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Hip-Hop Diplomacy? How the State Department Uses Rap to Spread Propaganda Abroad

There is hypocrisy in the State Department's cultural diplomacy efforts.

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But first, some history. During the Cold War, the jazz musicians who went out in the name of American diplomacy were world-famous, like Dizzie Gillespie. This initiative doesn't parallel that--the groups it sends are generally unknown among hip-hop fans, despite many American rappers being both political and popular. For instance,  Legacy, one of the groups in  the program , is a four-person, live instrumental hip-hop crew, and while their pedigrees 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. 

The program's site explains that the groups are chosen for their "artistic integrity, music ability and educational skills." They're also painting a portrait of acceptance and cultural understanding in America that is  counteracted daily  by reports of physical violence against Muslims.

Plus, as Al-Jazeera points out, most hip-hop artists American Muslim youth respect are, too, making anti-capitalist, anti-regime statements, including Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Talib Kweli (the latter three have given support to Occupy), as well as Philadelphia legend Freeway. 

Enlisting these or any number of Muslim rappers—who enmesh their religion with their lyrics—would make more sense from the cultural standpoint of a hip-hop fan though clearly not an ambassadorship one. 

And as for the "society-ruining" rap music that people like Hannity and Bill O'Reilly constantly harp on—nothing would curtail hard rap quicker than if the government ended the drug war, whose racist policies have ruined the lives of so many young black men that discontent is inherent. (And you have to wonder what the State Department would make of Shyne, the immensely popular Diddy associate who, after spending nine years in prison for a 2001 shooting, emerged an Orthodox Jew and began showing support for Zionist spy Jonathan Pollard.)

But nuance is not the most questionable part of this program. It’s the absurd idea that it exists, when other branches of the government—the  FBI in collusion with the NYPD  in particular—have been so adamant about profiling (and taking down) well-recognized stars of the genre. The “hip-hop cops” are also known as the “rap task force,” and their existence solely for the surveillance of rappers’ movements has deepened the mistrust of police within hip-hop (and young blacks and Latinos by extension). 

Certainly some well-known rappers have been involved in illegal activities and have even made millions off of bragging about them (50 Cent, who began his career as a crack dealer and was shot nine times before his career skyrocketed, is probably the best known example ). Nevertheless, the purpose of monitoring rappers has echoes of COINTELPRO. For years, the existence of the hip-hop cops was rumored in New York (though the LAPD involvement with the murder of the Notorious BIG suggests it spread elsewhere). Bronx rapper Fat Joe  told MTV  in 2005:

"It's definitely a task force," Fat Joe said. "You go to hip-hop spots now and they ain't just your normal walking-the-beat cops. There's cops out there in undercover cars like they know something we don't know. Like bin Laden's in the club, B."

Some may have thought it a paranoid conceit, but in the mid 2000s, around the time the monitoring seemed to pique, the NYPD was capturing a disproportionate amount of rappers doing minor offenses. The insane amount of times rapper Busta Rhymes has been pulled over for minor traffic infractions alone suggests the force assigned him his own personal detail. Running red lights, talking on the phone, speeding, you name it—more than just garden variety racial profiling, hip-hop was getting busted and the NYPD seemed out for vengeance. In 2007, Lil Wayne was arrested in New York after performing at a show with a hulking police presence. (I was there, covering the show for VIBE magazine, and the amount of cops made it look something like an Occupy protest.) The popular rapper was charged with possession of a gun the police found on his tour bus, and though he denied it was his, the prosecution used a disputed,  highly controversial DNA test  to link him to it. He spent a year at Riker's Island as a result. 

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