Samsonite Man: A Look At Hip Hop's Diplomatic Affairs
In DX's new four-part series of Hip Hop globe-trotting, writer Alex Dwyer chronicles Toni Blackman's mission to use Hip Hop within the context of international governments and diplomacy.
“Leaders cannot create the context in which they operate. Their distinctive contribution consists in operating in the limit of what the given situation permits. If they exceed these limits, they crash; if they fall short of what is necessary, their policies stagnate. If they build soundly, they may create a new set of relationships that sustains itself over a historical period because all parties consider it in their own interest.” - Henry Kissinger, U.S. Diplomat
Dealing with the situation at hand is the diplomat’s explicit dilemma. It’s the first line of defense. You can’t change the context ideological standoffs take place.
You’re tasked with getting the conversation going and build soundly thereafter.
Right now though, there’s a war going on against trying to stop a war from going on.
Culture defines the lives of Americans. Humans all over the world tend to find that common ground in points of cultural crossover. It’s a reasonable place to start.
If Hip Hop has been its own diplomat until now, the logic goes, the U.S. Government shouldn’t be allowed to use it to begin build anything.
It’s too hypocritical. It’s too ironic. Everyone would be better off if Hip Hop wasn’t involved at all.
Not much consideration has been given to those crawling over the sandbags, with Hip Hop slung over their shoulders, to greet a person as a person, with politics tossed aside.
They are building the bridges for gaps in the international order, soundly.
Having just returned from an Aspen Institute sponsored Creative Arts World Summit in Muscat, Oman, where she rhymed her way into one of the premier events on the global arts scene, Toni Blackman isn’t new to manifesting her Hip Hop abroad.
She was asked to speak or read poetry, so she came off the top, “I like to freestyle so they understand the art and craft.” If they don’t know, now they have an idea. It wasn’t the first time she’s been the only Hip Hop in the room. They can’t be expected to comprehensively get Hip Hop right away.
Born in the late '60s, Blackman came of age in the heart of Hip Hop’s first generation. She’s wears the hat of speaker, author, educator, poet, ambassador, and emcee. More than anything she’s the type of person that puts words to action, from founding Freestyle Union in the '90s to touching down almost anywhere abroad to talk Hip Hop shop.
Blackman’s builds soundly in the truest sense. She walks the walk, across Hip Hop and the world. She knows what’s up on both fronts, a mutual rarity.
She’s also been a Hip Hop Diplomat for more than a decade, most of the time, backed by the U.S. Government dollars.
"The Greatest Cultural Phenomenon Since The Harlem Renaissance."
Blackman caught the travel bug following a South African trip with a mentor from the speech and drama team at Howard, where she received her Undergraduate and Graduate degrees. With her mentor out working, Blackman decided to make some moves of her own.
She hit the web and clicked her way into a few South African circles. She ended up connecting with a co-owner of an urban media company that happened to be a Hip Hop head. He let her tag along for a jaunt through Johannesburg. “For an outsider, a newcomer, it was like a Hip Hop adventure. I saw the underground spots, the pirate radio station, the cyphers in Soweto,” she recalls.
In many ways, Blackman leapfrogged some of the biggest pitfalls of travel and understanding international culture all in one swoop. She left the tour guides at home, she went out of her comfort zone, she went to the source, and she was rewarded with an experience that she would parlay into a career. The plane ticket is a leap in itself, but the exploration factor is key to finding out what’s happening on the ground.
The air of the free fall felt natural to Blackman and it irritates her that it doesn’t come so easy to others. “What is it about us, as a society that makes us think that we can’t go and get information and have experiences on our own? Why do we have to have wait for someone to present it to us or wait for it to be a hot new trend,” she asks.
“Even established artists have joked to me about, ‘I need to roll with Toni. I need to get to Africa’ and this and that, without realizing that they could just go on their own.”
She’s aware of the eroding but gnawing dumb American caricature, as much embedded in the Hip Hop community as anywhere else in the populace. “The ignorance and the not-knowing, sometimes the American Hip Hop community falls right in line with the stereotype,” she says, but recognizes that a curiosity exists.
“I think we, contrary to what the mainstream media says, have a level of openness that people assume is not there. People want to know, want to hear, want to vibe, want to build.”
