In Defense of Hip-Hop Diplomacy

Black artists have often served as global ambassadors for the U.S. What's wrong with that?

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Later, when he arrived in Saudi Arabia, though, Kokayi was surprised to see his State Department handler, a young white woman, driving around wearing bright colors and her hair loose. The same handler informed a Saudi Arabian man hosting a private hip-hop performance at his home that women and men would be sitting together, against local custom.

The host, clearly uncomfortable, said that he would defer to the wishes of the musicians. "We were like, 'No, man. This is your house,' " Kokayi remembers saying. " 'Whatever you feel is necessary to have this thing go on without any problems.' "

Kokayi says that the female handler, upset, shot back, " 'What would you do if black people were told to sit at the back?' "

He continued: " 'Black people, we who know ourselves, we're not tripping off you and your agenda. You ain't gonna pawn me out. I ain't that American. That's why America is in trouble now. As soon as you start talking like that, you sound like the missionaries: "Let me go rescue you heathens." I'm going to come over and do what I came over here to do. I'm going to play some music, meet some nice people. We are doing cultural exchange; we're gonna exchange some culture.' "

Even with the limits of that particular exchange, some have argued that the State Department's seeds, planted in the Middle East back in 2006, may have borne fruit during the Arab Spring.

"The State Department is like any other institution," said Blackman, the hip-hop artist who was featured in the global hip-hop documentary. "There are people you want to work with and people you don't. "

In 2000 Blackman was first invited to become a cultural specialist for the State Department and has since traveled to South Africa, Swaziland, Kenya, Botswana and the Ivory Coast. In the Congo, she worked with artists to produce songs and videos as public service announcements to end gender violence.

Blackman describes an "ancestral" connection to audiences in Africa, where she was greeted like a lost family member. Once, though, during a panel discussion in Johannesburg, a local man asked, "How could you justify working for the U.S. government?"

 "You mean how can I justify being an American?" Blackman shot back. "That my grandfather survived Jim Crow? Or that my great-grandfather survived slavery to build this country? Or how can I justify representing my family around the world? Is that the question you are asking?"

There was no follow-up.