Smooth-Jazz Diplomacy: Kenny G Invades Hong Kong

Kenny G Hong KongWho could have predicted Kenny G’s Twitter intervention of 10-22-14 in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution? Prior to this revolution, who in the U.S. even knew, outside of perhaps his fans, that Mr. G’s 1989 hit “Going Home” is the official closing-time anthem of China? Mr. G, who is discussed in Ka-ching in reference to the meaning of “jazz” and the defining characteristics of a jazz musician, has struck, wittingly or not, an astounding political blow for smooth jazz—a genre not known for its left-wing activism. All he had to do was show up at a pro-democracy demonstration—he has been touring China of late—and post a picture of the moment to Twitter, as he stands in front of a banner that says in part, “Democracy of Hong Kong by Hong Kong,” accompanied by the speciously neutral tweet, “In Hong Kong at the sight of the demonstration. I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation.”

Yes, he even got “site” wrong, in typical social-media fashion. But note that he wants a positive conclusion to the situation, which clearly speaks to the success of the Umbrella Movement. China picked up on this immediately, of course, and a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said:

We hope that foreign governments and individuals speak and act cautiously and not support the Occupy Central and other illegal activities in any form. . . .  I don’t have a specific grasp of the situation regarding the American citizen you raise who is in Hong Kong participating in the illegal Occupy Central, [but it is requested that all foreign governments and individuals refrain from] using any methods to support Occupy Central and other illegal activities.

Mr. G’s later Facebook/Twitter recantation . . .

I was not trying to defy government orders with my last post. I was in Hong Kong as a stop on my way to perform at Mission Hills and happened to walk by the protest area as I was walking around Hong Kong as a tourist. Some fans took my picture and it’s unfair that I am being used by anyone to say that I am showing support for the demonstrators. I am not supporting the demonstrators as I don’t really know anything about the situation and my impromptu visit to the site was just part of an innocent walk around Hong Kong.

. . . rings painfully hollow, of course. An innocent walk? He’s been in China and Hong Kong for weeks and he doesn’t know anything about the situation? Kenny G as the Clueless American, even if he doesn’t know “sight” from “site”? That’s just as credible as claiming this is (smooth) jazz “black ops” diplomacy as it might be engineered by the State Department and/or the CIA, in an effort to further destabilize China’s hold on Hong Kong. In fact, the Voice of America, a bastion of American jazz diplomacy, ran with this story under the rousing headline, “Kenny G Vexes Beijing Brass with Visit to Hong Kong Protest”:

The pro-democracy group Global Solidarity HK shared the musician’s photo with its more than 3,600 followers on Twitter, adding the comment: “‘Going Home?’ Not without Civil Nomination.” Fans thanked the musician on the social media site and asked that he not let Hong Kong police use the song to disperse the crowds that have held constant rallies in the city’s streets for more than three weeks.

One can only hope that Kenny G’s recantation is as insincere as one suspects his music to be (having heard it only in malls, assuming the only soprano sax-fronted tracks one hears in malls belong to Mr. G). On the other hand, according to the New York Times, there are those who suspected, prior to the incident, that Mr. G may even be an agent of the Chinese government.

But an opposing theory that surfaced last week on Twitter said that Beijing might send Kenny G to Hong Kong to play “Going Home,” and that the protesters, who have occupied sections of Hong Kong’s business districts for weeks, would finally disperse. Harlem Lo, a protester and Kenny G listener, scoffed. “We didn’t leave when the police used tear gas on us,” he said. “Why would a single Kenny G tune shake our determination?”

One also can’t help noticing, in the context of Kenny G as jazz musician, the irony of a Hong Kong dissident named Harlem Lo. At any rate, if Kenny G’s political disavowal is legit, woe unto him. As the Times article notes, “ ‘Don’t worry Kenny,’ wrote a commenter from Hong Kong, Andy Yip. ‘The money from China will keep coming. The jobs from China will keep coming, because you’re exactly the type of people they like . . . People with no souls.’ ”

Addendum: Mr. G continues in his role of jazz-policy piñata. In a New York Times “The Stone” column of 8-19-15, Cornel West, venting about “black prophetic fire” and Obama’s lack of same, mentions Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and, of course, John Coltrane as musicians in that Black prophetic tradition and closes with, in reference to the failure of Obama, “we were looking for a Coltrane and we ended up getting a Kenny G. You can’t help but be profoundly disappointed.” West also says here that “the love ethic is at the very center of” this prophetic tradition, and “it has to have that central focus on loving the people.” One can’t help noticing yet another irony: according to his Wikipedia bio, “Kenny G’s career started with a job as a sideman for Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra in 1973 while 17 and still in high school.”