Hip Hop. We all know it. And we can’t turn on the radio or go to a party without hearing it. It’s an American artform - born in the Bronx, and audible from coast to coast. But in recent decades, hip hop has gone global. And at this point, almost every country on earth has developed its own style of the genre.
[Global Hip-Hop Montage]
Hip-Hop is a global culture. It's also a multi-billion dollar business fueled by artists all over the world. Still, American artists dominate the genre, and this presents a unique opportunity for cultural diplomacy.
Yeah, it may be surprising, but for years, the US State Department has been capitalizing on the power of hip-hop, sending musical ambassadors abroad to forge connections.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, hip-hop diplomacy, and the enduring legacy of America’s musical soft power.
Toni BLACKMAN: I think the concept behind soft power is that instead of being aggressive or right in someone's face, is that you are more subtle with the idea of relationship building.
This is Toni Blackman. She’s a rapper, an educator, and cultural ambassador. She was the first Hip Hop Diplomat for the U.S. State Department. Today she continues to do official musical diplomacy, with an organization called Next Level, and another that she founded: Rhyme like a Girl.
BLACKMAN: And so, eventually I believe the way it connects to foreign policy is that policy decisions are made not only based upon the policy itself, but rooted in relationships, right? It's very easy for musicians and artists to be able to create a dialogue, and that dialogue then spreads out, in terms of peoples' attitudes, and impressions, and their view, their perspective on America.
For more than a hundred years, American music and pop culture have been remarkably popular abroad. I mean think about it, Americans created blues, jazz, rock and roll, motown, R&B, and now hip-hop. And with each of these waves, musicians abroad were inspired to create their own versions. All along, the State Department has attempted to capitalize on this popularity, and consolidate this musical soft power via diplomatic programs that sponsored concerts and cultural exchanges around the world.
BLACKMAN: It’s about advancing the interest of the country, at the end of the day. But, it's also about improving the relationships. There's a humanitarian aspect to the work. And, it's one of the reasons why I admire foreign service workers so much. The end goal really is about influence. It is about power, but it's also about culture, and it's about connection and community. And promoting peace.
Gabrielle SIERRA: You have the coolest job that maybe I've ever heard in the whole world, so I can't wait to dive into it. But before we do, how would you define hip-hop?
BLACKMAN: I would define hip-hop as a music and art culture. A lot of time, when people use the term hip-hop they think about rap. But, rap is only one small part of what hip-hop music and culture is. There is the rap, there is the DJing, there is dance, there is the visual art. Not only graffiti writing, but in terms of mural making. And, fashion design. Fashion is a big part of what hip-hop culture has given birth to. There is vocal percussion, better known as beatboxing and making music with your mouth. And so, when people teach hip-hop 101 they say, "There are four core elements of hip-hop. Rap, dance, DJing, and graffiti." But, now it's expanded over the years and there's a whole movement globally of hip-hop heads, of artists who are committed to doing activism around climate change and spiritual and mental health.
Mark KATZ: Hip hop is a cultural form that originated in the United States but is strongly connected with African-American and African diasporic cultures around the world and grew up in the 1970s and is about to celebrate its 50th birthday if you take the usual birth date of August 11th, 1973, as its official birthday.
This is Mark Katz, he is an author and a professor of music at the University of North Carolina. He’s the founder of Next Level, and has worked closely with Toni on musical diplomacy for years.
SIERRA: What's that day?
KATZ: So that was the day that is considered the first hip hop party that was thrown by DJ Kool Herc in an apartment building in the south Bronx. And although it wasn't called hip hop at the time, we look back at that moment as an event that started what hip hop became.
SIERRA: Can you tell me a little bit about what you do?
KATZ: Since 2013, I have been associated with what I consider to be a very important cultural diplomacy program run out of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. And the program is called Next Level, and it sends US hip hop artists around the world to make people-to-people connections with citizens of other countries, to promote a more positive image of the US, to create mutual understanding. And I have had the pleasure and privilege of traveling to dozens of countries around the world with this program and being able to see up close how music brings people together who might otherwise have no real connections.
Hip-hop’s global popularity didn’t just spring up overnight. It was a long road. So here’s a quick history for those who need it:
In 1979, The Sugar Hill Gang released Rappers Delight, the first hip hop single to chart in the Top 40.
