By Kiran Marfatia
As of May 2014, Wikipedia lists Pharrell Williams as a singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, musician and fashion designer. This is a man who clearly wears a variety of hats, and not just his prized Vivienne Westwood. However, Wikipedia has failed to include one of the most important roles Williams has played – cultural diplomat.
On November 21, 2013, Williams released ‘Happy’, a vibrant ‘neo soul and funk’ song, with an equally bubbly video. The song quickly rose to number one in 24 countries around the world, including Lebanon, Venezuela and South Africa.
However, ‘Happy’ is not significant because of its “unbelievably catchy” chorus. Williams’ music video is significant because it is a vehicle for people around the world to create videos capturing their local landscapes, people and spirit, whilst all along, endorsing happiness.
This video has been so successfully taken on by the global population that the website, www.wearehappyfrom.com, has been set up specifically to find and catalogue all ‘Happy’ georemixes uploaded to YouTube. As of May 2014, 1,741 videos from 146 countries had been found, each with views varying from 7,000, all the way up to 1.5 million.
With such a massive amount of videos, and with so many viewing them, Williams’ ‘Happy’ has fast become a cross cultural phenomenon – with enormous cultural diplomatic potential.
Cultural diplomacy is a relatively new concept in global affairs. Existing as a sub-category of public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy prioritizes communication as a social process of building relationships and fostering harmony. It is about “promoting and maintaining smooth international relationships” through initiatives, which “seek to find commonalities or mutual interests between publics, and ways to link those publics”.
Williams’ music video represents a new form of cultural diplomacy – ‘georemix diplomacy’. His video has been able to connect people around the world, through parodies and remakes, and as more people are connected, cross-cultural relationships become further enhanced.
Georemixing of ‘Happy’ has proven particularly effective because of its dynamic and adaptive nature. Williams has provided a basic recipe for the average person to follow, and then make their own. This type of shared decision-making, referred to as ‘control mutuality’, ensures that each video uploaded to YouTube is credible, honest and unique to the situation.
The practical result of this has been a multitude of videos that have raised different social and political issues, and all through smiling, dancing and happiness.
A group of Syrian refugees in northern Iraq produced their version of ‘Happy’ celebrating their lives and community, whilst depicting the landscape of life for Syrian refugees. This was followed by another video by Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, whose message was not just of life and happiness, but went further to encouraging support of education and mental health programs for internally displaced Syrians.
One effect of georemixing has been the breakdown and dispelling of Muslim stereotypes.
In Chicago, Rayyan Najeeb was able to put together his own take on the song, with the aim of presenting the Muslim community as “happy people who want to spread happiness, together.” With just 12 hours notice, Najeeb rallied 150 Muslim participants to dance, sing and clap together. The group was visually diverse, and included people wearing conservative headwear and also moderate modern dressed people.
Within two days, Najeeb’s video had been viewed 25,000 times, and at last count had 115,716 views. If each one of those views reflected one person watching, Najeeb was able to connect on a global scale with roughly 115,000 people.
Georemixing offers a novel way for the public to become active participants and stake holders in the way relationships are built in international relations. No longer do we have to rely on traditional and formal channels of diplomacy to foster understanding of other countries’ needs, cultures and peoples, all it takes is a camera (or iPhone), an Internet connection and happy people.
Although, some governments have disagreed with the ability of citizens to generate their own message to broadcast globally, particularly where it may be inconsistent to the national message.
A video uploaded by six young Iranians, showing them dancing and singing in houses and rooftops in Tehran, was answered by the Iranian authorities arresting all six of them. The message the video carried was along similar lines as Najeeb’s, that Iranians were happy and connected with the rest of the world. However, this message flew in the face of the older religious conservatives in Iran, and also broke a number of local laws about attire and association.
Whilst the arrest of the six was internationally condemned, the video and its ensuing events communicate to the world that there is a growing clash between the religious conservatives and the moderate youth in Iran, who seek to establish their commonalities with the rest of the world. Moreover, with over 1.2 million views on the Iranian version of ‘Happy’ alone, an enormous group of people are witnessing this clash.
This relational initiative clearly presents cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy with a number of unique opportunities. Yet arguably the most significant is georemixing’s reach and access to the world’s younger generations. Young people have been able to use Williams’ music video to draw awareness to issues relevant to them, and to create commonalities across cultures.
The ‘Happy’ video parodies, as a cultural diplomatic force, do face some limitations in terms of affecting global relations. Most importantly, there must be a method of continuing and sustaining the relationships fostered through the creation of ‘Happy’ parodies. Further, the monitoring and evaluation of such a relational initiative is near impossible because of its long-reaching and long-term consequences, and thus it is difficult to identify clear benefits of ‘georemix diplomacy’.
Nevertheless, ‘Happy’ has presented the globe with a unique opportunity to communicate and connect on a level previously unachieved. Culture is well recognised as a vehicle for building relationships, and what better form of culture than happiness and dance to assert global commonality and shared understandings – after all “clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”
Kiran Marfatia is a Law and International Relations student at Bond University, with a particular interest in diplomacy, conflict and the environment.
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