Friday, December 15, 2006

The Unfortunate Duping of Russell Simmons- Blood Diamonds

The recent problems in particular regions of Africa with conflict diamonds--that once fueled bloody civil wars in hotspots like Sierra Leone, Angola and Congo--has sparked a war of words between two unlikely figures: Director Ed Zwick of the recent film Blood Diamond and Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons.

After a "fact-finding" mission to South Africa and Botswana--Russell returned and declared to the world that the conflict diamond era was over. Conditions had improved immensely he said, and the sale of diamonds to fund wars in Africa had dropped to just 1% since the installed Kimberly Process established in 2003. Ed Zwick retorted that the Hip Hop mogul had been duped by the diamond industry, which funded his trip. And it has turned into a tit-for-tat bit of sniping since then. So, who's right and who's wrong? From the title of this post, I think you pretty much see where I stand. But here, let me tell you why...

Russell Simmons & Blood Diamonds

Interestingly enough, Russell Simmons trip was funded by a PR group attempting to reform the negative image of diamonds in Africa, which has affected sales of the gems worldwide. In the mother-of-all-coincidences, this fact-finding mission took place right around the release of Ed Zwick's Blood Diamonds, which prior to its release was being heralded as a film which would portray the diamond industry in a negative light and potentially harm sales during the holiday season.

Ed Zwick however was less than impressed with Russell's assertions. Smelling a rat, he publicly stated that in his opinion the Hip Hop mogul had been hoodwinked and bamboozled:

"If you want to know about conflict diamonds, you don't go to Botswana and South Africa. You go to Sierra Leone and Angola. Russell Simmons is being embarrassed."

Russell Simmons, though not an emcee, has not been known for his shyness in front of a microphone, and quickly shot back at not only Ed Zwick, but his film, claiming Blood Diamonds would damage Africa's "legitimate" diamond business:

"This is the arrogance of Warner Brothers pictures. They were selfish, self-centered, greedy and hurtful to the indigenous people of Africa... This messaging should have been changed after Nelson Mandela and other African Presidents asked Warner Brothers to change it. Period. I am going to continue to focus on the positive that can come out of this dialogue and work to help empower black Africa."

Okay. First let me state that I have no direct need to publicize the movie Blood Diamond. I have not seen the film, as of yet. And I have been skeptical about seeing it, simply because I'm innately suspicious when serious (and oft-neglected) current issues in parts of Africa are turned into semi-fictional action films with big-name stars, car chases, fiery explosions and Michael Bay type special effects. They tend to get the story wrong and portray complicated matters as one-dimensional with clear-cut "good guys and bad guys," starring a central well-meaning white hero or groups of white heroes (both real and imaginary), with the particular African populace relegated to theatrical props who endure untold sufferings. Tears of the Sun and Black Hawk Down top my flagrant offender list. I have not reached a conclusive verdict on where I stand on the semi-fictional tale of the monstrous Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland. I'm not saying Hollywood can't approach these matters of geo-politics correctly. After all, I was a big fan of the film Syriana, and its exposing of the underbelly of the oil-trade. But when it comes to Africa's varied issues, I tend to prefer Independent African Films over Hollywood blockblusters.

(Update: Still haven't seen the film Blood Diamond, but sources whom I trust have given reviews that have thus far supported my misgivings: Within the Context of No Context: A Review of Blood Diamond Unfortunate.)

Secondly, I have no personal bias towards Russell Simmons. Yes I certainly have my criticisms of his role in the modern corporatist exploitation of Hip Hop. But his place in the culture as an early driving force--from Kurtis Blow to Public Enemy--can't be denied. And he at times tries to bring the respect to Hip Hop that the genre is often denied, or denies itself.

All of that being I think in this issue of blood diamonds, I have to agree with director Ed Zwick. And Russell Simmons, as well meaning as he might be, is indeed being used, pimped in fact, by bigger fish. Here, let me tell you why.

First off, I think Russell Simmons key problem is that his innate good intentions (and he's had many positive activist stances in recent years) tend to run into his love of unbridled free-market capitalism and his immense ego. So Russell can often be found at the forefront of political issues that he may not exactly have a clear handle on.

Going to Botswana on a fact-finding mission funded by the diamond industry's PR group, isn't going to tell you anything about the larger issue of blood diamonds. And this centers on a key problem in Russell's analysis, one that many of us in the West suffer from. Listen closely everyone. Because this is going to come as a surprise.

