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Music as a tool for diplomacy: from Jazz to Hip-Hop

by on May 15, 2014

From the mid 1950’s to the mid 1960’s the United States Government promoted Jazz tours by famous musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Benny Godman in order to fight communist ideas, at the same time the try to avoid social conflict relating both international conflicts, including the Cuban missile crisis or the war of Vietnam, and domestic issues like racism and class inequalities.[1]

Music Diplomacy 1

The success of the so-called, Jazz Diplomacy, was key when deciding to use a similar method for the war against terror, and Hip Hop Diplomacy was then born. The Hip-Hop Diplomacy was put into place in 2005, soon after the riots in France, the US government was concerned that Europe was unable to integrate minorities and that may pose a security risk. To respond to that new risk the State Department sent rappers, dancers and DJs not only to Europe but also to some countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.[2]

The first of these cultural envoys was Toni Blackman, who does not only promote a set of values, bringing people together being at the core, wherever she goes, more than twenty-eight countries now, but also globally through a personal blog in which she shares her experience on being a ‘Lyrical Ambassador’.[3]

(Video: TED talk by Toni Blackman)

 

On what a Hip-Hop or Lyrical Ambassador does, it includes lectures, workshops and performances, often in collaboration with local artists, to promote the what the sending country has to offer, in this case, the US promotes freedom and the importance of creating cultural bridges. [4]

(Video Toni Blackman in DRC)

 

The origins of the hip-hop diplomacy are in hip-hop itself. During the decade of the 1990’s some artist used their lyrics to promote Muslim extremism, resulting in many young people in the West converting and moving to Middle East Countries. The fact that the Sate Department decided to control hip-hop with hip-hop is, at least ironic, however it has proven quite effective; in the words of former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Hip Hop is America.

Hip-hop has traditionally been linked with social or political protest, the latest example was the Arab Spring, named by the French media “le printemps des rapeurs” – the Spring of the rappers – and it is true that it played a fundamental role in both Tunisia and Syria. The counter argument provided by Al-Jazeera uses countries such as Morocco or Algeria as examples of nations where hip-hop is extremely popular and yet there have no been revolutions.

Some academics argue that rap has spread by itself, and US efforts are more oriented towards control than towards promotion, in any case statistics show how US approval rates grow in areas targeted by hip-hop diplomacy.

In Europe the responses have varied, some forms of hip-hop are highly criticised by government officials and academics that consider them to promote violent and conflict. Some administrations, mainly in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, have decided to ‘combat fire with fire’ and are now funding national rappers who promote a moderate view of Islam. [5]

Music Diplomacy 2

To conclude, music diplomacy evolves with time in music style as well as in targets, nevertheless it does not lose its effectiveness. The question is what is so special about music that has such a positive effect, considering there are very few elements of diplomacy that work as good nowadays as they did in the 1950s. According to Farah Pandith, former special representative of the US government to Muslim communities, music is a lingua franca, in particular for young people; as opposed to other forms of art like literature or pictorial art that are intended for an older population, music is consumed massively by teenagers and young people around the world, explaining why Music Diplomacy keeps providing excellent results,

 

[1] http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1169

[2] http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141190/hisham-aidi/hip-hop-diplomacy

[3] http://toniblackman.wordpress.com/about/

 

[4]http://www.forbes.com/sites/ruthblatt/2014/02/26/hip-hop-puts-america-in-a-good-light-through-the-state-departments-cultural-ambassador-program/

 

[5] http://www.alternet.org/story/153662/hip-hop_diplomacy_how_the_state_department_uses_rap_to_spread_propaganda_abroad

www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/10/2011103091018299924.html

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/americas-hip-hop-foreign-policy/284522/

 

 

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3 Comments
  1. This is a great blog, which links well to the topic of public diplomacy and global communication. Music diplomacy alongside historical events is an engaging and interesting topic, alongside visually appealing illustrations, an interesting TED talk video and is well structured. 🙂

  2. carlacds permalink

    Thank you very much for your comment, I am glad you like it

  3. This is a good post. Its true that Hip Hop has in its its origins political dissidence however there is also much aression these days especially in France. The question I would ask is ‘are American Politicians trying to exploit Hip Hop as a soft power, even though it originated in opposition to the ruling elites and in the main still is?’

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