Friday, April 29, 2011

Music is a Positive Force

I had the pleasure of catching afrobeat star Femi Kuti in concert this week at the Highline Ballroom in New York. He's on tour with his Positive Force band to promote their new album Africa for Africa.

Femi is the son of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the legendary musical pioneer and political activist who stirred up Nigeria in the 1970s and 80s. Fela's music embodies the universal struggle for rights, recognition, and an end to corruption. His lyrics are fiery even when his grooves remain mellow, blending psychedelic rock with James Brown, jazz, and West African high life.

Fela's songs confront the ills he observed in Nigerian society under repressive regimes: Political conformity is ridiculed in "Zombie" and "Mister Follow Follow," peace and resources run through "Water No Get Enemy," and the spirit of resistance animates "No Agreement."

Femi upholds a lot of his father's legacy—he leads the band from behind a Hammond organ and he solos on sax and trumpet when he isn't roaming with the microphone, delivering sweet songs as well as political lectures. What really sets Femi apart from his father is the more muscular, aggressive sound he has cultivated. His compositions blare with tight, punchy horns, and crisp drumming. The tempos are mostly up, breaking only rarely into an island lilt. Femi's body vibrates with the extra energy he couldn't cram into his songs, and even his audience banter hits like a confident staccato hammer of pidgin and English.

Femi also picks up his father's political messages, which continue to resonate in Nigeria some 14 years since Fela died from AIDS complications. The demands in "E No Good" are simple: electricity, drinkable water, housing, good health care, and good pay for doctors, teachers, and police. The afflictions are laid out in equally clear terms: corruption, lies, and inequality.

"Dem Bobo" [They Misinform]

So we struggle suffer dey [here]
For this new democratic change
But the truth of the matter be say
Dem disguise another way
To continue their crooked ways
Oh yes, dem bobo
"It Don't Mean"

When you are walking down the street
Or feeling cool in your brand new Lexus jeep
Because you got money, you feeling rich
Don't mean that the poverty does not exist

As a musician who has toured, Femi sees the pattern across Africa, the same problems and same pains in different countries, as well as the luxuries like social security considered common in rich countries. Generals oscillate with presidents yet the suffering and mago mago [illegal deals] remain. Goons are interchangeable.

"Africa for Africa"

Brothers and sisters
Our countries are colonial structures
Borderlines to keep us forever separated
We must love Africa
We must care for Africa
War and conflicts will only bring suffering and hunger
African leaders must bring us together

All these songs lean more to the descriptive than the prescriptive, which is often where the artist must pass the baton. So what are the good solutions? Can countries shed "Bad Government" without shedding blood as in Northern Africa?

Femi drew a diverse crowd here in New York, with the peoples of no particular continent dominating the mix. This testifies both to the universal power of music and to the potential of cities and democracies to help people live in harmony.

Neuroscientists have discovered that brain cells fire at the exact frequencies our ears hear. What better evidence could exist that reason will eventually prevail over the petty rivalries that divide us? The vibrations outside our bodies are matched in abstract purity inside our minds, and thus shared alike from mind to mind. Pair this with an inspiring message and the people become an unstoppable positive force.

Musicians have a serious responsibility when choosing the tones and stories with which to fill their listeners. Femi Kuti honors this sacred duty, and the legacy of his father, by building a musical shrine for free spirits.

Friday, April 22, 2011

NYU Students: U.S. Should Support An Inclusive Global Community

Last week, I facilitated a class debate on U.S. policy toward East Asia for a class I teach at NYU called the "Rise of East Asia." (Click here to read the summary of the class from spring 2010 and here to read the summary from the class from summer 2009.) This semester's class was smaller than previous semesters but the debate was nonetheless fascinating. Perhaps one of the most striking elements of the debate was a widely shared view that the United States cannot lead the world alone. Rather the United States must lead in cooperation with other countries--a strategy of cooperative security if you will. In that light, the students stressed the need for relations between countries to be on equal footing and therefore they questioned the tradition of looking at U.S. foreign relations in hierarchical order.

