In Defense of Hip-Hop Diplomacy

Courtesy of Toni Blackman
Courtesy of Toni Blackman

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.

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?' "

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.

Speaking to me on the phone from Brooklyn, Blackman says there is still much to criticize about the U.S. government. But, she adds, "The other part of me feels like it is really important that we stay in the conversation. When we remove ourselves from the conversation, we lose part of our voice."


Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter