Taking the rap for bloody bling


IT started with a song. When Kanye West first recorded Diamonds Are Forever, the song was about West's "posse" and how their diamond friendship was forever.

Shortly after he met fellow rapper Q-Tip from Tribe Called Quest, West was telling him about the song and Q-Tip took the opportunity to give West a quick overview of the diamond industry and in particular the controversial use of conflict diamonds.

Conflict or blood diamonds refer to diamonds mined in a war area and sold illegally on the international market to fund paramilitary groups. The practice is rife in a number of countries, most notably Sierra Leone.

After doing some further reading on the issue of conflict diamonds and how their sales are perpetuating a particularly vicious civil war in Sierra Leone, West went back into the studio to re-record Diamonds Are Forever.

He changed the song's title to Diamonds From Sierra Leone and put in the lyrics: "When I know of the blood diamonds, though it's thousands of miles away, Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today, Over here, its a drug trade, we die from drugs, Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs, The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charms, I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless, 'til I seen a picture of a shorty armless, And here's the conflict, It's in a black person's soul to rock that gold Spend ya whole life trying to get that ice, On a polo rugby it look so nice How could somethin' so wrong make me feel so right?"

The video for the new version of the song ended with a plea to people to buy only non-conflict diamonds. Single-handedly West had brought awareness of conflict diamonds to a hip-hop culture obsessed with bling.

Bling - which refers to the sound light makes when it hits diamonds - was an ostentatious show of wealth and status for hip-hoppers. You were nobody without your rocks.

Rap has always been notoriously apolitical - its deities being God, money and the Republican Party (though not necessarily in that order). Simply because of West's pre-eminent status, his song focused a lot of attention on the issue of conflict diamonds and shortly after, Hollywood had a go at the subject with the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle Blood Diamond, which was set in Sierra Leone.

For a while, it seemed that diamonds would become the new fur, but the diamond industry (one of the most sophisticated businesses in the world) acted quickly to quell the disquiet about its products. They self-regulated by introducing the Kimberly Process in 2004. This was a way to certify the origin of diamonds. The certification scheme was a way to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the marketplace and assure customers that by buying diamonds they were not financing wars and human rights abuses.

The diamond industry claims that the implementation of the Kimberley Process has reduced the flow of conflict diamonds in the marketplace from 4 per cent to less than 1 per cent. However there are concerns that - just as how South African oranges were re-labelled during the Apartheid era - that conflict diamonds are merely being channelled through other countries.

Last month, the music channel VH1, in conjunction with the United Nations, aired the documentary Bling'd: Blood, Diamonds and Hip-Hop which looked at how the illegal diamond trade in Sierra Leone is still flourishing.

The documentary has helped put the focus back on conflict diamonds and has raised questions about just how effective the Kimberley Process is.

Global Witness, a British advocacy group which has been publicising the issue of conflict diamonds to deaf ears since 1998, say that the Kimberley Process is deeply flawed and that it doesn't take into account the number of diamonds that are mined under abusive labour conditions. They say the figure for conflict diamonds is more like 20 per cent than less than 1 per cent.

None of this, though, seems to be bothering the hip-hop star, Akon, who has just bought his own diamond mine in South Africa. "I don't believe in conflict diamonds," he says. "It's all a media exaggeration."

Before you put Akon down as just a clueless rap star, consider his observation about what he believes is a more pressing problem than conflict diamonds. "If anything, it's conflict oil we should be talking about," he says. "Worry about the oil. You see what Bush is doing in Iraq - oil is conflict. When you're driving your cars, you're driving conflict fuel. It's killing thousands of people a minute. Diamonds are the least of our worries."

Further information on conflict diamonds from: www.un.org/peace/africa/ Diamond.html