U.S. sets diplomacy to music in Russia
By Kathy Lally,
MOSCOW — Russia has been doing its best to suppress American influence here, but somehow it must have managed to overlook a woman in a bright red dress, with a commanding voice, operating on behalf of the U.S. State Department.
The woman in the red dress — she even had a matching flower in her hair — was Maya Azucena, a singer from Brooklyn on a two-week trip with her band. The good news: It’s apparently still all right to encourage justice and love, freedom and self-expression in Russia, as long as you do it with a song in your heart.
Azucena performed in Moscow, the Siberian city of Irkutsk and the central Russia cities of Kursk and Orel, wrapping up in Voronezh on Tuesday. She sings rhythm and blues, with some soul, reggae and hip-hop mixed in — all quintessentially American and all with a deeply American message.
“My job is to help you recognize your own power to change your own community,” Azucena said after a performance at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, where she had an audience of Russians — along with a smattering of embassy employees and expats — not just listening, but on their feet and moving to her music.
These have been rough times for things American. About a year ago, as he was gearing up his campaign for the presidency, Vladimir Putin began blaming many of Russia’s ills on the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came in for particular abuse — Putin accused her of encouraging people to protest against last December’s parliamentary elections.
After Putin was elected in March, the rhetoric calmed down. But not for long. In September, officials ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development out of the country. It was accused of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.
The Russian public tends toward the nationalistic, says Robert O. Keohane, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University who has studied anti-Americanism in the world. People generally believe it when they hear other governments are behaving badly, and that is exactly what they have been hearing about the United States, which Russia has criticized over Syria, Libya, missile defense and sticking its nose in other countries’ business.
A poll in September by Moscow’s independent Levada Center found that the percentage of Russians who liked the United States had dropped to 46 percent, down from 67 percent in the fall of 2011.
But this is a land of contradictions, so don’t be surprised that McDonald’s restaurants all over the city are forever packed; that so many residents of the remotest towns are wearing jeans, it looks like it must be part of their uniform; that iPhones are to die for — and many, many people love American music.
A Pew Global Attitudes Project poll this year found a majority of Russians younger than 50 say they like American music, movies and television: 69 percent of the 18-to-29 age group and 56 percent of the 30-to-49 age group.
Over the past year, the U.S. Embassy has brought zydeco to Nizhny Tagil, cowboy music to Archangel, gospel to Nizhny Novgorod, Native American/New Age to Yaroslavl, bluegrass to Perm, mariachi to Ussuriysk (that’s about 5,600 miles from Moscow) and jazz to points in between.
Television stations, which often broadcast negative comments about official U.S. policies, find musicians irresistible. One television feature about a visit by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was called “Cultural Reset.”
Azucena, who has traveled to Burma, Sri Lanka, China, Honduras and other countries on behalf of the United States, was invited by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, using funds from the State Department’s public diplomacy program.
“This is American wealth,” McFaul said when he introduced the band. Later, he told its members that even skeptics about America said they were moved by the music. “You are true cultural ambassadors,” he said.
Human rights are paramount issues, Azucena said in an interview, and she tries to convey their importance in her music. Although talk of human rights by an American normally sends Russian officials into paroxysms of anger, Azucena said she has been met with nothing but smiles.
“I have this power,” she said, “a microphone in my hand and an audience.”
And she sang on, of justice with wings, of love in everything, of feeling good and feeling strong and how everything, everything, everything’s gonna be all right.