Cultural exceptionalism plagues not just Hip Hop Americans but the country as a whole, from the passport-less Sarah Palin to the heads of some of Hip Hop’s upper echelons to your favorite bloggers. It’s a part of a fiercer tendency of American inwardness that dominates the narrative of us falling behind watching other countries pulling ahead. Whether the reverse manifest destiny is true or not, coming to terms with the international community could benefit America economically, militarily and culturally.
Hip Hop is renowned for embracing the technological revolution. Rappers have Web 2.0-ed themselves out of poverty and dodged the shrapnel of the music industry's exploding ivory towers. Why has Hip Hop paused on globalization?
The great equalizer, the Internet, has done its fair share to provide the information vehicle. Yet, information only goes so far. A boots on the ground approach is needed.
For Blackman, it yielded a worldview that set her apart.
After returning to the states, she started receiving invitations to various arts conferences and discussions. Her newfound appreciation for the culture’s proliferation abroad was met with age-old academic, high brow, and moral resistance at home.
“They weren’t quite sure about my choice to pursue Hip-Hop and why I was abandoning poetry. These people were my elders and mentors and I found myself explaining Hip-Hop to them and defending it.”
Forced into a position to legitimize herself and her culture to people who she assumed knew better, Blackman’s frustrations would boil over. At one particular event in Miami, a world-summit sort of conference, things came to a head when the panel began berating Hip Hop as a whole.
“I remember standing up at the microphone and telling the group, ‘I am embarrassed to be in a room full of such intelligent people who would never allow MTV to define Jazz for them, who would never allow Fox News to define Ballet for them, but you allow these media outlets to define my art and my culture for you. I find that offensive and insulting and I challenge you to dig deeper and to learn more.’”
Initially, as the young buck in the room speaking out, many attendees were taken aback and left unraveled by her forwardness. Later, the same people who were vilifying her culture would extend their hands with opportunities.
Turning Cultural Capital Into Tangible Results
“Hip Hop, born in the mid-1970s, now spans across three generations, and within my own I know several artists teaching everything - deejaying, dance, visual art, spoken-word poetry, Rap, and beat-making. They teach in schools, after-school programs, shelters, and prisons. These artists are activists giving young people a medium to make their voices heard and to create change in their lives.”
In many of the folds she found herself being brought into, she was the first Hip Hop artist involved. Blackman was the first artist in residence at many of these institutions. She was also the first rapper to be a visiting professor at a University. Finally, at the turn of the century, she became the first U.S. Government sponsored rapper.
Working with a public health agency in Virginia that focused on HIV awareness among pre-teen boys led to a call from folks in the U.S. State Department that had done Cultural Ambassador work abroad for decades.
“They were in the office looking through The Source magazine and they couldn’t find anyone there,” Blackman laughs. “They were looking for someone who had travelled internationally, who was an educator, who was actively performing as an artist, who had experience in Africa and maybe Southeast Asia. That was me.”
By leveraging America’s abundance of soft-power (i.e. culture and the arts) the Government attempts to explore ways to find common ground with other countries through its citizenry. These Cultural Ambassadors spend ten days to six weeks abroad representing the U.S. as filmmakers, dancers, choreographers and musicians. Prior to 2000, Hip-Hop’s quarter century of history and bursting-at-the-seams popularity hadn’t legitimized itself enough for Uncle Sam’s use.
Even as the government considered the justification for hitting the red button and deploying Hip Hop, they were unsure. “Initially, I was supposed to bring two emcees from Freestyle Union with me and then they backed out of that. They were scared to commit. Looking back they were afraid,” Blackman realizes. “They were afraid of Hip Hop really, they wanted to use it but were afraid of it.”
Regardless, by February of 2001, Blackman embarked on the first US State Department commissioned convoy (although it was listed under the ACULSPEC program) to Senegal. To her surprise, the inauthenticity inherent in many government-to-culture relationships found no way into this visit.
“Sometimes when you have bureaucrats doing all the planning, their bureaucratic energy can take away from some of the art,” Blackman says, alluding to navigating the state-sponsored cultural weeds. “They tend to use people who are recommended through their network, not necessarily the Hip-Hop network but that didn’t happen in Senegal.”
It was another breakthrough moment for Blackman — an instance when she saw sparks fly between her affinity with the internationally community and her dedication to the culture that raised her. “It was Hip-Hop heaven for me. It was the first time I ever had a cypher where I cried. I know I’m a girl, so maybe that’s not surprising but it was a beautiful, beautiful experience,” she says of Senegal.
