The State Department has discovered jazz
It reaches folks like nothing ever has.
When they feel the jazzy rhythm
They know we’re really with ‘em.
That’s what we call cultural exchange.
Louis Armstrong in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors (1962)
Recently I came across the article “Hip-Hop Diplomacy? How the State Department Uses Rap to Spread Propaganda Abroad.” In it, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd charges the State Department with hypocrisy for using hip-hop as a tool for public diplomacy. Why? Partly because of the existence of “hip-hop cops”—state-organized task forces within police departments created to target rap’s high-profile stars. She also takes umbrage at the State Department’s tours of Muslim hip-hop artists in Muslim countries to “paint a portrait of acceptance and cultural understanding in America that is counteracted daily by reports of physical violence against Muslims.”
Escobedo Shepherd notes that the State Department’s recent foray into hip-hop diplomacy “mirror[s] its efforts during the Cold War, when they dispatched prominent jazz musicians to counter Soviet propaganda about life in America.” State-sponsored cultural diplomacy that promotes music originating in Black America is nothing new, nor is the indignation at its use.
It’s true that during the Cold War many musicians embarked on State Department tours designed to reinforce strategic and economic interests. It’s also true that the contradiction of promoting Black artists as symbols of racial equality while Jim Crow laws still dominated some parts of the U.S. often confused the intended message of these tours. Louis Armstrong famously refused a tour of the Soviet Union in 1957. He was protesting President Eisenhower’s inactivity after the National Guard was called in to prevent Black children from entering Little Rock’s recently desegregated Central High School. Armstrong later sang poignantly about the inherent tensions he experienced as a US cultural envoy in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors of 1962:
I’m the real ambassador.
It is evident I was sent by government to take your place
All I do is play the blues and meet the people face-to-face
I’ll explain and make it plain, I represent the human race
I don’t pretend no more.
Who’s the real ambassador?
Certain facts we can’t ignore
In my humble way I’m the USA
Though I represent the government
The government don’t represent some policies I’m for.
Oh we learned to be concerned about the constitutionality
In our nation segregation isn’t a legality
Soon our only differences will be in personality
That’s what I stand for!
Who’s the real ambassador?
[Similar criticisms frequently come from outside US borders. In 1940, Mexican composer Carlos Chávez denounced the subjugation of Black Americans under Jim Crow laws by composing the anti-lynching song “North Carolina Blues.” Chávez was likely inspired by Billie Holiday’s smash hit, “Strange Fruit,” recorded the previous year, and by the poetry of Langston Hughes. The commentary—unique in Chávez’s output—counters the assertions of Pan-American sentiment that marked US foreign policy in the years leading up to World War II.]
Escobedo Shepherd grinds other axes in this article that have little to do with diplomacy, with which I won’t take issue. But I was pleased to read Natalie Hopkinson’s response:
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. . . . [Brooklyn, N.Y.-based emcee Toni] 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.”
For my part, I can’t help but view the way the State Department is listening to and engaging publics abroad as a positive development. It’s no longer a one-way street like some efforts during the Cold War. Just as social media are giving citizens around the world a more direct voice in policy conversations, most musical diplomacy programs now encourage envoys to engage local musicians in informal jam sessions and to develop longer-lasting relationships with members of the communities they visit. What the Arab Awakening of 2011 taught all of us, State Department included, is that disaffected youth around the world are becoming crucial agents of change in their home countries. The U.S. Institute of Peace puts it best:
Social media, hip hop, the arts and comedy have all played a role in antiregime advocacy. This is an important lesson for traditional political and diplomatic institutions across the world which in the past might have disregarded these softer forms of engagement, but are now looking to adapt in order to leverage these tools for sustainable change.
Escobedo Shepherd notes that all of the members of Legacy, one of the recent Rhythm Road quartets, have “pedigrees [that] certainly guarantee an underground audience (they are all trained professionals, and have played mostly with jazz ensembles), that probably wouldn’t have much cache among most US hip-hop consumers.” That may be so. Rhythm Road was administered by Jazz at Lincoln Center, the bastion of academic jazz, which also has little cache among most US consumers. That doesn’t preclude its capacity to engage audiences abroad, of course. Jazz is still favored by publics around the world who sense in it freedom of expression and democratic values. But now, for many young people, the music that speaks to those values is hip-hop. Rhythm Road by Jazz at Lincoln Center is now defunct, but there are other State Department-sponsored programs that connect foreign publics with American hip-hop.
One is American Music Abroad, administered by American Voices, which has blazed more than a few trails toward creating engaging and meaningful musical exchange programs in politically challenging regions since 1993. American Music Abroad represents a new generation of urban/hip-hop, gospel, bluegrass, and jazz ambassadors engaging youth and underserved audiences in countries where people have few opportunities to meet American performers and experience their music first-hand. Participation is a defining feature of the program; it centers on interactive performances with local musicians, lecture demonstrations, workshops, and jam sessions. The 2012-13 season of American Music Abroad includes two hip-hop groups.
Audiopharmacy is my personal favorite. They are a musically innovative, socially conscious music and art collective based in San Francisco:
Mahogany Jones LIVE is led by a gifted wordsmith who writes songs on social justice and spiritual themes. Her group, which includes two other women (an emcee and a drummer) embodies a message of women’s empowerment. No one can accuse this hip-hop of being whitewashed. It does carry a Christian message, but I have confidence that the folks at American Voices will program Mahogany Jones LIVE in areas where the strong edifying message of self-determination will come across louder than its evangelical undertones:
Neither of these groups is of the hard rap variety, but both deal with social justice and similarly thorny issues in their music, and I don’t see any evidence of propaganda in their selection or presentation.
And then there’s Hiplomacy, another initiative of American Voices, which has taken hip-hop dance specialists like Rick Camargo of HaviKoro on tour with workshops and performances. In 2011, over 75 aspiring young actors, dancers and musicians in Rangoon were reached in the course of six days of activities:
Here’s HaviKoro working with immigrant and disadvantaged youth in Kuala Lumpur:
In Amman, Jordan:
(Photos courtesy of American Voices)
Nor is the flow of hip-hop diplomacy still one-way. This year the State Department launched Center Stage in collaboration with the New England Foundation for the Arts. This new program brings hip-hop and other music and dance genres from around the world for month-long residencies in Main Street, USA—not just in larger cities but in towns like Hartsville, South Carolina; Helena, Montana; and Grinnell, Iowa.
Jogja Hip Hop Foundation (visiting in late 2012) hails from Java, which has a long history of sung poetry that translates beautifully to rap. They also meld their beats with the sounds of their native gamelan:
The most engaging public diplomacy now requires participation, and Jogja’s visit to California in November and December presents an exceptional opportunity for collaboration with west coast hip-hop artists. I hope their itinerary allows for such relationship building.