Africa is a c-o-n-t-i-n-e-n-t. No really, it is. Look on the map. Right there between the Americas and Eurasia. Its that big land mass. Can't miss it. Very unique shape.

What's more, there are different nation-states on this c-o-n-t-i-n-e-n-t. And just like what is going on in say, Guatemala or Honduras in Central America is different from what is going on in the US or Canada, there is also a difference from say the Congo from Sierra Leone from Botswana--all different polities on this c-o-n-t-i-n-e-n-t. I think if you asked the average person in the US to name the governor of a nearby state, they'd have a hard time. Ask them to name the president of next door Canada or Mexico, and they'll need Google. Therefore, for Russell to think Botswana could give him insight into Sierra Leone--which is practically on the other vertical end of Africa--reveals many of the false assumptions we all start with regarding foreign politics.

Besides the differing history, peoples, languages, environment, cultures and vast distance that lie between Botswana and places like Sierra Leone, there's also another key bit of relevant information to ponder. Botswana is not in conflict, nor has it had any recent conflict fueled directly by diamonds. There is no history in Botswana similar to the tragedies of the murderous RUF in Sierra Leone, or the inter-state regional conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo that cost a staggering 4 million or more lives.

While Botswana's issues with diamonds and the legacy of multinational companies like DeBeers--an empire built on colonialism, theft, racism and oppression--is hardly "clean" in any sense of the word, it is at the same time diferent in many respects from the recent issues of conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone or even closer Angola.

It is tempting to collapse all of these different issues together--and they certainly do bear similarities, with DeBeers and other European countries engaged in these machinations in one way or the other--but Botswana is its own unique case. Despite a high HIV rate, and a standard of living still far beneath most of the world's better standards, it now boasts one of the fastest growing economies, is relatively stable, and has managed to reach some form of detente with the diamond industry--called by many a "Gem of a Deal." Through this arrangement, Botswana has recently been able to use its natural resources to develop its own infrastructure--including new buses, roads, schools, hospitals and more.

None of this isn't without its own controversy of course. There was an incident with land removals of the indigenous Khoi-San peoples that was murkily linked to the diamond industry, but the courts have since granted a reversal on this policy. So Botswana has made out relatively well in recent years. I say relatively, because that's about as best as you can put the situation of an ex-colony once in the midst of apartheid South Africa who must negotiate a better life for its citizenry between the vice grips of a diamond industry and neoliberalism who partially own (through historical theft) its resources. The world ain't fair. And cosmic karma must be on an extended holiday.

At any rate, this is why the diamond industry uses Botswana as a poster child for its Kimberly Process. And it's why they took the probably well-meaning, but unfortunately gullible and impressionable, Russell Simmons there to show off progress. They didn't take him to the shattered infrastructure of Angola or the amputees of Sierra Leone.

What Russell should know is that the Kimberly Process was only enacted by the diamond industry when worldwide outcry occurred over the issue of conflict diamonds, and sales began to slump. Before this companies like DeBeers and other diamond cartels had no problem wading in African blood to get what they wanted. In some instances, they've been accused of helping spur on the violence, even possibly to the point of directly or indirectly negotiating transfers of cash and arms for diamonds.

Russell should also know that the much touted Kimberly Process is still thought to be rife with problems. Illicit diamonds still flow through various parts of Africa and fuel mini-wars and aftershocks of now-ended larger wars, ever threatening to flare up again into greater conflicts, as peoples pushed beyond the margins of global society in desperation seek a way out of poverty. The letters from "African Presidents" to Warner Brothers that Russell was talking about, was most likely a letter by former South African president Nelson Mandela, asking Warner Brothers to remember to distinguish between relative successes like Botswana and the more numerous horrors elsewhere.

Russell's heart may indeed be in the right place. And his attempts to find a way for Africans in places like Botswana and South Africa to profit from the resources that a foreign minority has long exploited is just. But it's Russell's arrogance that in the end dooms him to duplicity. Though Russell wasn't there to speak out loudly about Sierra Leone's war, when men, women and children were losing lives and limbs, and the artists he backed were draping themselves in bloody "bling," he now feels confident enough to stride forward as an "expert" on the issue. (To be fair, neither was Hollywood) Yet he lacks an understanding of the gulf of difference between states like Botswana and Sierra Leone or the Congo, and thinks one snap-shot in one locale is the big picture. He's confused the spotlight of celebrity with the light of understanding. And can't see--or is unwilling to admit--that he's being played, and thus in his protestations, continues to play himself.

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