“They are people who live and breathe music and the oral tradition already, it is in their veins and their culture. Even if you didn’t understand anything they were saying, their souls and their hearts were so deeply in it, so even when they spit in Wolof you could feel it.”
More importantly, it allowed her to see the culture that bred her, that she dedicated herself to as an avenue extending beyond her neck of the woods. “That first trip with the State Department to Senegal made it official for me. My Hip Hop was global,” says Blackman. “It had nothing to do with what borough I lived in or what coast I was from. My Hip Hop was global.”
Hip Hop And Consciousness: One In The Same
“Many of the women are building self confidence and self esteem, developing leadership and communications skills, while addressing childhood issues such as sexual abuse, rape and abandonment.”
Over a decade later, Blackman’s taken almost twenty of these trips to dozens of countries. In most of these developing nations, Hip Hop is at a different stage of evolution, even as it remains abundantly popular. It’s her job to feed that interest in an authentic and educational fashion.
She’s participated in a myriad of programming. Some has focused on HIV awareness and prevention, using music to encourage behavior modification as was the case in a trip to Swaziland. Others have different focuses, she explains, “In the Congo, the work was about promoting messages to stop gender violence and rape. Somewhere else the focus might have been on literacy. In the Ivory Coast, the idea was that using songs and music, performance, for peace and reconciliation, as we went through the North part of the Ivory Coast rebel-held territory. I’ve been getting a lot of calls to do women’s empowerment too.”
Many times it’s the role of enabler that she sees as most important, “[We] are also educators and role models. [We] empower them with the tools that they need to take the kind of stuff that I do and do it themselves in their country.”
If it all sounds lofty, intangible and difficult to measure that’s because it is. The results are as worthy of suspicion and speculation as are the U.S. Government’s hidden intentions but the tool itself is not. The focus remains fluid, what remains unchanged is the means.
For Blackman, Hip Hop and consciousness are one in the same. “My influence came from the roots of Hip Hop and Afrika Bambaata. The idea that if you’re a true Hip Hop head, you don’t need the word ‘activist’ or the word ‘service’ because true Hip Hop heads, that’s what you do,” she says firmly. “You share, you teach, you build, you use Hip Hop for a purpose greater than yourself.”
Blackman doesn’t see the Hip Hop Ambassadors program ending anytime soon, despite the latest round of criticisms. The culture is still spreading its legs in many parts of the world and as long as it remains relevant, she thinks the program makes sense. Plenty of parallels have been drawn between the tactics (explicit political purposes) of the current Hip Hop Ambassadors program as a force against the “War on Terror” and the Jazz Ambassadors program of the Cold War era.
For about 15 years from the mid-'50s to late-'60s Jazz musicians were sent to areas either in the Soviet’s sights or already under their spell. The broad goal was the same: improve the image of the U.S. abroad through one our richest exports, (then as now) modern culture.
Tactically, the focus of both ambassador programs mirrors an obvious effort to open a dialogue, even if it’s just a cultural one, with countries where ideologies collide. The bulk of the U.S. Government’s diplomacy energy is unleashed where it’s needed. That means in countries and areas that are unfriendly towards the United States.
Cultural, or public, diplomacy’s main purpose is long term, despite everyone wanting results yesterday. Jazz remains a music in the State Department lineup. Today, diplomacy efforts are often tasked with preemptively culturing potential terrorist threats to death. There’s a general haze of discouragement from many in the media about the effectiveness any Cultural Ambassador efforts have on relations with nations participating directly or indirectly to our foes in the “War on Terror.”
Regardless, they tend to print evenhanded reports on Jazz as a tool in the region. Instead, blaming the circumstances for the failure. In late September, a couple months before the Hip Hop mud would hit the helicopter blades, the Associated Press ran a story on Jazz diplomacy in Pakistan. The article refrains from criticizing the Jazz at hand, but rather the situation it’s attempting to operating within.
“There was plenty of bilateral good cheer, but the group's performances, which also took place in the cities of Karachi and Lahore, will likely do little to win over Pakistanis. The crowds have been small and largely made up of elite Pakistanis who are more likely to have positive attitudes toward the U.S.”
If only there was a culture that spoke to the disenfranchised instead of the elite...
Later, there’s a pleasant anecdote that features the words to a song the American and local Pakistani musicians cowrote, "Let's talk. Replace the face of hatred with a new face. Shun differences, cut distances ... let's light the lamp of friendship.”
