• Beyond the Canvas

Cold War and Soft Power

Updated: Oct 8

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” - Nina Simone 


I’ve just started reading this book by Frances Stonor Saunders in which she looks at how the CIA systematically infiltrated and exploited the arts during the Cold War to combat the soviets and grow America’s geopolitical influence.


The legendary singer and human rights activist Nina Simone was one of the artists manipulated by the Agency for political purposes. In 1961, she was invited to perform at the ‘Festival of Negro Art and Culture in Africa and America’ in Lagos, whose official aim was to explore the ‘relationship between the culture and art of Africa and the Americas‘. But the void left by the British in postcolonial Nigeria opened up irresistible opportunities for the US to provide financial help and build political alliances, so it turns out that the festival was driven by an agenda that went well beyond arts and culture.


The same had happened to Louis Armstrong the year before when he was sent to the Congo. This was when the first post colonial president had just been elected. In reality, the US government wanted to infiltrate and topple Patrick Lumumba’s pro-soviet regime. We all know how that ended. 


I believe Armstrong begrudgingly went along with the propagandistic projecf, but it apoears Nina didn’t know she was being used, and I reckon she would have been fuming if she did.


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