niggling questions remain – many artists would be uncomfortable flying the flag for a corporation or brand whose politics they don't like. So why are countries any different? And if we, as world music artists, fit our government's agenda of what sort of image they'd like to project, shouldn't we be – well – just a little bit worried?

Should art and government be in bed with each other at all?

George Bernard Shaw once found himself at a dinner party, seated beside an attractive woman.

"Madam," he asked, "would you go to bed with me for a thousand pounds?"

The woman blushed and rather indignantly shook her head.

"For ten thousand pounds?" he asked.

"No. I would not."

"Then how about fifty thousand pounds?" he continued.

The colossal sum gave the woman pause, and after further reflection, she coyly replied: "Perhaps."

"And if I were to offer you five pounds?" Shaw asked.

"Mr. Shaw!" the woman exclaimed. "What do you take me for!"

"We have already established what you are," Shaw calmly replied. "Now we are merely haggling over the price."

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