You’re not exactly transported to an Urdu Kumbaya, but it’s nice to have a little window into what’s going on in this building process.
Jazz isn’t the problem, they say, the political situation is just so far gone.
Hip Hop diplomacy receives another treatment entirely. Even by those who consider themselves aligned with the culture.
In a 2010 CBS news piece penned by Tracy Smith, Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton famously exclaimed that Hip-Hop could “absolutely” be a diplomatic “chess piece.” These words are frequently used to push the narrative that there is a victory to be achieved and an endgame in sight. In the same interview Clinton is asked about what a musician can do that she can’t.
"Well, I think that there are certainly times when music conveys American values better than a speech,” Clinton said. "And for an American performer or group to come, gives people a chance to, in their own imagination at least, think about what might be."
This is the rarely heard, long-term plan of the construction at hand. Meanwhile, anxious armchair architects salivate on the sides of the table, eager to scrap the plans. Maybe they want to leave the building half-built, maybe they want to start over, maybe they want to abandon architecture entirely, they never really say.
It’s created a kind of restlessness that jumps at every chance to deem Hip-Hop as contributing to a losing effort, without offering any fixes.
The effectiveness of Hip-Hop diplomacy has been called into question lately after a Hip-Hop dance crew, F.E.W. Collective, was accosted by authorities in Pakistan. "US Hip Hop diplomacy hits speed bump in Pakistan," “US 'Hip Hop diplomacy 'fails to heal rift with Pakistan'” and “Hillary Clinton’s Hip-Hop ‘Diplomats’ Arrested in Islamabad,” splashed across international news outlets.
One Al-Jazeera piece by Hishaam Aidi seized the opportunity to raise questions on the motives of the program and examine the contradictory nature of Hip-Hop diplomacy, especially the use of U.S. Muslim rappers, including the F.E.W. Collective, to calm the seas of anti-Americanism in certain areas.
After reading the news report though, it appears the group was held because of photos they took and not punchlines they dropped. The merit and intent of the criticism becomes a bit suspect itself considering the facts.
Blackman recognizes that ambassadorial missions heavily tread through Muslim world, especially in recent years, but recalls envoys trekking to parts of Europe and South America as well. She also insists the artist vetting process is much more focused on the educational abilities of the individual rather than their religion, politics or race.
“I think it’s based on their background and track record. Being an educator is a really big part of it. Have you taught workshops? Are these artists going to do anything crazy while their on the road? What kind of image do they have? What kind of reputation do they have?” she explains.
“That’s why artists who are more Hip Hop activists and Hip-Hop educators tend to be the ones who are doing most of the work because they come to the table with a certain value set. It makes a good impression on others.”
First impressions are big in the diplomacy world. Sometimes that’s all you get.
The government, Blackman says, stays out of the art and lets her words be her own. Allowing her to be a representative of her culture and her country as an individual. “I’ve never been asked for my lyric sheet by the U.S. Government. If my lyric sheets are requested its because another country wanted them.” Blackman and others on the Hip Hop convoys were, undoubtedly, prescreened based on their predisposition not to put certain topics on blast.
Indeed, a government, just like a brand or label must make sure the messaging is at least not running contrary to their goals. Even the staunched champion of expression would be hard pressed to enlist Tyler, The Creator to tell Senegalese children to “Kill People, Burn Shit, & Fuck School.” I doubt he’d be eager to go either, there aren’t any skateparks or Supreme storefronts in Swaziland.
One major difference between the Jazz Ambassadors and the Hip Hop Ambassadors is that the Jazz cats were marquee names of their era, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.
Many of the musicians on those tours didn’t agree with the U.S. governmental policies of the time but still served as ambassadors overseas. Wynton Marsalis, a modern Jazz musician who’s recently gone abroad with a State Department envoy, made an important distinction in the Tracy Smith piece.
"Right, well, because they weren't representing the government; they were representing the people,"Marsalis told Smith regarding the political differences. "And they recognized that many times, a government does not necessarily act with the will of its people."
If a quality critique of the program is to be made, it might include the fan bases of the artist chosen by the State Department. Blackman does think name recognition could help, but the risk might outweigh the reward. “Part of what makes the programming authentic is that it’s not big celebrities. Big celebrities can add excitement or bring attention but they can also take away credibility to the content and to the offering. I think that there are a limited number of celebrities who can fit the bill in my opinion,” she says.