In the 1980s, hip hop artists like LL Cool J, Salt N Peppa, Rakim and Public Enemy took the genre to new heights. In 1986, Run DMC released the first platinum hip hop album, gaining crossover appeal through a collaboration with Aerosmith.
By the 1990s, hip hop gained notoriety for perceived misogyny and violence in rap lyrics. At the same time, a series of groundbreaking rappers rose to global prominence. Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG both released albums that sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, that’s a platinum record ten times over. At the end of the decade, Lauryn Hill became the first hip hop artist to receive a Grammy for Album of the year.
By the early 2000s, Eminem and Outkast had also released diamond records, and it was becoming commonplace to hear these artists celebrated on radio stations around the world. As love for the genre grew, hip hop scenes in places like France, the UK, and many parts of Africa were maturing in their own right, setting the groundwork for global hip hop as we know it today.
Last year hip hop and R&B recordings were streamed more than 290 billion times worldwide.
BLACKMAN: I've been to one city in the world on planet Earth where they didn't know who Tupac was. They didn't know the references. That was on the island of Aceh in Indonesia. It was fascinating to me because that was the only time in my life where I had that occurrence. But, it's big. And it's expressed in different ways, in different cultures. But, the culture is very much alive around the world.
SIERRA: Do you think that there are themes in hip hop that make it particularly relatable to so many different people worldwide?
KATZ: There are a lot of different themes that connect with people around the world who may have never been to the US or speak English or have any particular connection to American culture. And that’s because hip hop on the global stage connects with very deeply held human drives, the drive to express oneself, the drive to celebrate one's joys and wins and victories, the drive to protest injustice, and simply the drive to show what it means to be a human living in the world. And hip hop does that really well. It does that because anyone can access hip hop, anyone who has a voice and a body can create hip hop, and because it is connected to a community of people in the US who had to fight for recognition to get their voice heard and creates a sense of solidarity among people around the world who find themselves in similarly oppressed situations.
Across borders, people have coalesced around hip hop for decades. One example was in 1991, Serbians living under the Milošević regime, connected to the lyrics of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, it was broadcast on repeat when traditional news was banned.
KATZ: But it's particularly powerful for people who don't have a voice that is recognized outside of their immediate community or people whose voices have been silenced or whose communities have been marginalized or oppressed. So that's the real connection that people find that they're able to express their way of life. And not simply as protest, hip hop is often talked about as protest music. And that is true, but that's not all it is. It's also party music. It's also music that recognizes one's humanity and celebrates just being alive.
The end result of this is that hundreds of millions of people worldwide love hip hop. And while we don’t usually talk about concepts like love on this show, that kind of passion is an important basis for soft power. It’s an attachment that goes deep into many people’s identities, and it opens up a door for dialogue, and for nuanced perceptions about what the United States means.
What’s interesting about this is that it has happened many times before. American music has a knack for capturing the world’s heart - and as a result, the United States government has long been in the business of using music to promote its interests around the globe.
Starting in 1956, the US State Dept. sent world famous musicians like Dizzy Gilepse, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Elington abroad as jazz ambassadors.
Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr: We’re going to shift the emphasis to jazz and send these artists over where they can reach the masses of the people in Asia and Africa and one of the people who we’re planning to use is my friend Dizzy Gillespie.
Reporter: What do you think about that, Dizzy?
Dizzy Gillespie: The weapon that we will use is the cool one.
SIERRA: Can you tell me a bit of the history of US music abroad and how it's intersected with geopolitics and diplomacy?
KATZ: Cultural diplomacy and in particular musical diplomacy has always been most strongly backed and most frequently deployed in times of threats to the US. That at the height of those threats was also the height of the State Department's deployment of music and culture more generally abroad as a way of using soft power. So in the '30s, the State Department sent the composer Aaron Copland to South America to facilitate the good neighbor policy, to make friends with South American countries so that they wouldn't be taken over by fascists. And of course, that's a simplification, but basically that's what it was. And then during the '50s after World War II during the cold war, it was about pushing back against communism. And during that time, particularly the cold war period, was when American popular music came to be the primary medium of musical diplomacy.
Willis Conover: Hello Louis Armstrong, the name which means America to more people than anyone else I can think of, over a long period of time. What can you say about Louis, expect Louis take it.
