Rock, country music dominate downrange tours
July 14, 2008
ARLINGTON, Va. — If you like country music, a war zone is the place for you.
Most of the musical acts that have performed for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and March 2008 have been country or country rock, according to statistics from Armed Forces Entertainment and the United Services Organization.
One soldier in Iraq was puzzled about what he called "the lack of diversity" among the bands that perform for U.S. troops.
Sgt. 1st Class Mike Powell sent Stars and Stripes a letter to the editor, asking why so few R&B and Latino groups performed downrange.
"Are acts [in these genres] really so hung up on money that they don’t wish to entertain the troops?" Powell wrote. "Or are they just too busy with their careers in the States and think they are so successful that we won’t remember how we were neglected when we asked them to entertain us."
Attempts to reach rap musicians 50 Cent, Paul Wall, Master P and Romeo, all of whom have performed for U.S. troops, were unsuccessful.
Bernie Rone is director of celebrity entertainment recruiting for the USO.
Asked if it was harder to get rap and R&B acts to perform downrange than other types of music acts, Rone said "absolutely not," adding that there are simply fewer rap acts out there compared with other genres.
"Rap hasn’t been around that long, and rock ‘n’ roll has been around forever," he said.
The main factor driving which acts go downrange is when they are available, Rone said. For example, he said, actress Scarlett Johansson was set to go to Iraq, but because of a scheduling conflict, she was only able to go to Kuwait.
"A lot of it is about scheduling. It really is," he said.
Marine Capt. Jesse Davidson is a producer for Armed Forces Entertainment, a DOD agency that looks at providing up-and-coming entertainers for U.S. troops.
Davidson has found that R&B and hip-hop acts are harder to attract than other types of musicians, and getting Latin groups can be a challenge because Armed Forces Entertainment can only contract with American performers, Davidson said.
With hip-hop and R&B, it’s hard to find acts that are in the middle ground between obscurity and celebrity, he said.
"It’s like you’re undiscovered or you’re big, and that’s it," Davidson said.
Another problem is that most don’t know about Armed Forces Entertainment, he said.
"It’s a ‘getting people to know us’ problem," Davidson said.
In June, Edwin Lugo was preparing to leave for Afghanistan, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Djibouti, which at the time would make him the only third Latin artist to tour downrange with Armed Forces Entertainment since 2001.
Lugo agrees that many Latin artists are unaware of how they can perform for U.S. troops with Armed Forces Entertainment.
He said he heard about it because he has cousins who served in Iraq and Bosnia.
"They’re the ones who said, ‘Yeah, you should come out here and play for us, and this is what you have to do,’ " Lugo said.
Most of the bands that have performed in southwest Asia with Armed Forces Entertainment since 2001 have been rock groups.
Alternative rock group Five Star Iris performed for U.S. troops last year at Al Asad, Ramadi and Al Qaim.
On the lack of hip-hop, Iris bassist Rob Schaefer said those acts often have elaborate shows that include lights, dancers and other things that can be hard to get downrange for performances.
"Whereas you can put a rock band or a country band, even if you had to strip it down, you could have two guys with acoustic guitars and you could put on a show," he said.
Another difference is that rock and country bands build up a following by playing live, while hip-hop artists who aren’t that big spend most of their time in the studio putting out records, Schaefer said.
Regardless of the genre, there will be bands that just don’t want to perform downrange because they feel they won’t be treated like rock stars, or the equipment they usually use might not be available, or they might just be afraid, he said.
"And the rest of the people are like, ‘Hey, let’s go!’ "