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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some of the greatest minds in national security have turned their attention to a classic problem: When the world has one dominant power, the rest of the world tends to challenge it. That's what happened with Britain in the 19th century and to the United States today. And people who study world affairs have taken a surprising interest as the same thing is happening in the world of rap.

(Soundbite of song)

THE GAME (Rapper): (Rapping) …trying to sell me, I'm not from NYC. You can't even have a child by your destiny. And I ain't mean to take a shot (unintelligible) too hardcore to be a Jay-Z…

INSKEEP: That's the rapper The Game, and he's going after the superpower of the rap world, Jay-Z. We first read about this on, of all places, ForeignPolicy.com. The author was Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, and the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies. And his article prompted passionate, detailed responses from other experts, so we brought him in to talk about. Welcome to the program.

Professor MARC LYNCH (George Washington University): Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why write about rap?

Prof. LYNCH: Well, I've always been a rap fan and I've always been interested in the parallels with political science and international relations. The way that rappers compete with each other — this is soft power. This is the way you try and make a reputation, try and get what you want. And you have to do it through this very intricate series of alliances. There's rules to follow, and when you break those rules, there's consequences.

INSKEEP: Because there's all these different rappers and some of them will get together and gang up on other rappers?

Prof. LYNCH: That's right. So if you go back and you look at the history of these things, there's some moments where a rising rapper was able to absolutely destroy somebody else's career. 50 Cent destroyed this guy named Ja Rule. It's how he made his reputation. He basically took this guy and ended his career.

Jay-Z did that to a number of people when he was a rising power, or a rising rapper, as the case may be.

INSKEEP: You almost have to pick a fight. This is how you rise in the world.

Prof. LYNCH: It's how you rise in the world, and if you go back to, like, 19th century balance-of-power politics, this is how rising powers would make it. They would find themselves - you know, Japan and Russia would end up fighting it out; you'd have the rising powers in Europe. If they wanted to get somewhere, they had to take someone out.

But the difference today is that we're in a unipolar world. The United States is number one, and there aren't any real competitors. So what you've got, instead of a bunch of powers, each of whom who could plausibly be on the throne, you've got one guy on the throne and then a lot of others guys running around beneath him.

INSKEEP: And in the rap world, Jay-Z is that guy at the moment?

Prof. LYNCH: Jay-Z is the man. Jay-Z has transformed himself from just another rapper to this iconic personality.

INSKEEP: So what happened recently when Jay-Z began lashing out at the music industry?

Prof. LYNCH: He was lashing out at this new trend to use this Auto-Tune software, which basically lets you sing and it corrects your pitch. A lot of the most important rising powers are middle powers in rap, like Kanye West, Lil' Wayne, Snoop Dogg - they've all used this.

So Jay-Z is making a pitch for authenticity. He's saying these are the rules of the international system. If you want to be a civilized member of our international society, you have to not pursue nuclear weapons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You're either with us or against us.

Prof. LYNCH: You're either with us or against us. So he says death of Auto-Tune.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LYNCH: And he mentions people by name, some of the biggest names in the industry.

(Soundbite of song, "Death of Auto-Tune")

JAY-Z (Rapper): (Rapping) You rappers singing too much. Get back to rap; you're T-Paining too much. I'm a multimillionaire, so how is it I'm still the hardest (bleep) here?

Prof. LYNCH: This then creates an opening. So The Game is a middle power of his own. You know, he's quite popular, but you know, he's like Iran or North Korea. He's not one of these big guys up there.

INSKEEP: He's somebody who would like to be a little bit bigger maybe than he is.

Prof. LYNCH: Yeah. He's also a little bit erratic and tends to make some bad decisions. Dr. Dre made him famous and then he got in a big fight with Dr. Dre. And 50 Cent the same thing.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Prof. LYNCH: And so basically, like I said, he's North Korea, he's Iran. He's got a reputation of, you know, he might not win but he could hurt you if he drags you down into this extended occupation, this extended counterinsurgency campaign.

INSKEEP: So Jay-Z makes these remarks about the music industry and The Game sees his chance.

Prof. LYNCH: He sees his chance.

INSKEEP: And let's listen to a little bit of what The Game had to say at a concert about Jay-Z, the superpower of the rap world.

THE GAME: So I know y'all been hearing about the controversy between me and Jay-Z, right? (Unintelligible) I'm a start it off like this: (bleep) Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: And then he goes on to say a bunch of other things we can't repeat on the radio. But basically The Game is hammering Jay-Z as old and irrelevant, the flipside of the argument that Jay-Z is making that some of these new guys are not authentic.

Prof. LYNCH: So why is he doing this? And here is where international relations theory becomes relevant. All of a sudden there's opportunities to peel off some of Jay-Z's key alliance partners and form a broad-based coalition against Jay-Z. Maybe he thinks that Jay-Z is getting old, he's irrelevant. The Game says, hey, maybe I can peel off a number of people and undermine the foundations of Jay-Z's hegemony.

INSKEEP: And if the Game manages to fight, stand and fight with Jay-Z, even if he loses that fight, it raises his stature because…

Prof. LYNCH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: …he's in there with the big guy.

Prof. LYNCH: Exactly. And you know, so there's this idea that a lot of times in beefs, there the idea that someone's going to be totally destroyed, but actually not so much. All he has to do is survive.

In an earlier beef, 50 Cent spun one of Jay-Z's own lines. He says, if I shoot you I'm famous, if you shoot me you're brainless. Because a hegemon can't get into these little battles all over the place. It drains your resources, it alienates people, it makes you look like a bully.

And so Jay-Z, like the United States after the war in Iraq, has got a really tough decision to make. You know, do you ignore these provocations? But then they might spread, then people might think that you're weak. Do you hit down really hard? You could maybe destroy The Game, but you're going to be exhausted in the process.

And so this like the U.S. now suddenly having to go and fight counterinsurgency campaigns all over the world. And do we have the resources for that? Is that really what we want to be doing with our foreign policy? How do you respond to that?

INSKEEP: So Jay-Z is discovering that even the most powerful superpower has limits to what he can do.

Prof. LYNCH: And in fact, the more powerful you are, the more limits there are on your ability to use that power.

INSKEEP: Oh, because you could put yourself at risk anywhere in the world.

Prof. LYNCH: Exactly. And if you start alienating other powerful states, or in this case other powerful rappers, who might feel that they're next, they might not want to cooperate with you. So you think The Game is Iran and Jay-Z is the U.S., and what this is really about is not The Game, it's about Europe, right? It's about Kanye West.

INSKEEP: Marc Lynch is a national security specialist with advice both for Jay-Z and the United States. And when he's not doing things like this, he's just completed a paper of which he's co-author about the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thanks for coming by.

Prof. LYNCH: Thanks, Steve.

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Knock Life")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) When my situation ain't improving, I'm trying to murder everything moving.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) It's a hard knock life for us, it's a hard knock life for us. Instead of treated, we get tricked, instead of kisses, we get kicked, it's a hard knock life.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And for any rappers out there looking to raise their profile with a new yacht, there are a couple that could be on the market soon. In Italy, police have reportedly seized two yachts from a shipbuilder near Tuscany that were intended for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Apparently the order for the boats violated a United Nations resolution that bans the export of luxury goods to North Korea.

The plan now is to auction off the yacht.

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