Louis Armstrong: Well…whatcha say gizzard [laughter] ah my man!
KATZ: Before that it was actually more classical music. But starting in the '50s, a lot of jazz was sent around the world as a way of creating goodwill and doing a couple of things. One was demonstrating that the US actually had culture and pushing back against the Soviet Union, which has a long history of operas, ballet, symphonies and so on, and showing a American born art form which was jazz, but also in using jazz artists, many of whom are African-American, as a way of demonstrating the freedom that the US likes to say it has and gives all of its citizens.
And the crowds loved it.
[1965, Hungarian crowd cheers for Louis Armstrong]
That crowd, by the way, was cheering Louis Armstrong in Budapest, Hungary, a country under Soviet sway where the opportunity to see a western star was very rare indeed.
All around the world, jazz had come to symbolize ideas of American freedom and its popularity made Soviet leaders nervous. During this time, radio hosts like Willis Conover of Voice of America would transmit jazz across the iron curtain via shortwave technology. Picture young, jazz-loving soviets tinkering with their radio dials in private, hoping to catch a few minutes of forbidden music.
SIERRA: It seems important to me that this music has been celebrated by the world, even used as a metaphor, as you say, for American freedom, while these Black Americans were, are, struggling for justice and recognition in their home country. So what thoughts do you have about that dynamic?
KATZ: Well, that has always been a really complex dynamic, one that African-Americans have been dealing with in many aspects of life, representing their country but not feeling represented by them. So soldiers going off to war, civil servants, teachers, and many other walks of life you can say the same thing. But in terms of music, this was very public because these tours were covered by the media around the world. And so you have these juxtapositions of Emmett Till being lynched and famous black jazz artists performing around the world. You had all these really stark juxtapositions of what was touted as freedom when these musicians were abroad, but then really horrific examples of racism and oppression at home. So this was something that the artist had to navigate. They had to decide whether they felt it was appropriate for them personally to represent their country given their lived experience, whether it worked for them to accept regardless of the oppression that they might have faced.
In fact, in 1962 Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck released a song that expressed their conflicted feelings about representing the U.S. abroad.
Louis Armstrong: Who's the real ambassador? Certain facts we can ignore; In my humble way, I'm the USA! Though I represent the government, the government don't represent some policies I'm for!
KATZ: It's a complex calculus that I see still happening today with hip hop artists who have to ask themselves, do I want to be associated with the government given how I feel the government has treated my community? And if so, why would I do that?
BLACKMAN: While they were representing America, they also challenged America, in that, "I'm good enough to represent you, but I'm not good enough to walk through the front door as a Black person." Like, those questions were raised. And then, they were able to see the world themselves and to see how the world embraced jazz music and jazz culture, another American export. But, that jazz diplomacy opened the door for hip-hop diplomacy because there was a point where the younger generations weren't tuning into jazz, they weren't tuning into Americana and bluegrass, but they were listening to hip-hop.
SIERRA: I'd love to ask you a little bit more about what you mentioned with the protest aspect of hip hop. Have you observed that playing out in interesting ways abroad? You know, is there an interesting connection between protest rap abroad and the outrage and oppression that's part of the DNA of American hip hop?
KATZ: There is a strong connection between hip hop and protest, and that's in part because of the mythos that surrounds the birth of hip hop. Hip hop emerged in the US out of young people, from communities of color, largely people who had traditionally been oppressed within their own country. And so there is a knowledge not only that hip hop is American but that it was born in a way as a form of protest and of celebrating life in difficult circumstances.
Songs by NWA and Public Enemy have consistently been used in global protest movements since they emerged in the 1980s.
Public Enemy: Fight the power, fight the power, fight the power.
And During the Arab Spring, an artist named Hamada Ben Amor used rap to criticize the Tunisian government. The song he wrote went viral, and became an anthem for the movement. During this era, artists like Omar Offendum rapped in both Arabic and English to bring the world’s attention to the revolution.
Omar Offendum: Freedom isn't given by oppressors, it's demanded by oppressed, freedom lovers, freedom fighters, free to gather and protest, for their God-given rights, for the freedom of the press, we know freedom is the answer, the only question is… who’s next?
