In Defense of Hip-Hop Diplomacy

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

Courtesy of Toni Blackman
Courtesy of Toni Blackman

By her account, the jazz artists seized the opportunity to use their voice, both artistically and politically. In response to the anti-integration Little Rock, Ark., standoff in 1957, Louis Armstrong called off a planned tour, saying, “The way they treated my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” When President Eisenhower relented and sent in troops to uphold integration, Armstrong sent the president a telegram: “If you decide to walk into the schools with the colored kids, take me along, daddy. God bless you.”

The program was far from perfect. In the 1970s, when Charles Mingus slipped protest-song titles into his program, his State Department handlers changed them on the pamphlet without telling him. The State Department made sure Duke Ellington was never publicly photographed with his very blond “companion.” And the diplomatic efforts shadowed CIA operations; jazz artists were sent to dangerous places where it was not safe for the U.S. government to go.

But overall, the artists just did the tours. “Whether fostering informal musical connections after hours or backstage, pursuing romantic liaisons, or expressing political opinions in interviews and on stage, musicians slipped into the breaks and looked around, intervening in official narratives and playing their own changes,” Von Eschen wrote. 

A lot has changed in 50 years — maybe not enough — but artists are still making their own changes at the State Department. The Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist Kokayi has no regrets about traveling to Asia and the Middle East on behalf of George W. Bush’s State Department in the mid-2000s. He remembers signing a notice in one Middle Eastern country saying that he understood he could be put to death for certain local crimes.

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?’ “