There’s also the holier-than-thou drawback. “When you bring American celebrities to a place, that would be very American and not the best look for our culture. American’s are always selling something. Big celebrities come with a publicist, they come up with makeup artists, hair stylists, clothing stylists and after a certain point, that shits just not cool.”
It’s not soldiers to people, politicians to people, or celebrities to people — it’s people to people.
That’s the crux of the connection. She clarifies that the envoy is a two way street, “Your talking about an exchange. It’s not just America coming to share, the artists from America are coming to learn as well and people appreciate that. Thats what significant about the programming.”
Exchange As A Diplomacy Tool
“Over the years, I discovered that once a person is provided with the tools he/she needs to be creative and express himself or herself, to exercise the mind as a muscle, that need for aggressive lyrics automatically decreases.”
Diplomacy isn’t without some resistance, but taking photos is hardly evidence of methodic failure. Hip-Hop as a means to initiate exchange has been met receptively. In Blackman’s time, the worst resistance she’s dealt with, because of her craft or passport, was during an envoy to Indonesia.
“We had an outdoor concert that was disrupted but anti-American protesters, they drove in on motorcycles and a guy jumped on the stage a grabbed the mic and started to shout a few expletives about America,” she remembers. “We had to evacuate the area quickly for safety.”
That’s reasonably tame as far as international aggression goes. A run of the mill European backpacking trip may set off more anti-American booby traps and bar brawls than have befallen Hip Hop cultural convoys in hostile zones. Perhaps the artist vetting process is partially responsible for avoiding the negative sentiments, but the culture’s real-recognize-real characteristics can’t be ruled out either.
On these more diplomatic envoys the focus is on the exchange. “We watched an Indonesian band do a traditional performance and then we performed. The next day we rehearsed with them and they would do a song, then we would do a song. There were three songs that we performed together. They learn ours, we learn theirs,” Blackman says, describing one visit to Southeast Asia.
“There’s also the idea of showing another side of Hip Hop. There are people who’s exposure to Hip Hop is basically the top 2% of mainstream commercial offerings that get exposure and thats it. They’ve never experienced an American Hip Hop that has something to say.”
The exchange is used as the beginnings of a dialogue, the first step of initiating contact and diffusing tension. “The focus shifts to cultural exchange. I think that becomes a diplomacy tool and so trust increases, comfort levels increase and then there’s actually a report thats being built in the midst of that exchange,” Blackman says. “Which is why art, just for art’s sake, can be just as powerful as anything else.”
On this construction site, it makes sense that no one is holding their breath for the State Department to fork over a bigger chunk of change to convince Lupe Fiasco to put on the hard hat and perform “American Terrorist” parts I & III for a packed Pakastini crowd. It’s as unlikely he’d be willing to sit through a couple of weeks of Pakistanti Rap tracks and put together a collaborative piece of music without a commercial ends in sight. Besides, he might be busy recording “Out Of My Head” part III by then. The whole runaround would be ass-backwords for everyone involved, beyond any budgetary constraints.
Ruffling the feathers and inciting revolt, even if aiding the topple undemocratic regimes, isn’t the purpose or product of the Hip Hop Cultural Envoys. Diplomacy doesn’t happen over night. It takes time.
Most of us don’t know who Blackman is. The general Hip Hop consumer wouldn’t. She’s an unsung hero of the culture. She doesn’t require widespread recognition as an artist in order to be effective on the ground. She has a bigger picture in mind. She’s trying to build something. This in-progress report is exactly what America needs in a world that frequently doubts it’s sincerity.
The Possibility Of America Records
“Hip-Hop is not a band-aid, nor is it a quick fix for what ails education or the other issues in our community; however, it offers us access to various forms of creative outlets, which can ultimately lead us to having more balance in and control of our lives.”
Beyond casting Hip Hop diplomacy as hopeless and hapless, there are also calls to swing the latest axe towards Hip Hop itself’s head — this time by the hands of the State.
These voices want Hip-Hop, the most socially influential and commercially successful American cultural force in decades, to be left unavailable to directly contribute to resolving the most pivotal foreign policy issues in American history.
All this, to preserve Hip Hop’s honor.
