Hip-Hop Diplomacy? How the State Department Uses Rap to Spread Propaganda Abroad
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Since 2005, the US State Department has been using hip-hop as a bridge for foreign cultural diplomacy. Operating under the auspices of then-public diplomacy undersecretary Karen Hughes, the “Rhythm Road” program began sending “hip-hop envoys” to, mostly, the Middle East, hoping to promote transnational understanding through music and dance.
Al-Jazeera ran an excellent piece on the program this week, which begins with this quote from Hillary Clinton in 2010: “Hip-hop is America,” she told CBS—certainly a true statement, but not one anyone would have expected to hear before the Obama adminstration, even from culturally savvy Bill Clinton, whose most famous exchange with hip-hop was when he accused Sistah Souljah of reverse racism.
And while President Obama has done a good job of finally welcoming into the White House the most important musical movement of the last 35 years (both culturally and commercially), his olive branch to the culture has been met with controversy . Most recently, right wingers expressed outrage over his invitation to rather innocuous rapper Common on poetry night, with Sean Hannity wrongly painting him as a controversial "cop-killer"—an absurd assertion to anyone who listens to his music.
The aforementioned Al-Jazeera piece, which chronicles hip-hop's relatively new embrace within the state department, also discuss the music's role in the Arab Spring, which was declared "le printemps des rappeurs" by the French and thought to be a spark in both Syria and Tunisia. Of course, hip-hop's role cannot be quantified in those instances, and in Morocco and Algeria—where hip-hop enjoys a vast audience—there has been no revolution. Al-Jazeera blames the enthusiasm of Western media to lionize hip-hop's role in actual revolutions on their idea that "a taste for hip hop among young Muslims is a sign of moderation, modernity, even 'an embrace of the US.'"
Yet regardless of its impact on the revolutions—something that's impossible to gauge—rap has spread everywhere. The State Department is using hip-hop as a diplomatic concern in an effort to piggyback and control it, yet hip-hop has already been its own diplomat. Notoriously begun in the South Bronx of New York in the mid 1970s, flourishing despite urban blight and extreme disenfranchisement by the government, as it grew as a phenomenon its spirit resonated across the world. Nearly every country across the globe has its own interpretation of hip-hop—Russia, Denmark, and Turkey, as well as Tunisia and Morocco and Algeria—and not just because it conveyed cool cache. The rebellious notion of it, and the fact that it's a really effective way to express political malcontent, translates across cultures and languages (Public Enemy's rise to global popularity in the late 1980s certainly had a hand in it.)
And, quantifiable or no, the Arab Spring was not the first time protests have been inextricable from hip-hop. For instance, in 2006, after the banlieues of Paris erupted in response to rampant anti-immigration and racist sentiment in France, President Sarkozy blamed what he called "ruffians" but some of whom were, in fact, rappers who spoke against him. (Take Alibi Montana and Menace Crew's " Monsieur Sarkozy ," and feel free to read my 2006 article on the topic in SPIN magazine .)
The State Department's actions mirror its efforts during the Cold War, when they dispatched prominent jazz musicians to counter Soviet propaganda about life in America. The Al-Jazeera piece brings up that this program sends Muslim hip-hop artists, in particular, to Muslim-majority countries to discuss their experience in the United States. It also points out the irony in the concept of using hip-hop in foreign diplomacy, when rap has been blamed for America’s worst aspects for so long. But 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 there. Further, there's the institutional existence of "hip-hop cops"—state-organized task forces within police departments created especially to target rap's high-profile stars—which have plagued the genre since the mid-1980s.