Hip Hop Takes on Diplomatic Role with State Department
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Unidentified Man: One of America's most popular emissaries gets a warm reception as he arrives in the troubled Congo on a State Department sponsored goodwill mission. Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong arrives in truly royal style.
TONY COX, host:
Sounds from a 1960 newsreel. Louis Armstrong's tour of the Congo is one of the earliest examples of efforts by the State Department to spread the American ideals of freedom and democracy through the arts, mainly jazz.
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Unidentified Man: Louis' solid swinging outraged Radio Moscow, which blasted Armstrong's visit as a diversionary technique, a left-handed tribute to a mellow cat the Congolese find right on the beam.
COX: Today, the State Department's goodwill tours are alive and well, only now another genre's been added to the mix.
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In the State Department's 2007-2008 Rhythm Road Tours, hip-hop will play a major role. Toni Blackman was the very first rapper to tour under the State Department banner. NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with Toni about her experience. They were joined by State Department Cultural Affairs Director Alina Romanowski.
Ms. ALINA ROMANOWSKI (Deputy Assistant Secretary, State for Educational and Cultural Affairs): It's been a very effective way to reach out to younger populations. The performances that we've done all around the world with the hip-hop groups in almost every single case, you know, we've had to turn away people because they've been so wildly popular. And the workshops and the seminars that many of our hip-hop groups have done while they are on tour have also been wildly popular and sort of the proof's in the pudding here.
CHIDEYA: Toni, in some ways this sounds like a dream gig. We're going to send you around the world to do what you already love to do. First of all, tell me how you would describe your music.
Ms. TONI BLACKMAN (Musician): I think my music is really in the vein of a Lauryn Hill, of a Mos Def, of a Talib Kweli, of the Roots, of artists who are part of hip-hop culture and really committed not only to being on stage and being in the limelight but really committed to the art form and to the tradition of the oral tradition.
CHIDEYA: Where did you first go?
Ms. BLACKMAN: I first went to Senegal, to Dakar, and that was my very first stop. It was almost like a hip-hop heaven sort of moment for me and really a full circle, because hip-hop is so powerful and so strong in Senegal.
CHIDEYA: And so you've been to West Africa, southern Africa. Where else have you been?
Ms. BLACKMAN: Southeast Asia. Last year, 2006, Jazz at Lincoln Center of the program and had an opportunity to tour. This time I got to take my band and we went to Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines.
CHIDEYA: Were you ever concerned - there has been some unrest in Indonesia, bombings related to the global terrorism issues. Were you ever afraid?
Ms. BLACKMAN: Yeah. It was a major growth moment for me as an artist because, you know, I'm committed to my mission of using hip-hop to - as a tool for social change and using hip-hop as a way to spread information, correct information about the music and the culture and about me as an American and me as a black American woman, and going to Indonesia was an intense experience.
It was the first time I've ever gone out and had to deal with the issue of my security and safety. It was quite frightening for me, and slightly emotionally traumatic because it was my first experience having to deal with having to have so much security, you know, with the bulletproof vans and the bodyguards, the police that guide you to the venue sort of thing.
CHIDEYA: How did the crowds react, though, once you got there?
Ms. BLACKMAN: That's the other thing. Once you get there, the crowd goes crazy and the crowd participates. And you see the young people and their faces, like in the Philippines, and it was just like they give you so much love. And I believe that hip-hop can be used as a tool to connect us, and the emotional connection that we established in just a day or just two days was just phenomenal.
CHIDEYA: Alina, what about the issue of security? You are sending artists all around the world. Do you specifically avoid hot spots or do you think that it's important to send American artists into places where there may be some security issues?
Ms. ROMANOWSKI: You know, Toni described exactly the kind of security environment she was in in Indonesia, which shows that, you know, we take it very seriously and we do provide the support that we think is necessary in the case of Indonesia. Things may be different in different countries, so we do adjust it.
But we do take that very seriously and if there's any reason why we feel that it would not be an environment where we would want to put, you know, our musicians in there, then we make those kinds of decisions. But we do take it extremely seriously as we look at how we program, you know, our artists.
CHIDEYA: You look at the history of your program, the U.S. sent out jazz artists as emissaries in the 1950s, when there were still a lot of overt racial tensions in America, when jazz in some cases was associated with debauchery.
Now you have hip-hop that the government is looking to as a venue for cultural connection, also has some bad associations. Was it controversial for you to take music that has many different forms but some of them are fairly harsh and fairly controversial and say we're going to do this.
Ms. ROMANOWSKI: That is one of the reasons, frankly, we do do these programs and we make sure that they show and they represent the broad range of that music because it's not just about the stereotypes out there. We want to say hey, wait a minute, there's a lot of other stuff going on and here are some really good examples of it.
CHIDEYA: Toni, what about free speech? Do you feel that you have the ability if you choose to be critical of the U.S. government as you're going on a State Department tour? Does that issue come up for you? Do you worry about being perceived as someone who is only a spokesperson and not a truly free artist?
Ms. BLACKMAN: You know, now I think I'm an artist and I'm an activist, and I've always been. And so for me to be invited to be a part of the program is almost an affirmation. And it was - when I was in Senegal, they had a press conference but I didn't know it was going to be a national press conference. Every piece of media showed up in Dakar at this cultural center, (French spoken).
And it was shocking for me to see such a huge corps of the press and just me, this one hip-hop artist from the States, sitting there, and they started to ask me these intense questions. What is your generation going to do to make sure that hip-hop continues to grow and elevate and expand? What is your responsibility as a woman of African descent to the continent of Africa? What are you going to do about the negative message Snoop Dogg is sending out?
And, you know, it was almost insulting that they put all that responsibility on me. And it was very difficult for me not to turn into that little black girl from the Bay Area and roll my neck and say, look, I'm a poet.
I spin rhymes, I write rap, why are you asking me this? But Steven Taylor(ph), the cultural attaché who was there in Dakar. We got into the car when were leaving this press conference and he was - and I was really, like, upset. And he said, you know, Toni, this is what the work is really about.
And if you're going to be about cultural affairs and cultural diplomacy and you're going to be about traveling around the world, you represent something much larger than yourself. And it put in perspective for me a time, timing and space and tact and understanding the political process and how I could be most effective in my lifetime.
It hasn't been easy. Yes, I've had to learn how to know when to speak and what to say, when to say it. But that's a part of growing up.
CHIDEYA: Well, on that note I will leave it there because there are some other folks who are going to follow behind you. However, we don't know who they are yet because there are audition applications for the 2007-2008 Rhythm Road Tours due on January 30th.
And I want to thank you both for joining us and good luck to all the folks who applied for this.
Ms. ROMANOWSKI: Pleasure talking.
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COX: That was Alina Romanowski, the State Department's cultural affairs director, along with Toni Blackman who was part of the State Department's Rhythm Road Tour. They spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.
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COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio consortium.
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I'm Tony Cox. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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