The Guilt of 'Blood Diamonds'

Siddhartha Mitter notes that the origin of the precious gems often triggers a conflict within those who wear them. Many of the stones are called "blood diamonds" because profits from diamond mines are often used to finance armed conflict in many African nations. Mitter writes about politics and culture.

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ED GORDON, host:

Botswana is rich in diamonds, but control of these gems has caused turmoil, violence and strife within the country. In fact, proceeds from the sale of so-called conflict diamonds allow rebels to arm themselves and enlist new recruits in the continuing battle for control of these mines. So bloody is the fight that many have been encouraged not to buy diamonds from this region. Controversy over conflict diamonds has found its way into the world of hip-hop. Commentator Siddartha Mitter gives his thoughts.


Something funny happened on the way to rapper Kanye West's latest megahit.

(Soundbite of "Diamonds are Forever")

Ms. SHIRLEY BASSEY: (Singing) Diamonds are forever...

MITTER: On "Diamonds are Forever," Kanye raps over a lush orchestral track about the usual, his passage from obscurity to riches and fame, and the stalwartness of his crew, Roc-A-Fella.

(Soundbite of "Diamonds are Forever")

Ms. BASSEY: (Singing) Diamonds are forever...

Mr. KANYE WEST: (Rapping) Throw your diamonds in the sky if you feel the vibe.

MITTER: Diamonds are the crew's symbol, so the song is an ode to the rap family and the bling it generates. Now comes the video and the remix. Retitled "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," the video opens with searing images associated with conflict diamonds. We see miners in primitive conditions, children with their limbs cut off. On the remix, Kanye attacks conflict diamonds. He wants his jeweler to guarantee his own bling is clean, and he sounds a timeless theme: `How can something so wrong feel so right?' Then the song lurches into a solo by Roc-A-Fella king Jay-Z, who ignores the subject altogether and reverts to celebrating his posse and fame. It sends a very mixed message.

What's a bling-blinger to do? Diamonds are still the symbol of wealth. The gems are still produced amid war, exploitation and global control by a few powerful players, starting with South African conglomerate De Beers. Now add the displacement of indigenous people. Botswana's government wants to move the Bui(ph) and Ghana bushmen out of the Kalahari Desert, saying their ancestral home is too remote to provide services. Critics say the relocation's about gaining access to rich diamond reserves for the government's joint venture with De Beers.

Last week, 17-year-old supermodel Lily Cole, the advertising face of De Beers, said she learned of the Botswana controversy and could no longer represent the company. By contrast, at the recent opening of the De Beers retail store on Fifth Avenue, actress Lindsay Lohan marched past protesters saying, `I don't get involved in any drama.' Few celebrities are as blithely ignorant as Ms. Lohan, but not many will go cold turkey like Ms. Cole.

Kanye's stance, with all its ambiguity and contradiction, best reflects our situation: Conflict diamonds, indeed.

GORDON: Siddartha Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.

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