Andrew WK: How He Almost Became the US Cultural Ambassador to the Middle East
Andrew WK is a rock star, composer, motivational speaker, Taco Bell enthusiast, television host, inventor and (very) part-time painter based in NYC.
Andrew was a student of mine (I gave him an A- and got him grounded) when I was doing a volunteer teaching gig at Community High School in Ann Arbor, MI in 1994. We became acquainted, played in a couple of bands together, and later I put out a couple of his records on my BULB record label. Most important to me, however, is that he’s a good friend.
A couple of weeks ago, it was suddenly announced that Andrew would be serving as a “United States’ Cultural Ambassador to the Middle East.” Andrew would be travelling to the Kingdom of Bahrain on behalf of the US State Department, where he would be spreading his positive “Party” philosophy (the freak out, good time sort, not the divisive Democratic/Republican kind). Not more than 24 hours after I heard the announcement, however, news appeared stating that the entire trip had been cancelled. Many of us were scratching our heads, wondering if the entire thing was a stunt. Fans of AWK have been known to start and passionately spread odd rumors in the past.
However, several media outlets ran articles that included a transcript where a representative of State mentioned the trip and its subsequent cancellation. The State rep was quoted as saying “There may have been some preliminary conversations with him, but he will not be going to Bahrain on the U.S. government’s dime.” Andrew’s scheduled trip to represent the US was very real.
Bahrain is a particularly troubled place right now. Protests have rocked the tiny, oil-rich nation but the heavy handed monarchy has managed to brutally stifle much of it. Bahrain’s human rights record has been described as “dismal” by Human Rights Watch. Sending someone like Andrew, whose positive, self made image very much represents the ideals of liberal, free market democracy would actually be a perfect choice to represent the US in this difficult time.
Perplexed the whole thing, I decided to reach out to Andrew and get the full story. Andrew was kindly able to take some time out to answer some questions about the incident. First, I would like to thank Andrew. Here’s the interview:
FB: Tell us about how this whole thing came to be. Were you cold called by State? Or did you actively seek out an opportunity to work with them?
A: We were cold called, but there had been some murmuring about me traveling abroad in some capacity for a few years. We first officially heard from the State Dept. on September 13th, 2011. That was when they wrote to us with an official invitation reading, “Department of State sponsored trip to Bahrain for motivational speech”.
FB: I’ve read that someone from Bahrain specifically made a request to the Embassy there.
A: We had never heard anything about the trip being requested by a citizen of Bahrain, but I had heard rumors from my managers that they were approached about an entertainment project with the U.S. government. We didn’t know what it was exactly until we got the official invitation. It was always presented as a government sponsored event to spread good will and cultural exchange between the U.S. and the middle east. The people who I work with and who help plan my career have always worked on ways to help further the cause of uniting different cultures and promoting the coming together of the human race. I’ve followed and embraced that spirit for a long time and definitely want to do right by them. This was a natural step in that larger effort. Western culture is very powerful.
FB: How far along was the planning?
A: The planning was a long process that went on for about 14 months. There were many levels of approval and clearance we had to go through on both the U.S. and Bahrainian sides. We just did what we were asked to do and completed all they requested with respect and cooperation. There were some background checks, but it seemed the State Dept. had already done a huge amount of research on me before hand. Most of the details were planned with my handlers and managers without my direct involvement. The plane tickets were booked for our trip to officially begin on December 1st, 2012. We coordinated the flights and travel details with the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain and left them completely in charge of all the on-location details.
FB: Was there ever any discussion of how to announce the event State-side?
A: We had our last planning phone call on Wednesday, November 21st, 2012. That’s when our State Dept. contact went over the final schedule and explained that I should officially announce the trip to the public. He explained what language to use and the overall tone of the trip and the ideals we would be promoting. I never actually met anyone in person from the State Dept. Everything was done either on the telephone or the computer. In 2003, I had been given a private tour of the White House by an ex-Secret Service official who was very passionate about my work and music. It’s possible that he was the one of the folks that first helped introduce the State Dept. to my work as a motivational speaker. Otherwise, I don’t know how they picked me specifically. That’s been really perplexing, but I didn’t think about it too much at first. I was just so excited to be asked. But once they canceled everything, I obviously have been trying to figure out what this whole thing is really about.
FB: Did State set up an itinerary?
A: Yes. We were sent the official itinerary by the State Dept. at approximately 6am on Monday, November 26th, 2012. The plans for the trip had always been based around lectures and motivational speeches at local schools. There was never a public concert planned, although we had plans to “jam” with some of the local musicians in Bahrain at a rehearsal space and music store. The main bulk of the trip was to be spent focused on positive interactions with the young people of Manama, the capital city. I planned on talking about positive thinking, making the most of one’s life, embracing freedom, and using partying to help forget your troubles. The State Department gave me overall guidelines, but were also very open to allowing me creative control when it came to how I would present our ideals and how I would present myself. They were always very familiar with what I do – that’s why they came to us in the first place – and they were certainly made even more familiar with me during the lengthy year-plus process of planning and clearance.
