Google “hip hop” and “diplomacy” and what images come up? Black men wearing gold chains and baggy clothes, holding microphones. White men in suits shaking hands, flanked by flags. The contrast is stark: informal/formal, loud/quiet, the resistance/the establishment, black/white. These images reflect common perceptions but also misconceptions about diplomacy and hip hop. Both are, in fact, more complex and diverse than most people realize.
But that’s not why I juxtapose these seemingly opposed terms. I do it because hip-hop diplomacy is an actual thing. Since 2001, the United States Department of State has been sending American hip hop artists abroad, and inviting international artists to the U.S., as cultural envoys. These envoys perform, teach, and collaborate for the purpose of promoting understanding, respect, and peaceful relations across cultures, languages, and national boundaries. Why would the State Department hire rappers or DJs or beatboxers? Why would hip hop artists work for the federal government? The partnership is both unlikely and fraught, but at the same time has proven to be powerful, effective, and for those who participate in these programs, often life-changing. For five years I directed the hip hop diplomacy program, Next Level; I have witnessed these life-changing moments first-hand in more than two dozen countries.
Hip hop’s appeal to the State Department is actually easy to understand. It comes down to this. Hip hop is globally beloved; the United States government is not. And hip hop is well known to be the product of young, marginalized Americans of color who insisted on being heard and seen and who reveled in their survival. As the embodiment of struggle and celebration, hip hop resonates deeply with young people around the world. It’s the perfect vehicle for promoting a more nuanced and positive image of the United States and for connecting with populations that our embassies rarely engage. For hip hop artists, this work provides rare, paid opportunities to travel the world as artists, to connect and collaborate with people who face similar challenges, to represent their country as they want it to be seen, and to witness the amazing power of their art to tear down the walls that separate us.
Returning from a performance with local youth in Guatemala City, the American dancer Bboy Kareem marveled, “I’ve never been a part of something as hip hop as this.” It felt more positive than many of the international competitions he attended, purer than the commercial side of hip hop that most people only know. For Moroccan rapper Soultana, hip hop is “a source of life. It’s a way of thinking, it’s a way of talking to people.” She praised my government for inviting her to the United States, for promoting her career when her own government would not. “For me, it’s so big. It’s not just support, it’s an honor.” In my interviews with more than 100 artists across the world, similar themes of fulfilment and empowerment come up over and again.
To be sure, hip hop diplomacy has its challenges and risks. As with any form of diplomacy, it can sow mistrust, exploit, and offend. But when executed thoughtfully and sensitively, when our artists show that Americans can treat others with respect and humility rather than arrogance, bluster, and intolerance, when they use art to transform conflict into understanding and pain into beauty, this unlikely form of diplomacy has an incredible power to heal and unite.