Then, fast forward to 2020, Kendrick Lamar’s track “Alright” and Childish Gambino’s “This is America” became synonymous with the global 2020 Black Lives Matter marches.
Childish Gambino: This is America. Don't catch you slippin' now. Don't catch you slippin' now.
And in recent months, some of Russia’s most prominent rappers have been releasing tracks that are viscerally critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In one of these songs, star rapper Morgenshtern sampled a real-life recording of a Ukrainian mother telling her son that she was deciding whether to run or seek shelter from the bombings.
Palagin’s mother (Russian): Сынулечка, ну да, у нас тут, прям у нас, утром и крышу чуть не снесло Мы думали куда-то тикать, а потом вернулись на место Ну вот щас сидим, и в погребе бомбоубежище себе приготовили Так что, ну котик, не волнуйся.
Palagin’s mother (English): My dear son, well yes, here, right here, in the morning the roof was almost blown away, we thought about running somewhere then we returned to our place. Well, right now we are sitting in the cellar, we prepared a bomb shelter for ourselves. So, well, oh baby, don't worry.
SIERRA: How do you think that love for hip-hop interacts with people's thoughts about the United States abroad?
KATZ: Loving hip hop doesn't automatically mean you love the US. There is no direct connection. You can love American culture and hate the US government. You can love Hollywood movies and plot the destruction of America. All of those things are simultaneously possible. Where the connection and the real power of hip hop diplomacy is is in the people-to-people connection.
BLACKMAN: I think it provides a calming effect, in terms of the way people might feel about certain politics. And then, there's a softening that occurs because then you got hip-hop. For many it's a religion. It is a sport. It is a practice. It is a part of their essence and who they are. Hip-hop heads don't play about the culture. So, I think it does influence them in ways that allow the government to be strategic, to make strategic moves, that allows for younger people, particularly new generations, to not turn against the country, to have more balanced critiques. I think that's one of the things that hip-hop does, and the hip-hop diplomacy does, is it creates room for a balanced critique, particularly if people have engaged directly with hip-hop artists. If they've engaged with the actual artists who they were touching and talking to, and looking in the eye, then that does create a different sort of energy and vibration, where there's a separation from the people and the government, and they start to understand that the American people aren't necessarily in sync with the government at all time. And I think that's actually a good thing.
Global opinion surveys continue to show highly positive attitudes toward US exports like music, movies, and popular culture. By contrast, the US is perceived far more negatively when it comes to things like healthcare and the state of its democracy.
Being a global leader in music can seem like a small victory - but it’s one that goes deep. When non-Americans hear hip hop - much of which is critical of American life and society - they are hearing evidence of a government that allows itself to be criticized.
As experts on public diplomacy have noted, that gives the United States an important type of credibility, especially in contrast to authoritarian countries like Russia and China. Soft power is power through attraction, and on that front, hip hop has given the U.S. a global edge.
KATZ: What I would love for this episode to do is to reach people who are skeptical of hip hop period but also skeptical of hip hop as a platform for conducting diplomacy. I once spoke with a very liberal Democratic Senator and told him about Next Level and he scoffed. He said, "Why would we send hip hop abroad?" And what I want to say is because it works. If you care about creating goodwill around the world, if you care about connecting with communities that traditionally don't love the US and traditionally hate US foreign policy, then you would be smart to send hip hop artists abroad.
Before we end, I would like to share an experience that I’ve had. So, I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot and one thing that’s been amazing to me, is the amount of people who light up when I specifically say that I am from Brooklyn, New York. That has a lot to do with hip hop. I have had Biggie, Jay-Z and Lil’ Kim lyrics sung to me on more than one occasion, and even had a few DJ’s respond by throwing on some classic hip hop hits.
The deep global love for American culture is real, and it has been for a long time. In previous generations it might have been the Beach Boys, or Smokey Robinson that provoked that special moment. Our culture and especially our music connects us to people around the world who otherwise might feel no connection at all. And right now, hip hop is one of the key forms carrying on that tradition. And that’s something that deserves our recognition.
SIERRA: Can you tell us just one story about your travels as a hip hop diplomat?