At about 11am on the same day we were sent the official itinerary, our State Department contact called us in a panic with the news that his “higher ups” canceled the entire trip for unknown reasons. Apparently it went far up the chain and a lot of people were getting in trouble, even to the point of being fired over this project.
FB: That’s terrible! Do you have any idea who the “local musicians” were that you were going to play with? What were you going to do exactly?
A: It was explained to me that there was a passionate rock and metal scene in Bahrain. I had heard similar reports from others about there being lots of loud music fans in the more liberal parts of the Middle East. I was planning on playing some drums and keyboard and just making up songs or playing songs that we all could learn together. It was all very open to spontaneity. However, the State Dept. also made it very clear that the musical parts of the trip were secondary to the speaking engagements. It was always explained to me that the main goal was for me to help foster a positive impression of the U.S. in the minds of students and the people of Bahrain at large.
FB: How did it all start to fall apart? What happened?
A: It all happened very fast. Everything was good to go up until that Monday morning, after we received the itinerary. In that window of time between 6am and 12 noon, something happened and it has still yet to be explained what exactly it was, beyond that “higher up” State Dept. officials had changed their mind and now decided I was not an appropriate person to represent the U.S. as a Cultural Ambassador. It’s still not clear why they had this change of heart at the last second after they had invited me and spent a year carefully planning my trip. We had flights booked and the trip was less than a week away.
Some have said it was canceled because we announced the trip to the public, but I was encouraged to announce the trip by the State Dept. directly. The whole idea of my Cultural Ambassadorship was to generate public interest and excitement about the meeting of our two cultures. It was never meant to be a secret event – that would have defeated the entire point.
In the days since the cancellation, I’ve received inside tips that there was a passionate debate in the State Dept. about my going at the last second. It’s possible that someone outside of the State Dept. who wasn’t aware of the trip initially became incensed that they weren’t informed before. Apparently some of these unknown higher-up officials were on my side and others were deeply offended by the idea of me going. It would still be nice to learn exactly what happened and who specifically pulled the plug. I’m not taking it personally. For all I know, they could be protecting my own safety. Maybe there were threats, related or unrelated to the trip. It’s definitely confusing and kind of feels like a dream – like there was some other aspects to this project that maybe we didn’t understand or weren’t told about. I’m still as much in the dark as anyone.
FB: Bahrain is a pretty troubled place right now. I’m surprised that State was willing to send anyone over there. Did you have any reservations about going? We know from your live shows that you aren’t concerned about personal safety, of course. It could be suggested that the US would be supporting a repressive state, which some people might have trouble with. Was this ever in the conversation?
A: In the months leading up to the trip, I’ve learned a lot more about the complicated situation in Bahrain. I was definitely looking forward to getting an in-person view of what’s been going on and get a clearer impression of their land and their issues. Since I was going there to spread positivity on behalf of the U.S., it’s definitely been interesting and also concerning that I may have been used as some sort of pawn in a larger game to distract from the potentially bad situations. My handlers insisted that I would be safe and that the U.S. and Bahrain had a good relationship. I was going in the name of supporting that relationship and was expected to support a positive view of both countries.
Some of what’s been most confusing about this is wondering how it’s connected to earlier projects we’ve been a part of, and if I was chosen for reasons that aren’t as obvious, or weren’t openly explained to me. Kim Kardashian had been scheduled to visit Bahrain the same weekend we were there. She wasn’t formally sent by the U.S., but she was there to promote an American milkshake company. Apparently there were protests to her visit and some controversy in advance to her arrival. Some have speculated that maybe the State Dept. canceled my official Ambassador trip because it coincided with her unofficial visit. Of course, she has every right to visit with or without government sponsorship on our side, but it would be unusual to think of the State Dept. not wanting me to be there at the same time as her.
FB: Are there any plans to go anyway?
A: In the past week, we’ve received an incredible outpouring of support, especially from folks in Bahrain and the Middle East that had been looking forward to this trip. It’s been really moving and has definitely motivated us to find a way to go there with or without the support of my own country. We’re working on it. I’ve never been to the Middle East and really want to go.
FB: I could only find information on one other Cultural Ambassador, and that was Kareem Abdul Jabbar. How does it feel to almost have been in a club with the famous star of the seminal cinematic work, “Airplane“?
A: Kareem Abdul Jabbar is amazing and I’ve always loved him – his basketball legacy, and his work as an entertainer are awesome examples of America at its best. It’s been a real privilege to even imagine sharing some sort of place with him and other ambassadors in the history of U.S. culture. It seems like these are opportunities for us to show the world what this country can offer and to help unite more people together in the spirit of freedom and a shared global purpose.
FB: It’s great to have talked to you again after so many years. Were you OK after Hurricane Sandy? Did you eat any sand?
A: It’s wonderful to talk with you too, Pete! We were OK during Sandy, thank you. I always eat a bit of sand every few days, just for the earthy taste and texture. I’ve loved dirt eating since I was about 6 years old. I strongly recommend people try it at least once in their life. Party Hard Forever and stay strong!
PARTY HARD FOREVER