Blackman thinks this forecasted decapitation, the notion that the culture is headed for an all time low, is a little misguided. The crumbling record industry and the cultural envoy program has caught the attention of certain sect of inspiring artists. “Hip Hop artists went from relying on the industry to put them on and relying on the State Department to put them on,” she says. “There are some artists who could easily get stuck in the role of being government representatives and not necessarily focusing on their art.”
Blackman considers the possibility of an America Records label to be a very real one. “It’s possible that the government could have its artists division and these are the artists they represent. There are countries that do have that,” she considers, countries like Brazil, China, India, and even France all come to mind. “They have the minister of culture and all these things and they have their selected artists who represent the government.”
The argument goes that when the government touches Hip Hop, it’s been sullied beyond value. The culture has been bastardized for well over a decade for commercial use and ulterior motives that don’t fall inline with the Hip Hop’s foundations. It hasn’t prevented relentless rhymes to flow from the up and coming emcees that converge out of the cracks of society to deliver the unrefined American (and increasingly global) experience.
Hip Hop is still America’s mirror. Maybe that has something to do with why the country’s not particularly flattered by what it sees. Things are fouled up, realness will be kept.
The U.S. Government, using a small sampling of a certain segment of Hip Hop artists in an effort to do good in the world, should be embraced by the Hip Hop community.
No one on any side of Hip Hop consciousness would argue that what happens on the envoys will dictate what their Hip Hop is or aught to be. The genre has more sub-genres than can be accurately categorized, however refined your palette. Hip Hop artists themselves routinely wear more than a few thematic hats. 2011 was a year when the nearly unanimous choice for the best Hip Hop album went to a rapper who talks about money, hoes, clothes, god and history all in the same sentence.
If you don’t know who that was, maybe you ought not to talk about what Hip-Hop should be doing in 2012.
Even if the eventual emcees on America Records are as corny as imaginable and they manage to make it to the ears of more discerning listeners, maybe we could salvage some quality diss records out of the farce.
If nothing else, Hip Hop Ambassadors are teaching a skill set and upping the ante for international acts to step to the plate and represent themselves. If they can speak Hip Hop, maybe we can understand them better. Call it the return on cultural investment, so to speak.
The American audience though, Blackman feels, is being force-fed an inaccurate view of the ‘other.’ “You know, if you watch the news, there are all kinds of fears about what these other people are going to do to us. ‘They’re taking our jobs and they’re taking our space up on earth, what are they doing here?’” she says, considering other countries beginning to export their Hip Hop to the U.S. and elsewhere. “As an idealist, I believe that it’s possible. It would have to be some sort of educational process or campaign to introduce the masses to this idea.”
Skill wise, Blackman’s seen enough potential outside American borders to add another facet to her career. “I’ve joked about becoming an agent because I’ve seen this talent, with a good engineer to mix it properly,” she says. “That’s another distinction that happens technically, there are some artists from other countries where their stuff is not mixed according to the American ear.”
Ultimately she thinks the audience and the artists aren’t the problem. “I think it’s industry more so than anything else. I think American artists are often excited about collaborating with artists from other countries. When we ask this question about Hip Hop, we have to ask this question about music in general. I imagine our country would be a whole lot different if you could turn on the radio and on Hot 97, you could hear a song from Cuba and a song from Brazil in the playlist. We don’t hear that. We don’t even hear instrumentation from these countries,” she says, describing an issue that really asks questions of the entire American entertainment machine.
“I think we really have to consider the way the music industry is structured. The way the radio and broadcasting industry is set up. If people can’t make an immediate profit from it, they’re going to block it from happening.”
America appears ready to be receptive. We have a lot to learn from other nations. One thing we can teach them, and be proud of, is Hip Hop culture and ideology.
There’s always been a gulf of serious consideration jammed between Hip Hop and social, academic and political discussions. Whenever it is allowed to participate, there’s usually a backlash. The hostility that met the almost excessively appropriate visit of Common to the White House is evidence enough of that.
Hip Hop has always had enough enemies. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s portrayal of the Hip Hop police task force shed light on one government funded one, while deeming it reason enough to look at the State Department’s Hip Hop efforts with more than a cynical gaze.
In some ways, that chip on the shoulder milks some of the best out of the genre musicians. Still, it doesn’t need people within it’s own camp proclaiming that the government doesn’t deserve to use Hip Hop, even if it doesn’t.
