Monday, July 13, 2009

IR Theory and Rap Music

. Monday, July 13, 2009

(Great song, but some explicit lyrics, so NSFW. You've been warned.)

Marc Lynch watches the beef between Jay-Z and The Game and ponders the lessons from IR theory:

See, 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. Heck, when he tried to retire after the Black Album, he found himself dragged back into the game (shades of America's inward turn during the Clinton years?).

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?

Rappers have never shied from IR themes. In fact, Tupac Shakur studied Niccolo Machiavelli while in prison and took the nom de plume "Makaveli" as tribute. The concept of anarchy is central to both IR theory and the rap world, as is the realist doctrine of "might makes right" (or, as Thucydides said, "The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must").

The recent history of rap follows some IR themes as well. In the 1990s, the West Coast rappers balanced against the East Coast rappers, touching off the feuds that led to the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Following these deaths the rap community sought to put a permanent end to large-scale violence, instead seeking economic arrangements from which they could mutually benefit. This L.A./N.Y. Consensus made rap into a very big business, and in the past decade the scene mostly repudiated violent turf wars in favor of embracing commerce.

While this new cooperation has certainly been Pareto-improving, there have been some distributional concerns that have led to minor squabbles (like the present one between The Game and Jay-Z). But even these have often led to new cooperations; see, e.g., Jay-Z's past feud with Nas that led to multiple collaborations (one example is the song posted above). While there has been some shifting of standing in the new system, the locus of power has remained with the Def Jam/Rocafella coalition, which has provided stability and security to the system.

The new era of cooperation has led some to worry about the homogenization of rap culture as the reach of the L.A./N.Y Consensus spread. In reality the opposite has been true. The growth of rap culture and commerce has created new space for regional and international movements to thrive, from the ATL scene and reggaeton to the Bay-area Anticon collective and favela blasts. Rap now comes in every language and flavor.

In other words, there's more to the IR/rap nexus than just the recent spat between Jay-Z and The Game. These roots run deep.

Now that I think about it, this sounds like a good topic for a dissertation.


Alex Parets said...

Write it! I will gladly proofread every single word of that dissertation.

Sarah Bauerle said...

when a community doesn't accept the idea that the state has a monopoly on use of force, then anarchy breaks loose, right? Seems like a great illustrative way to teach Waltz to undergrads. Now, if only the rap community created some durable institutions (maybe it has, I'm not really up on the Rap scene), you could also use the example to explain Keohane.

IR Theory and Rap Music
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