Arrested Development: Appropriation, Covid-19 and What’s Next

Previously on DIYCD: Apart from accumulating, arranging and producing cultural content, time is inevitably devoted to figuring out how to maneuver in this new predicament, as it modifies institutionalized routines, expectations and possibilities on a day-to-day basis. It demands that we adjust, but for how long? At what point does adjustment become change? These are questions to be discussed another time. For now, I can say that the project has been extended, beyond its intended ending on August 31st. What this means, time will tell.

Some time has passed since the first status update (excerpted above) following the covid-19 pandemic. Not much has changed. On the surface that is. In terms of conceptual resources and political confidence, the project is maturing. Three occasions marks this maturity: Diplomacy: Mediating Estrangement, Questioning Cultural Diplomacy and The Black Experience x Asia as Method. In this entry I explain why and how this relates to appropriation and what to expect in the future.

The Three Occasions

The first one situates diplomacy in the everyday. It provides the theoretical framework for combining the DIY ethos with diplomacy in general, predicated on an increased capacity to live one’s estrangement. In other words, it is an appreciation of the validity of the experiences and the knowledges that exists in estrangement. I give two examples of what such conviction provides: Bars Finns and Drillminister. In the archive there are more examples.

The second occasion, though not as elaborate as the first, is a reminder of the ambiguous and ambivalent nature of cultural diplomacy as a nation-state-run transmedia program. It is conceptually indeterminate. From the thrust of imperialism, colonialism and the cold war, cultural diplomacy adapts to how we imagine a desirable future. This was important to acknowledge again, which I did in the second occasion through thinking about where Swedish cultural diplomacy happens. I often forget to emphasize the indeterminacy predicament when talking about what I am doing. It makes DIY Cultural Diplomacy exposed to critique that ought to be directed to the government. I have also noticed that ‘appropriating cultural diplomacy’ suggests to some that DIY Cultural Diplomacy is about committing to the state-run transmedia program template. I wish it was that easy. Rather, this occasion marks a shift from that initial inspiration to a more accessible and resilient approach. Besides, the current pandemic modified and further exposed institutionalized routines, expectations and possibilities, while introducing restrictions as well. The indeterminacy of cultural diplomacy, however, is an opportunity.

Opportunity for what? For the Black Experience x Asia as Method – the third occasion. I used the YouTube series called The Black Experience Japan, by the Melanated Files, and the testimonies thereof, to explain a certain sagacity. The sagacity refers to removing yourself from a western context and way of understanding and perceiving yourself and your environment. For the philosophically minded; this is an epistemic reconfiguration on behalf of those black people who relocate to Asia. In an academic context, of an inter-Asian intellectual network, a similar epistemic calibration has been conceptualized as Asia as method. In this third occasion I associate the Black Experience Japan to the theoretical concept of Asia as Method and align both with a trajectory set by historical African-Asian solidarity networks. If I have to conclude this with one particular point, it would be to recognize the embodiment of knowledge through the non-white experience of the world. The opportunity, in other words, is another particular function for cultural diplomacy. In essence, this is my attempt as well.

That said, through occasion one, two and three I am trying to explain and substantiate the liberation of this project from the expectations and norms of nation-state-run cultural diplomacy. In other words, I am looking elsewhere for inspiration and legitimacy. These occasions are important in matters of appropriation and in order to appreciate what Hip Hop does. I will explain.

Arrested… Appropriation

Appropriare – the Latin word, translates to “to make one’s own”. The process of “making one’s own” can be embarked upon by a group or an individual through a plethora of agencies, such as; enhancing, modifying, choosing, and possessing, to name a few. Agency is essential to the definition, in the sense that it implies action and a power relationship – to gain or take something (Ashley and Plesch, 2002, pp. 2–3). Agency also relates to an ability to reconfigure representations.

Hip Hop is perhaps the most popular example of such faculty. Hip Hop appropriates anything from space, materials to sounds and myths. This is, of course, not particular to Hip Hop. Appropriation follows from estrangement. It is a way to have a stake in your environment, be it social or spatial. And a way to learn. Through DIY Cultural Diplomacy I am exercising the agency related to my lived estrangement. Consequently, appropriation and diplomacy is consolidating. This is Hip Hop by way of synthesizing ideas, sampling (text, images, sounds and videos) and crate digging knowledge and experiences to create, help articulate and share what I am going through. However, the spatial restrictions imposed on us because of the pandemic has limited the degree of agency that I can exercise. More than I have realized or dared to admit.

Theoretically Speaking

The process of appropriation has two dimensions, one temporal and one spatial. The temporal dimension is either perceived/described synchronically; a particular moment – as an act or performance. Or it is perceived/described diachronically; a mosaic of moments in different times that all contribute to a particular appropriation process – as an evolution. I mention this to emphasize that DIY Cultural Diplomacy should be understood diachronically, involving not only me, but also other people and initiatives.

Be aware of the fact that what’s going on here is either understudied or underestimated. Hip Hop is remarkable because it can be epistemically disobedient. The language for reflecting this phenomenon is neither exact nor widely accessible yet. Knowing it, in a productive sense, comes first and foremost performatively, or maybe through analogy. Another way, then, to perceive this reflexive diachronicity conceptually is to get familiar with the notion of nonmovements by Asef Bayat. In short, Bayat makes a case for an alternative thinking about resistance and social change, not in terms of social movement – a historically and politically particular concept from the west. Rather, he argues, pay attention to how change unfolds through unorganized acts by many individuals with shared commitments and goals. Limited mobility has granted me more time to study and appreciate this aspect of Hip Hop. Which brings me to the second dimension of appropriation.

