Hip-Hop Diplomacy, Part 2

By: Felicia Miyakawa (Austin, TX) //

According to Hisham Aidi, the State Department’s primary reason for using Hip-hop in diplomatic overtures is to prevent Islamic radicalization. In a lengthy essay published in Foreign Affairs, Aidi describes instances in which these efforts have failed, not because immigrants went on to radical acts, but because government officials underestimated the eagerness with which local Hip-hop artists would use their new platforms to address instead what they saw as “real” social ills. So I asked Mark Katz, the director of Next Level, how Aidi’s goal of preventing Islamic radicalization resonates with his own organization’s goals.

It’s “about fostering person-to-person diplomacy through Hip-hop,” Katz replied. “In other words, it’s about allowing people of different nationalities, cultures, races, ethnicities, religions, and classes (and in India, castes) to find a space in which they can learn from each other and develop mutual respect. The participants are already familiar with Hip-hop, so it becomes an automatic connection; Hip-hop is the common ground that allows them to develop strong, positive relationships with the American artists and among each other.” The short answer, then, is this: Next Level diplomatic workers have no particular agenda when they arrive in a new venue, except to foster communication through Hip-hop.

When Next Level began looking for ambassadors, the first qualification it required of its performers was teaching experience. “Teaching” in this context is tricky because it implies cultural hegemony, supreme confidence that we in the United States know more about culture and will share what we know with “underdeveloped” nations. But what happens on the ground in the Next Level experience is much more like conversation than instruction. Mark Katz describes this delicate relationship:

“Teaching is central to this program. The artists are there to teach young people about the art (and history, but to a lesser extent) of Hip-hop. But one of the principles of the Next Level program is that we are engaged in an exchange of knowledge and culture, and we want the students to share as well as learn and the artists to learn as much as they share. We do not strive for fusion or hybridity per se, but rather collaboration among people of different cultures or backgrounds. This might result in a fusion of Hip-hop with, say, Baul singing or Bollywood-style dancing, as happened during our India residency, or it can result in Hip-hop artists from different countries collaborating to create new Hip-hop but not anything obviously hybrid, and this also happened in India.”

Take, for example, the below video from the Kolkata (Calcutta) Next Level residency. It features Next Level teachers and local musicians who specialize in Baul Sangeet, a type of sacred folk song. 1 DJ 2Tone and Ko provide the beat, and Sanjay lays down a Baul rhythm in the background on guitar. Over this musical fusion, Purple (the MC, or Master of Ceremonies; MCs are the verbal, poetic element of Hip-hop culture) and Malabika (the Baul singer) take turns vocalizing in their own fashion. Malabika leads with a melismatic (many musical pitches per syllable of text), microtonal melody, and Purple responds, rapping brief phrases until the spirit moves her to freestyle a verse. Notice how the two women listen to each other and to the beat with their whole bodies, and their faces reflect the joy of their musicking.

BaulBeats at the American Center in Kolkata. Next Level teachers Purple, Ko, and DJ 2Tone create a new fusion of Hip-hop with Baul musicians Malabika and Sanjay.

Before the performance, the musicians had the opportunity to interact informally, learning from each other in the process. The next video shows one of their earliest interactions. Malabika sings and taps a tambourine while Sanjay provides beats on a percussion instrument called a Khol. Purple listens avidly, leaning into the music while pounding and slapping the wall behind in an accompanying rhythm. Malabika explains the meaning of her song, and then Purple freestyles. They take turns, jointly exploring the meaning of life with their improvisations.

Purple and Bauls. MC Purple (center) and Baul musicians Malabika (left) and Sanjay (right) share music with each other.

A similar scene of cultural exchange unfolded in Belgrade. The following clip opens with a vocal improvisation by Serbian soul singer Ivana Vukmirovic, followed by a freestyle verse by Next Level team member Shirlette Ammons. Both perform over a funky groove provided by DJ BMoney and a local rhythm section comprised of guitar, bass, and drums. Other vocalists join in with wordless rhythms, vocables that ride the beat. A clarinet infuses gypsy-tinged jazz melodies into the mix (compare his performance with this performance by Ismail Lumanovski). The band members each take a solo, as producer Diamond D looks on.Post by Next Level.

Collab Fun at Dom Omladine, featuring Shirlette Ammons, DJ BMoney, Diamond D, Ivana Vukmirovic, and others.

These are moments of collaborative exchange, guided by musical improvisation rather than political agenda. “We focus on process rather than product,” Katz says. “It’s more important that the process of collaboration is sincere and respectful and the musicians are creative and generous than for the resulting music to sound a certain way. Or put another way, my goal is not to create an exotic Hip-hop sampler out of this program. That would go against the spirit of open and respectful collaboration we are trying to foster.” 

Entering a new site with no particular agenda means that Next Level leaders must be willing to listen to the enrolled participants and follow their lead. In the next essay, I will look at three PSA videos that resulted from the Next Level residency in Patna, India. The video’s topics—domestic violence, pollution, and civic engagement—reflect the issues important to the students of St. Karen’s High School, where Next Level instructors worked. Their task was to provide tools from Hip-hop culture to help the students better express themselves.

For Discussion

How does the idea of “teaching” play out when it’s part of diplomacy efforts? How would you describe the differences in power structures between teaching in a typical school environment and teaching in a diplomatic environment?

How would you describe the sound of the music that results from the collaborations described above? What adjectives best describe these examples? 

1 To learn more about Baul Gaan, see http://parvathybaul.srijan.asia/?cat=6 and http://tantra-india.com/schedule/the-bauls/.

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