Below are the impressions of Elizabeth Matsumoto, who participated in the debate:

"Rise of East Asia" Class Debate on March 30 2011

On March 30 2011, President Obama's 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) provided the backdrop for a carefully worded but intense debate among six NYU SCPS students in Professor Devin Stewart's "Rise of East Asia" class. There were varied opinions but also overwhelming agreement on U.S. priorities in national security, a concern that preoccupied the better part of the debate, followed by recommendations for American policy in East Asia, a region defined as ASEAN, China, Japan, the Koreas, and Australia.

The goal of the debate was to prepare an in-class National Security Strategy by consolidating excerpts from the Obama document with newly derived conclusions. The class began by focusing on grand strategy, or the all-encompassing mission statement that could best be classified as a philosophical approach to national security. Obama's grand strategy focuses on "renewing American leadership," a reaction to the military emphasis of the Bush era. Evidence that this renewal involves the dual process of being strong at home, by rebuilding the economy, education system, while being influential abroad became readily apparent in a preliminary study of the document.

Class reaction was overwhelmingly positive to the Obama Administration's grand strategy, characterizing it as "a step in the right direction." The group also called for a policy of engagement that would "create more international organizations, and cooperation," that prioritized American leadership and "enlightened self-interest." The best means of pursuing leadership was also briefly debated, with an emphasis on collaboration, or co-leadership as the optimal means of engagement.

Class also argued that co-leadership on important global matters should be initiated while cautiously balancing security and openness, given that "safety and prosperity are bound by events beyond our borders." The Grand Strategy was subsequently revised to the following statement: "The United States should cooperate in redefining the international order, to support an inclusive community of nations with global responsibility." Class also stressed the grand strategy remain compatible with the general aim of engagement abroad: to give incentives to nations to act responsibly, while conveying they may face consequences if they do not.

With the grand strategy established, the class then began the task of defining the Interests of National Security. First came the security of the United States, its citizens and the "human rights of all people," an important clause directly correlated to the grand strategy’s notion of an "inclusive community." Next was international prosperity, an aim intertwined with rebuilding a strong economy, powered by "fiscal responsibility, education, and innovation" at home. Debate on whether to retain values, or ethical policy followed. Given the overarching ethical aim of the grand strategy, the class concluded this section redundant. An international order promoted by a participatory American leadership was also listed under the interests section of the document.

With a comprehensive security policy finalized, a discussion of U.S. allies in Asia followed. Talks began with a ranking. Japan's strategic importance placed it in the number one slot, followed by traditional allies South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. In light of recent events, the class also noted the Great Tohoku Earthquake in Japan has strengthened the U.S.-Japan alliance, but emphasis on fostering more equal partnerships with not only America's allies but other willing nations was of growing importance.

This last policy suggestion tied well with subsequent discussions. Class recognized the significance of engagement with China, Asia's largest emerging power. Involvement in regional institutions ASEAN, APEC, the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP), and EAS (East Asia Summit) was also highlighted as a key step towards multilateralism. Furthermore, in alignment with Obama’s call for a more "positive, constructive, and comprehensive relationship with China," and to "encourage continued reduction in tension between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan" U.S. bilateral relations with Taipei was ranked below other policy priorities.

As discussion continued, the term "allies" also came under debate. If the chief aim of national security was to foster inclusiveness, some questioned the need to classify a few select nations as allies. The possibility the U.S. military presence in Japan and South Korea was polarizing, and could potentially undermine claims to inclusive cooperativeness was also briefly deliberated. As the debate drew to a close, emphasis was repeatedly placed on greater involvement in regional institutions, both existing ones such as the Six Party Talks, APEC, ASEAN, EAS, and TPP. There was also agreement a Northeast Asian Alliance analogous to ASEAN would be an impactful starting point.

- Elizabeth Matsumoto

Photo "Woolworth Building" by laverrue.