4 posts from November 2014

November 24, 2014

Hip-Hop Diplomacy, Part 4

Felicia Miyakawa (Austin, TX)

“Girls Be Brave PSA,” produced and performed by the students of St. Karen’s High School in Patna, India with the help of Next Level.


The scene: Two teenage boys—doing their utmost to appear cool—loiter against a concrete wall in Patna, India. Two smiling teenage girls, deeply engaged in their own conversation, walk by the boys, who immediately start whistling, cat calling, and ogling, demanding the girls’ attention. The girls ignore them, but the boys follow them down the street with cries of “Oh, sexy!” and “What’s your name, baby?” When the girls turn around, the boys corner them. One of the girls, a Very Brave Girl, abruptly twists the boy’s arm and chastises him for grabbing her: “Stop it! What do you think this is? Do you think girls are a source of entertainment? Girls are weak? If you think so, you’re wrong! You protect your Mother and sister from this outer world. I am also someone’s daughter. I am also someone’s sister. I am also a woman, like the Goddess whom you worship. Now change your mentality, and move on.” The boys appear thoroughly abashed. One of them repeats what he has just learned to the other. They return to school. Later, the Very Brave Girl discusses the incident with her parents, who express deep concern for her well being and praise her bravery. The video ends with young voices rapping encouragingly: “Be cool, calm, and bold; Behave, be brave; to be better, be the best; break up bitterness; be strong and face the stress.” Against this rap, text fills the screen, one phrase at a time: “Listen to our girls. Support our girls. Be brave.”

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November 17, 2014

Hip-Hop Diplomacy, Part 3

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?

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November 10, 2014

Hip-Hop Diplomacy, Part 2

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.

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November 4, 2014

Hip-Hop Diplomacy, Part 1

Felicia Miyakawa (Austin, TX)

Earlier this year, Hisham Aidi published a book (Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, Pantheon) that drew public attention to a new phenomenon: U.S. cultural diplomacy that uses Hip-hop as a “weapon.” Cultural diplomacy is not new, of course. During the Cold War, for example, famed jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Dave Brubeck traveled to various hot spots in Europe and Asia as part of a U.S. State Department agenda to spread American goodwill. More recently, Wynton Marsalis has informally joined the Jazz Ambassadors bandwagon, touring London and Havana with his Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra in 2010. What’s new in cultural diplomacy is the use of Hip-hop music and culture as the weapon of choice.

Whereas jazz diplomacy during the Cold War was about proving to the Soviets that American culture was viable and healthy, Aidi reveals that Hip-hop diplomacy has an entirely different purpose: to prevent the rise of Islamic militants.

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