Fortnightly(ish) Review: Hip-hop in Mali, Nepal, Springsteen and Uzbek Elite Pop

Mali: coup, secession, food crisis and hip-hop

Mali is in the midst of great political turmoil.  In March a military junta ousted the President, suspended the 1992 constitution and took control of the country, which had been due for Presidential elections in April.  The government’s mishandling of the Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north was cited as the motivating factor for the coup (I wrote about that rebellion in an earlier post).

Following the coup Tuareg rebels, namely the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), declared an independent Azawad covering a broad swathe of the country’s north, including Timbuktu.  To further compound matters Islamist group Ansar Dine has made a counter-claim to stewardship of Azawad, and central Mali is part of the Sahel, a region facing a severe food shortage.

So seemingly out of nowhere (although not to all), Mali has been transformed from a bastion of west African democratic consolidation into “the Afghanistan of West Africa”.  Well, at the very least it faces directionless military rule and possible bifurcation.  Some young Malians have expressed their frustration with their country’s politics, both pre- and post-coup, through hip-hop as detailed in this article on Bridges From Bamako.  The article makes the interesting observation that hip-hop crews in Mali are fulfilling the role traditionally ascribed to civil society, the latter having been co-opted by the political elite.  This is surely the case in a number of other countries too.

What is happening in Mali is compelling, particularly when you’re sitting in a country which is also 20-odd years into democratic rule and subject to endemic corruption, and is about to hold a parliamentary election.  Mali’s Presidential election, which was to have taken place in April, was initially postponed  to May.  It has now been put off until 2017, along with parliamentary elections which were originally scheduled for this July.

What’s a country like Nepal doing with politicians like these?

Just under a month ago Nepal’s protracted constitution writing process collapsed.  I wrote a fairly detailed article about it on South Asia Masala so I won’t harp on about it here.  All I will say is that things are not looking any rosier now than they did a month ago.  This week the hardline faction of the ruling Maoists finally made good on its threat to split from the party.  The newly formed Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (it has dropped the ‘Unified’ from the original Maoist party’s name) rejects parliamentarianism and will not rule out a people’s revolt or a return to all out war.  Meanwhile, as Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai toddled off to the UN’s environmental gab-fest in Brazil, his government was censured by the Electoral Commission for making changes to key police personnel despite its caretaker status, and accused of curbing press freedom for demoting a state TV executive for televising opposition protests.

Amrit Gurung, lead singer of Nepathaya, a band I blogged about when I was still living in Nepal, has added his voice to the debate in a couple of articles in the Nepali Times.  In the first, published a few days before the Constituent Assembly expired, he added his view to the debate over whether or not Nepal’s states should be defined on the basis of ethnicity.  Gurung made the case in favour of ethnic inclusiveness, stating he is Nepali before he is Gurung or any other identity.  He reiterated that position in his latest article published this week.

Who Da Boss?

In a recent article The Guardian argues that Bruce Springsteen is the last protest singer (at least in stadiums), taking a swing at Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Coldplay, U2 and Glastonbury in the process.  The author also sort of has a go at Neil Young and Bob Dylan.  I think.  And Jarvis Cocker and Sting, he says, have chosen the wrong issues to protest.  Personally I don’t think all musicians need to foist their politics on their fans.  In fact most time I think it’s preferable they don’t.

The article’s survey of stadium rockers is far from exhaustive: why mention Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, but not Pearl Jam for example?  Another politically engaged musician is Ry Cooder, who is preparing to release a uber-political album in the lead-up to America’s November Presidential elections.  The video below contains some of one song from the album, the excellent ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, about Mitt Romney strapping his dog to the roof of his car on a 12 hour drive.


Central Asia has a new pop princess: GooGoosha, aka Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimova.  Unsurprisingly, the music is terrible.


From Panama to Guantanamo: Music as Torture

When Panama’s General Manuel Noreiga took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in December 1989, the US military brought out the big guns.  Those guns included Guns N’ Roses, Elvis Presley, Styx, Billy Idol, The Doors, Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Boston, Funkadelic, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Steve Miller, Whitesnake, Van Halen, Joan Jett, Tom Petty, AC/DC and Pink Floyd.

A few days earlier US President George Bush had launched Operation Just Cause, an invasion of Panama aimed at deposing military dictator Noriega.  The US Commander in Chief detailed the justifications for the invasion hours before the operation commenced.  They were 1) to safeguard the lives of Americans living in Panama, 2) to defend Panama’s human rights and democracy, 3) to combat drug trafficking and 4) to protect the Torrijos-Carter treaties.  Those treaties transferred control of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama on 1 January 2000 and maintained the US’s right to defend the canal from any threat to its neutral use with military force.

The United States government had supported Noriega until a military crackdown on protesters and declaration of emergency rule in July 1987 after which then President Ronald Reagan applied sanctions.  Six months later courts in Tampa and Miami, Florida, charged Noriega with drug trafficking.

The music was broadcast from a military radio station that allowed soldier requests from Boxing Day until 29 December.  President Bush, clearly not a rock fan, described the tactic as “irritating and petty”.  It was ordered by General Thurman to act as a “sound barrier” to prevent journalists eavesdropping on negotiations for Noriega’s handover.  But it was also a useful form of psychological pressure on both Vatican Embassy staff and Noriega himself, and many considered that to be the true motivation.

The tactic has continued to be used by the US, including on those detained in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, despite a United Nations ban on the use of loud music during interrogations.  Particularly popular songs include AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Bells’, Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, Eminem’s ‘White America’, Nine Inch Nails’ ‘March of the Pigs’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and the Sesame Street song.  Other artists frequently cited as used in military interrogations (or to prevent inmates from communicating with each other according to some US military sources) include Queen, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Don McLean, Marilyn Manson, The Bee Gees, Barney the Dinosaur and Tupac.

Some of the songs chosen are perfect, lyrically and aurally, for their (despicable) use.  ‘March of the Pigs’ particularly stands out (though it makes me love it no less).  Whoever thought of using Britney Spears must be a military strategist of the highest order, and severely sadistic.  Others are less appropriate (for want of a better term).  ‘Born in the USA’ is, of course, congenitally misused.  Eminem’s ‘White America’ is a dig at the angry disaffection of white American youth as personified my Mr Mathers himself and really a very odd choice.

A campaign called zero dB, calling for an end of the use of music as torture, was started in 2008.  It is supported by Massive Attack, Bruce Springsteen, The Doves, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, The Magic Numbers, Rosanne Cash and others.  Its main success seems to have been increasing awareness rather than securing government commitments to halt the practice.

Opera-loving Noriega surrendered on January 3 1990.  He completed his sentence in the United States in September 2007.   He has been in a French jail since February 2010 when he was sentenced to seven years for money laundering.

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