The Current

Why the U.S. State Department is backing hip-hop diplomacy

The U.S. is sending hip-hop artists abroad to promote peaceful relations between countries. The country's first hip-hop ambassador, Toni Blackman, explains what that looks like.

Toni Blackman uses hip-hop music and culture 'to create better relations with people in other countries'

U.S. hip-hop ambassador Toni Blackman is seen at Île de Gorée, Dakar, Senegal, on Jan. 7, 2015. ( Ina Makosi/Oxford University Press)
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In 2009, hip-hop artist Toni Blackman performed her poem Invisible Woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women — and it was funded by the U.S. State Department. 

Blackman was the U.S.'s first official hip-hop ambassador, tasked with using her music to help spread American values around the world. 

"Hip-hop diplomacy is programming that uses the esthetics of hip hop, the art of hip hop, the culture of hip hop to create better relations with people in other countries," Blackman told The Current's Matt Galloway.

When Blackman first started as a hip-hop ambassador, she worked as a cultural specialist for the State Department. But in 2013, rapper Pierce Freelon and University of North Carolina professor Mark Katz applied for a grant to create Next Level, a diplomacy program dedicated solely to hip-hop art and culture.

Blackman has worked with Next Level by performing, teaching, and collaborating abroad for the purpose of promoting peaceful relations between countries.

"Here is an art and culture and music and lifestyle that is readily identified as coming from the United States and is loved by young people around the world — in contrast to the U.S. government," said Katz, author of the new book Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World.

Since 2014, Next Level has been to 30 countries. Over 100 artists have taken part in the program, ranging from graffiti artists, to dancers and beatmakers. Next Level also hosts artists from abroad to come to the United States. 

Hip-hop diplomacy at work

When Blackman is on tour as a hip-hop ambassador, she teaches workshops, gives lectures, visits schools and shakes hands with local officials, in addition to performing concerts. 

"I always insist on artistic collaborations. I have recorded with artists of every country I have visited." 

As part of Next Level, the U.S. State Department's hip-hop diplomacy program, a group gathers for a cypher in Harare, Zimbabwe, February 2015. (Paul Rockower/Oxford University Press)

Blackman said the themes of every tour are tailored to the particular needs of the community they are visiting. 

"Usually when you are assigned to a specific country there is something the U.S. Embassy is working on or there is something the local community is working on, which the U.S. Embassy is there to support."

Past themes have included HIV awareness, girl power and ending gender violence. Blackman says she performs the songs that she believes best suit the themes of the tour.

Fight the power?

When Blackman was selected to be the first hip-hop ambassador, she said she was criticized by some in the hip-hop community for working with an institution of power. 

"I got accused of being a puppet for Obama's drone systems by one scholar," she recalled.

"It hurt because there were a number of hip-hop journalists, hip-hop activists who chimed in on [a] thread on Facebook, and only one of them defended my integrity and my character. And these were friends."

But Blackman said it took only her first tour to Senegal to understand the program's potential.

"I didn't really know what was at stake. … It got clear at the concert when they told me there would be 500 people, and 2,000 showed up," she said.

After her performance, Blackman was shuffled to a press conference, which had journalists from all major press outlets in Senegal.

"There were like 80 people … They asked me specific questions about specific rappers in relationship to the economy, to agriculture, to political issues and environment."

"I learned that hip hop is powerful, that hip hop can be a tool to impact our world."

Challenging misconceptions

Katz acknowledges that there are limitations to diplomacy in general, and hip-hop ambassadors are not impervious to suspicion from communities they are deployed to. 

"It's hard to say that sending a hip-hop group to Egypt or Tunisia or Algeria or Senegal or any number of other countries is going to make people forget about the confrontations and the Islamophobic policies that the U.S. has had … but on a person to person level, yes, it works," he said.

"It's about planting seeds for stronger relations between people of different countries."

Mark Katz is co-founder of Next Level and author of Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World. (Deus Kajuna/Oxford University Press)

Katz also said the diplomacy program presented an opportunity to "challenge misconceptions" about hip-hop's perceived vulgarity.

"The misogyny, the materialism, the violence, the homophobia that we hear and see in the media is there, and it's real. But it represents just a small part of what hip-hop is about," he said.

Blackman adds that in her experience, hip hop has always been a force for bringing different communities together. 

"I was indeed a hip-hop head for many years in the '90s, and I remember the only place you would see white, black and Latino people in this same space was at a hip-hop concert. They would gather in peace. No conflicts, no fighting, no beef, no anything," she said.

"I think too often, because we look at what's on mainstream radio and TV, we underestimate and undervalue the impact that hip hop has made on culture, on commerce, on the political landscape. Hip hop has made so much impact — and it vibrates around the world."


Written by Sarah Claydon. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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