In Defense of Hip-Hop Diplomacy
Black artists have often served as global ambassadors for the U.S. What's wrong with that?
At a discussion after a Washington, D.C., screening of a new documentary on global hip-hop, The Furious Force of Rhymes, the audience was elated that the film showed Brooklyn, N.Y.-based emcee Toni Blackman performing in Kenya. But someone lamented that the U.S. State Department had sponsored her trip.
An article at the webzine AlterNet similarly blasted the State Department for including hip-hop in its cultural-diplomacy efforts: "Clearly, rank hypocrisy is embedded in the program: the true rap voices of American youth have long been maligned by the government -- and if the government expended more effort helping the blighted and impoverished black communities most of it comes from, it wouldn't be so reviled ... " The writer added that it was "absurd" that the State Department would support a genre that had been targeted by New York City police.
Hearing these kinds of arguments, in 2012, really makes my head itch. I love it when these folks speak out on behalf of the poor Negro masses that "revile" the government. I, too, wake up screaming with nightmares of Hillary Clinton and a New York City beat cop alone in a room, plotting world domination via two turntables and a mike.
Seriously, these kinds of anti-government tirades coming from the left are the intellectual cousins of the right-wing lunatic fringe we see at the GOP presidential debates. I ask these folks on the hard left, same as I ask the anti-government folks on the right: Who, exactly, do you think government is? Whose money is it? Whose ancestors' blood was spilled to build it? Which women are disproportionately putting their lives on the line to protect it?
And please explain to me how hip-hop is divorced from any of that?
A better question to ask today is, what has really changed since Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. urged the State Department to set up the jazz tours as part of its cultural-diplomacy efforts during the Cold War? In her wonderful book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, historian Penny Von Eschen presented the paradox of sending black musicians abroad to show the world how to counter totalitarianism when Jim Crow was still raging back home.