Is Jay-Z George Bush? SLATE sister site FOREIGN POLICY recently compared hip hop to geostrategy. Mark Lynch takes on the recent back-and-forth between rapper Jay-Z and less successful (though still famous) MCs like The Game, Nas, and 50 Cent, using Jay-Z's diss tracks, and his responses to those of others, to form a crudish theory of American global authority.
Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) is the closest thing to a hegemon which the rap world has known for a long time. He's #1 on the Forbes list of the top earning rappers. He has an unimpeachable reputation, both artistic and commercial, and has produced some of the all-time best (and best-selling) hip hop albums including standouts Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint and the Black Album. He spent several successful years as the CEO of Def Jam Records before buying out his contract a few months ago to release his new album on his own label. And he's got Beyonce. Nobody, but nobody, in the hip hop world has his combination of hard power and soft power. If there be hegemony, then this is it. …
But the limits on his ability to use this power recalls the debates about U.S. primacy. Should he use this power to its fullest extent, as neo-conservatives would advise, imposing his will to reshape the world, forcing others to adapt to his values and leadership? Or should he fear a backlash against the unilateral use of power, as realists such as my colleague Steve Walt or liberals such as John Ikenberry would warn, and instead exercise self-restraint?
Now, by meddling with less-famous rappers—most recently and notably in his hit "Death of Autotune," Jigga is doing both: He uses his respected flow and megastar platform to jump into the conversation about the future of hip hop and pop music. That would be the US winning WWII, using overwhelming force in the first Iraq War, or, perhaps, taking out the rogue pirates in Somalia earlier this year. On the other hand, Jay-Z is diluting his brand somewhat with silly tracks that just react, relying on external reference points he hasn't chosen. That would be getting suckered into Iraq II without realizing it was going to cost, mad cheddar, hard-earned credibility, and now more than 5,000 lives.
For the middling or insurgent power (think Iran, India, Brazil), the calculus is different:
[The Game] would routinely go out of his way to say that he was not dissing Jay-Z even when it sounded like he was ("before you call this a diss, and you make Hova pissed, why would I do that, when I'm just the new cat, that was taught if a n****take shots to shoot back, defending his yard, yeah standing his ground, I'm sayin if you gonna retire then hand me the crown.") Think of him as a rising middle power (#13 on the Forbes list, down there with Young Jeezy, he helpfully explains on I'm So Wavy) eyeing the king, ambitious and a bit resentful, and looking for an opening.
So should Jay-Z (and the US) get mixed up in the affairs of every last wannabe MC? That's the central question facing foreign policy hands today: Why Afghanistan and not Darfur? Why Bosnia and not Burma? Disarmament or democracy? Economic growth or human rights? Matt Yglesias chimed in with the following: "Even when restraint can be identified as the best strategy, it’s often emotionally difficult to choose this path." Indeed; sometimes you just want to give another rapper (or coworker, or acquaintance, or sovereign power) a proper smackdown, but cannot.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched on these themes in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations this week, wherein she discussed the need to ensure "states have clear incentives to cooperate as well as strong disincentives to sit on the sidelines." She critiqued nations that "stand in the way of turning commonality of interest into action," and spoke plainly about American hegemony: "Just as no nation can meet these challenges alone, no challenge can be met without America."
While she offered a vision of change, "away from a multipolar world to a multipartner world," the secretary still offered a call-out to our enemies that would have made diss track authors proud:
Not everybody in the world wishes us well or shares our values and interests, and some will actively seek to undermine our efforts.
In those cases, our partnerships can become power coalitions to constrain or deter those negative actions. And to these foes and would-be foes let me say our focus in diplomacy and development is not an alternative to our national security arsenal. Our willingness to talk is not a sign of weakness to be exploited. We will not hesitate to defend our friends, our interests and above all our people, vigorously and when necessary with the world's strongest military.
Who's going to argue with that?
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.