BLACKMAN: In Senegal, people warned me to be careful because it was, "A Muslim country. And the men, be careful as a woman there. You're going to be treated by the older... Especially the older people." I was at the National School of The Arts here in Dakar, and I was speaking. After I finished, there were two older men in the corner dressed in traditional garb, and they called over my translator. And they stood there and one of them, he virtually prayed over me. Prayed over me. The other one said to the translator, "Tell her thank you. Thank you for coming home as a descendant. Thank you for representing and bringing intelligence to this rap stuff. And, you keep doing what you're doing because what you're doing is important and people need to know the positive side of the music and the culture." And I cried. It was just so beautiful. And it was the opposite of the warnings. It was the complete opposite of what I was warned about.
SIERRA: My last question for you is, the show is called Why It Matters, we consistently argue that things far away matter to you at home, things at home matter to people far away, whether or not we recognize it. So, in that vein, why does hip-hop matter?
BLACKMAN: Hip-hop matters because it is art, it is creativity, it is culture, it is connection, it is community. It is a way for us people around the world, no matter what language we speak, no matter our religion, our race, it is a way for us to be connected, to be united. And, if there's ever been a time in our history when we need to be more on the same page, it is now.
Hi everyone! So just a heads up. This is our last episode this season, we thought we’d go out with a banger, get it, music joke. Anyway we will be back with more stories in the fall.
Until then, definitely check out our show notes page, because we have some really special treats, including a list of international hip hop artists that have worked with Toni! So definitely go check it out!
Special thanks to all the wonderful artists that we sampled in this episode. And we’d also like to thank PBS whose documentary Jazz Ambassadors was greatly greatly helpful. And we encourage you to check that out too.
Have a question or some feedback? Just feel like saying hi? Send us an email at [email protected].
Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. And if you are a fan, we’d love it if you could leave us a review. Ideally a good one, the more stars the better. We say this a lot but it really does help us get noticed.
Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is produced by Asher Ross and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our associate podcast producer. And this semester’s intern was Roshni Rangwani.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Claire Felter.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Additional thanks go to Richard Haass, Jeff Reinke, and our co-creator Jeremy Sherlick.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!
Every country has a hip-hop scene, and, around the world, millions of people cite hip-hop not just as a passion but an identity. The hip-hop movement can be traced back to New York City in the 1970s, and it remains a font for goodwill toward the United States, even as perceptions abroad of U.S. standing have declined in recent years. Today, music and foreign policy experts alike acknowledge that hip-hop can make inroads where other soft-power tools cannot.
From Mark Katz
“Hip-Hop World Diplomacy with Mark Katz,” Hip-Hop Can Save America
“Episode 14: Mark Katz On Music And Cultural Diplomacy,” The Institute Podcast
From Toni Blackman
Hisham Aidi, “Hip-Hop Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs
Adam Bradley, “In this U.S. government program, diplomacy has a hip-hop beat,” Washington Post
Billy Perrigo, “How the U.S. Used Jazz as a Cold War Secret Weapon,” TIME
Danny Lewis, “When Rock Was Banned in the Soviet Union, Teens Took to Bootlegged Recordings on X-Rays,” Smithsonian Magazine
Lara Jakes, “‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ With a Diplomat’s Road Trip Music,” New York Times
Marie Zawisza, “How music is the real language of political diplomacy,” The Guardian
Watch and Listen
“Brubeck at 100: Jazz Ambassadors & Cultural Diplomacy,” Jazz Congress Podcast
“Iraqi Dancers in US on First Hip Hop Diplomacy Tour,” Voice of America
Toni Blackman's Hip-Hop Artists to Know
Alesh (Democratic Republic of Congo)
Ashs The Best (Senegal)
Bidew Bou Bess (Senegal)
EJ Von Lyrik (South Africa/Netherlands)
Fid Q (Tanzania)
Jah Baba (Benin)
MC Yallah (Uganda)
Meta & the Cornerstones (Senegal)
Ngaaka Blinde (Senegal)
Noel Grass (Kenya)
Oumy Gueye (Senegal)
Rema Namakula (Uganda)
Shadow Barazizo (Democratic Republic of Congo)
Shay Mane (France)
Stogie T (South Africa)
Valerie Belingha (Cameroon/France)
Zubz the Last Letta (Zimbabwe)
Mark Katz's Hip-Hop Artists to Know
Ami Yerewolo (Mali)
Nash MC (Tanzania)
Yas Werneck (Brazil)