In Arendt’s article this week about the value of cultural diplomats, he talks about the special set of tools these diplomats have when arranging cultural programming and knowing exactly what kind of people, artists, students, etc… to engage to make the most impact. Nick Cull’s Huffington Post article focuses on three aspects of resurgent cultural diplomacy (especially through music): “the prestige gift”, “cultural information”, and “dialogue and collaboration”.
I thought of these articles when reading this interview with Toni Blackman, the State Department’s first “hip hop ambassador”: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ruthblatt/2014/02/26/hip-hop-puts-america-in-a-good-light-through-the-state-departments-cultural-ambassador-program/
Since 2001, Blackman has been on assignment doing workshops, lectures, teaching master classes, performing concerts and collaborating and recording with local artists. In this way, her function fulfills all three of Cull’s criteria for successful cultural diplomacy: it can be considered both “a prestige gift” and “cultural information”, as it brings light to one of the United States’ best known vernacular music traditions, and also, through her work with local hip-hop artists, it provides opportunity for “dialogue and collaboration.”
Hip-hop is uniquely positioned to be successful in public diplomacy efforts since, as Blackman explains, it is “accessible. You can create hip hop with a pencil and a pen on a desk or you don’t even need that you can beat box with your mouth and create a drum track.” This ease of creation, and the way it can be used in any language to express a range of emotions and social concerns, makes hip-hop a particularly universal tool.
One of the most powerful examples of cultural diplomacy working towards change that Blackman talks about is an assignment she undertook in the Congo, where she did an artist in residence workshop with local hip hop artists, male and female, and then collaborated on a public service announcement to end violence against women. In an example of the sort of give-and-take and collaboration that should ideally be part of more cultural diplomacy efforts, Blackman paired up with a Congolese hip-hop leader to facilitate the workshop and the project.
You can find the resulting video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coIkYlzQlNY