Hip-Hop Diplomacy, Part 3

By: Felicia Miyakawa (Austin, TX) //

The video above captures part of a “cypher,” an improvised dance where participants show off their best moves while onlookers beatbox in a circle around them. Here dancer Amirah Sackett demonstrates “popping,” a type of dance closely associated with Hip-hop culture, popularized by dancers like Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon in the 1980s and kept alive by dance crews around the world ever since. Cyphers are common in urban spaces, but this particular cypher took place in the lobby of the U.S. Department of State, an unexpected location for a Hip-hop activity by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, this was a kick-off event for a larger project spearheaded by Professor Mark Katz, who stands opposite the camera in the video, maintaining the dance groove by clapping with the rest of the crew, looking every bit the professor in charge in his gray, v-necked, cardigan sweater. But this video begs the question: how did “popping” get to the lobby of the State Department?

In March 2013, the Bureau of Educational and Creative Affairs (a division of the State Department) began offering project grants through its Creative Arts Exchanges Program. One such project was intended from the start to be Hip-hop specific. According to the grant proposal guidelines, The Arts in Collaboration would “develop and administer an international exchange program in hip hop and urban arts that incorporates artistic collaboration, professional development and outreach to youth to explore and address conflict resolution strategies. This project will incorporate multi-disciplinary hip hop collaborations to provide innovative opportunities to engage youth and underserved communities overseas.” Funding would allow 15 to 20 artists to spend four to six weeks on location in over half a dozen countries. (The residencies have since been trimmed to two to three weeks to accommodate Embassy schedules and rising travel costs.)

Katz—a musicologist and the newly appointed director of the University of North Carolina’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities—had already undertaken similar work with MC Pierce Freelon and DJ Apple Juice Kid (Stephen Levitin) at North Carolina and decided to apply for the grant. Katz and Apple Juice Kid (and later Freelon) taught a music production class at UNC, and as the music moved out of the classroom and into the Chapel Hill community, the project took on new life as Beat Making Lab. Freelon and Apple Juice Kid raised funds and took their beat-making equipment abroad, working with local organizations to promote artistic and cultural exchange. To date, they have visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, Panama, Senegal, Fiji, and Ethiopia. Their adventures attracted the attention of PBS, which now hosts webisodes that chronicle their travels. Freelon and Apple Juice Kid also document their work in video episodes on their website. https://www.youtube.com/embed/WoxHFMrX-EQ

“Diablos,” a music video filmed in Portobelo, Panama, inspired by the Festival de los Diablos y Congos. The beat and lyrics are by students who worked with DJ Apple Juice Kid and MC Pierce Freelon of Beat Making Lab; the featured MCs also participated in the Lab.

Next Level

The State Department awarded Katz the Arts in Collaboration grant in September 2013. Katz then began assembling the team of artists that would carry out the project around the globe. The new initiative, Next Level, has already (by late September 2014) traveled to India, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, and will work in Bangladesh, Senegal, and Zimbabwe during its two-year term; Katz will then have the opportunity to re-apply for the grant, and new countries would likely join the itinerary.

“Those particular countries were chosen,” Katz explains, “because they had staff who expressed an interest in hosting Next Level and because a cultural diplomacy program in those countries was seen in some way to reinforce or align with State Department interests or initiatives.” The embassy in Belgrade, for example, saw in Hip-hop the potential to promote entrepreneurship in the former Communist nation. Theoretically, entrepreneurship improves economic (and by extension, political) stability, an important step for Serbia as it waits to become part of the European Union.

Katz himself supervised the selections of not only the individual performers but also the teams for targeted deployment. With the help of respected Hip-hop artists and community leaders (such as Christie Z-Pabon1), Katz sifted through 150 applications to fill 25 positions and organize teams for each country. Though he took each applicant’s geographic preference into account, Katz paid particular attention to the diversity of each team: “I made sure that each group had at least one woman, and I wanted to create a balance in each group between veteran artists and less experienced ones.”

The program’s diversity reflects both Katz’s own politics and the State Department’s requirements. Whereas mainstream media would have us believe that rap music (and by extension Hip-hop culture) is largely the domain of young, African American men (with MCs like Iggy Azalea, Eminem, and Nicki Minaj as the exceptions that prove the rule), Hip-hop has been diverse since it first flowered in the South Bronx. Katz, who has studied and written about Hip-hop for over 15 years and has established close working relationships with Hip-hop artists around the country, is certainly aware of what is at stake when scholars and journalists misrepresent who “owns” and “belongs to” Hip-hop. In choosing his artists, he must be aware not only of how they represent diversity within Hip-hop, but also how the artists represent the diversity of the United States as they travel: “[I] made sure that there was at least one female artist going to each of the countries. And when one very well qualified applicant described herself as a radical queer feminist I knew I wanted her to be in the program. Next Level is not only representing the U.S., it’s representing Hip-hop culture, and I wanted to represent Hip-hop in all of its glorious diversity.” His efforts resulted in a group of fifteen men and ten women between the ages of 27 and 49. Twelve of the artists are African American; six are white; five are Latino/a; and two are Asian American. Diversity, however, extends beyond gender, age, and ethnicity. Next Level artists hail from all over the United States and have a wide rage of formal educational backgrounds (although Katz was clear that all of the artists are experienced music educators). The artists identify with at least three major religions— Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—and their experiences as Americans vary widely: “Some grew up in poverty, several are first- or second-generation Americans, many speak multiple languages, and some openly identify as queer.”

By Hip-hop standards, women are over-represented in this group, as Katz freely admitted. And though few artists in the Hip-hop community identify as “radical queer feminists,” each artist chosen for this program has special gifts to share. Ansley Jones (a.k.a. Jukeboxx), for example, expressed a desire to help victims of sexual violence. Katz assigned her to India, where local papers (such as Kolkata’s The Statesman) have identified her as a feminist, a bold designation given recent news from India about victims of rape. (See, for example, this NPR story about a village leader’s ordering the rape of a 14-year-old girl as punishment for an infraction her brother committed.) With artists such as Jukeboxx on the ground, Next Level can work with local populations on issue pertinent to particular communities, as I will explore in a later blog. And the diversity these teams bring to each residency opens up spaces for artists and students to listen to each other, learn, and create. 

For Discussion

Why is diversity an important issue to consider in diplomacy initiatives? How might a homogeneous group of representatives make a different impression in other countries?

Given the goals Mark Katz describes for the program, do you think Hip-hop is an appropriate tool for diplomacy? Why or why not?

1 Christie Z-Pabon is a community organizer, promoter, and CEO of DMC USA, which hosts major DJ battles across the country. She and her husband, Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, organize park jams in Crotona Park (in the South Bronx) every summer that bring together community members and legendary DJs. Fabel happens to be one of the delegates to the second stop on Next Level’s tour: Belgrade.

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