Hip Hop remains a second-class culture in the eyes of too many. Yet Blackman admits there’s been some progress in respecting Hip Hop as ideology and methodology. “I think its come a long way but not far enough. There are still the eyebrows raised about why Hip Hop is on the agenda,” she says. “I remember when I first started, a librarian booked me for a big school and I got to the school and the principal canceled me the same day,” she continues. “He didn’t care that I had a masters degree and traveled around the world, all he knew was that I was a rapper and that was problematic. That doesn’t happen anymore.
“The sad part is that not sure if that doesn’t happen anymore because they opening their hearts and minds to Hip Hop or because they are so desperate that nothing else is working,” the normally optimistic Blackman ponders. “Is it a ‘why not? Nothing else works.’ or is it ‘Yes, let’s explore this’ Theres validity here, there’s value.’”
It’s this value that has been underemphasized. Instead the discussion has been polarized to suggest a two-way street with either a Hip Hop that’s watered down by the government or revolutionary in a direction that’s in opposition to it.
By the time the burgeoning global (and American) electronic music scene reaches Washington’s ears and they begin drafting deejays for the first American Rave envoy, I wonder if Hip Hop will have earned its due. Will Lupe finally be wiling to go pro-bono if he can grace Electro beats? While we’re Dub-stepping away our differences and using flashing lights instead of flash-bang grenades, will Hip Hop envoys still exist? If the pessimism prevails, will we have public diplomacy or will we let TV suffice?
For now, it’s entitled to more. Above all else, it should receive the same respect and treatment as other cultural diplomacy initiatives, especially if we are going to measure their success against each other. It’s earned that much.
“When we go beneath the surface, we not only find creativity and tradition but we can also find a medium for social change and maybe - most importantly - hope.”
Certainly more than a few threads of irony and hypocrisy can be plucked from a situation where Hip Hop, a reoccurring demon in the thrashing of domestic social fabrics, is used to sew the seeds of international cooperation. The inclination to tug the rope to praise Hip Hop as a universal tool of revolution is equally compelling, in the wake of Arab Spring revolts that found fuel from local Hip Hop artists who sound anthems of upheaval within the same tradition of Public Enemy.
Neither of these comparisons is adequately fair in dealing with the situation of Hip-Hop diplomacy as a whole and the State Department’s Hip Hop Ambassadors program in particular.
A more levelheaded assessment, like the Cold War Jazz Ambassador program receives, is deserved.
One forgotten foe at ideological odds with America during that era was that of a closed and isolated China. In fact, Mao Zedong deemed the Soviets increasingly soft on their implementation of the communist model. The two countries had fought in Korea. China’s ideology ran as contrary to America’s more than anywhere before or since.
It was Henry Kissinger, perhaps America’s greatest diplomat, who was tasked with finding a way to avoid conflict by building a way towards a conversation. The differences seemed irreconcilable at the time. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an opportunity arose for diplomatic progress through culture.
On April 14, 1971 a perplexed American Ping-Pong team found themselves at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, shaking hands with Chinese officials. They were invited while participating in a tournament in nearby Japan. It was a moment that accomplished more than decades of official ambassadorial talks.
The Ping-Pong diplomacy was set-up before hand by behind-the-scenes inter workings of Chinese and US officials who were inching towards having the first open communication for decades. It just so happens that this secret handwritten communication between Beijing and the Washington was being sent back and forth through a Pakistani ambassador. The moment shook the world.
When Kissinger helped to architect China’s opening over 40 years ago, he did it by building soundly. A U.S.-China dialogue was unimaginable, unachievable my the measures of most people. It was sparked through an instance of cultural cohesion.
Today, both countries, especially China, are better off because of that olive branch.
Not even Wikileaks can spell-out what’s exactly happening, right now, to mitigate war. We can’t afford to underestimate the power of culture in that pursuit of peace. We equally can’t undermine an American culture as formidable and persistent as Hip Hop in that process.
As Kissinger once said, “Every great achievement was a vision before it became a reality. In that sense, it arose from commitment, not resignation to the inevitable.”
I, for one, would be proud if that vision was being built soundly behind the ghostwritten rhymes of emcees.
Alex Dweezy Dwyer has written about Hip Hop for eight years, coincidentally the same year he got his first passport stamp in Paris. He's since lived in Rio De Janiero, Madrid, visited many other countries and spoken to many emcees. He currently lives in Chongqing, China but calls Los Angeles home. Follow him on Twitter @adweezy.