The spatial dimension dictates in what capacity appropriation happens[1]. Therefore, limited mobility and access to appropriate spaces have made the process more difficult and abstract. It has constrained agency, because of how space and human relationships, expectations, norms and activities interact. The spatial influence on the appropriation process is such that it exposes both constraints and new possibilities. In this regard, I learned something crucial while studying Asmarinos’ appropriation of Asmara and Italian cultural capital via colonization:

As an alternative to the common notion that Asmarinos have appropriated the fascist city of Asmara – a colonial city planned, designed, and built by/for Italian fascist aspirations – an idea that sparked my interest and motivated me to write this paper – I would like to propose a different viewpoint. It builds on the notion that what the colonial city represented for Mussolini and the fascist agenda, was not [necessarily] recognized by the Italian inhabitants of Asmara. Their everyday life, social practices, individual strategies for social and economic mobility, and institutional structures within the city perpetuate a different representation than what Mussolini had envisioned. That representation of Asmara is probably closer to the reality of Eritrean life under colonialism. In that sense, appropriation of the settlers’ Asmara and their cultural aesthetics is what birth the Asmarino. /…/ Amenities such as the garage, and most likely other commercial spaces as well, facilitated the cultural hybridity that characterizes the Asmarino. /…/ What unfolds here is a discrepancy between the meta narrative of the fascist city and the local urban experience.

Mussie, 2017, pp. 10–11

I’ve emphasized one sentence above. It highlights the spaces of agency that the idea of Asmara as the ‘fascist city’ doesn’t recognize. It is a metanarrative that oversees important details in order appreciate the Asmarino’s cultural hybridity. Similarly, cultural diplomacy is a metanarrative – a particular infrastructure entangled in individuals’ strategies for social and economic mobility, identities and particular representations. Not having access to that makes DIY Cultural Diplomacy a different program. And by access, I mean the ability to benefit from that infrastructure.

What’s the point?

Perhaps a little crude, but what follows from all the above is that I am acting in a space and time matrix on terms radically adjusted to my own situated and embodied knowledge(s) and possibilities while claiming a mandate that is exclusive to a totally different space and time matrix. The courage and audacity to do this I owe to Hip Hop. The points of tangency between these matrices, once crafted, achieved or entered, will be easier to digest and perceive than what I have tried to articulate thus far. Three of those occasions where mentioned in the beginning of this blog post.

But why? What’s the point? – you might still wonder. The point of doing this work is to realize the degree of agency that Hip Hop can exercise, way beyond the elements and the entrepreneurship thereof. And the same goes for cultural diplomacy. Metanarratives are all around us. Cultural diplomacy is one of them, but Hip Hop is too. These things have us move in the world a certain way, and our movements feed those very things. I’m not trying to say that things are static. Because things do change and adjust, but a certain symmetry seem to persist. Especially now, when mobility is restricted, and social distancing is normalizing. Furthermore, the opportunities offered by technologies like the internet – social media, virtual spaces and virtual mobility – don’t transcend their material preconditions. Rather, in order to transgress we have to… well, as Dave Chappelle would say: “stay low and run in a zigzag pattern”. And we have to figure out ways to funnel resources to that end, and build an infrastructure around it for it to be sustainable. Through this project I hope to contribute to that. The project, however, isn’t synonymous with the commitment.

So, What’s Next?

As of August 8, the EU announced an opening of its external borders to a selection of nation states. One can now apply for a Chinese visa if one has a residence permit. The Swedish authorities, however, has advised against any ‘unnecessary’ travels outside the EU, until November 15. I reached out to the Swedish embassy in Beijing in order to discuss my possibilities. I got in touch with André Mkandawire – Head of Public Diplomacy, Press and Communication. Basically, I have been informed that the chances for going to China in the near future are very slim. Business leaders, scientists and family members are the priorities for visas at the moment. Nonetheless, a constructive dialog has been initiated with Mr. Mkandawire about DIY Cultural Diplomacy and what role the embassy can play, now and in the future.

Another thing I very much look forward to is: Breaking Rules: 3rd EUHHSN Meeting, 11-12 September 2020. It is a two-day online conference organized by the European Hip Hop Studies Network. I’ve been asked to participate in an Instagram discussion after a presentation entitled: Breaking the Hip-Hop Diplomacy Game: Hip-Hop Diplomacy in the Age of Covid-19, by Dr. Sina Nietzsche and MC/DJ/Independent Researcher Sergey Ivanov. It is free to attend the conference so don’t hesitate to register! Or follow me on Instagram and I’ll let you know when it goes down.

That said, I am wondering if the project has reached a point of arrested development. Adjustment has indeed become change. So I do have to think hard and strategically about how to continue. Because, if anything, I do not want to advertise an agency that isn’t constructive for others to appropriate. That wouldn’t be real.

[1] As Bayat concludes his book, with the idea of “the art of presence”: [T]he most crucial element for democratic reform is an active citizenry: a sustained presence of individuals, groups and movements in every available social space, whether institutional or informal, collective or individual, where they can assert their rights and fulfill their responsibilities. For it is precisely in such spaces that alternative ideas, norms, practices, and politics are produced. The aptitude and audacity associated with active citizenry is what I have called “the art of presence”. Muslim and Arab citizens cannot spearhead a democratic shift unless they master the art of presence – the skill and stamina to assert collective will in spite of all odds by circumventing constraints, utilizing what is possible, and discovering new spaces within which to make themselves heard, seen, felt, and realized. (Bayat, 2013, p. 313)

  • Ashley, K., Plesch, V., 2002. The Cultural Processes of “Appropriation.” J. Mediev. Early Mod. Stud. 32, 1–15.
  • Bayat, A., 2013. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Second Edition. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
  • Mussie, E., 2017. Appropriating the Colonial City: The case of Asmara.
  • Reus-Smit, C., 2018. On Cultural Diversity: International Theory in a World of Difference, LSE International Studies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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