Hip Hop Diplomacy

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Where I’m at: Brazzaville, but planning work trips to Pointe Noire (on the beach!) and Kinshasa

What I’m doing: preparing for a hectic next 10 days

Why I’m posting: I’ve solved diplomacy! (so I had to let someone know)


I drafted this entry with politically-charged commentary to kick off the post. Over a meal at 3D Chicken Food (see earlier post), I was reminded by my colleagues that having a visible position (well, visible to the Congolese) where I speak for America (“Me…um…parle…french?”) makes it necessary that I keep some of that commentary to myself.

That said, I’m going to tell American foreign affairs policy makers how to do their jobs. Well,…suggest. Okay, I won’t be doing either, but if someone wants to forward this on to Secretary Clinton or President Obama, I’d be much obliged.

My idea is this: hip hop diplomacy. Many of you know balance-of-power, real politik, soft power, smart power, and the like. But many of these have failed to reach my backyard (Here I’m speaking literally. My backyard in Congo, not Ohio). As I’ve said numerous times before and will say in brief again here, Africa is one of the greatest opportunities America has ever had. By and large, people in Africa like America when they think of us at all. If you watched the Frontline special of interviews with Taliban members and felt like I did, you might wonder what the point is. These guys said they hated us just for existing. The people interviewed said they wanted to kill us whether we stayed or not. Whether we wanted to kill them or not. Whether we killed them or not. And though they represent just a small faction of the world, it’s distressing to know that sometimes, people will just hate us regardless of what we do.

But like in many ways, Africa is different. We have a chance to hear with a variety of cultures and peoples that have largely been untouched by anything but American food and medical aid. Our diplomacy, military, political, and economic efforts on this continent have generally been very limited. And yet Africa has tremendous dipomatic, military, political, and economic potential. I honestly believe that one of the reasons we have not sought in earnest to capitalize on that potential is because of what we perceive as cultural differences that can’t be overcome. We hear of persistent wars, female genital mutilation, endemic rapes, and post-election power struggles and think about how different we are. Many of the perceived differences are also just ancient misinformations. I can assure you that if you come visit, you will not be tracked down by a head hunter and have your head shrunk, except in the sense that someone may try to higher you for a high paying job that’s stressful enough that you’ll need therapy.

But we share so many cultural similarities as well. One of these is music. Roughly a quarter of the radio stations here in Brazzaville blare Rihanna, Jay-Z, or Kanye West at all hours of the day. American hip hop is hugely popular here and in many places in Africa, and it’s not surprising. Hip hop highlights many values common to sub-Saharan Africa. Overcoming obstacles to achieve, especially in the face of “the man,” celebrating life, and showcasing one’s success are popular ideas to both cultures. And it certainly doesn’t hurt in terms of Africans identifying with hip hop that most of the artists are black and young, like most of the population of Africa.

So I’m proposing that as we define how we’ll engage on the one habited continent that we haven’t yet heavily engaged upon that we follow the send ahead our cultural envoys: Beyonce and Chris Brown. Like it or not, but hip hop speaks more and more for the majority of America. The other part of America, I suppose, is represented by the country songs that aren’t likely to catch on here quickly. But I’m sure the “what it is to be American” will nevertheless get across if we send a message of “poppin’ the Cris’ ” rather than “poppin’ the top of a cold brew,” or “chillin’ wit yer crew” at “da club” rather than “hangin’ with my boys” at “the pub.”

So there it is: the onus is on you, City of Compton. You may not be able to bring peace to your own city, but I’m charging you with bringing peace to Africa-U.S. relations. Just leave your piece at home, there’s already enough here. (See?! Rap teaches English homonyms and idioms, too!)


Who said it: Joshua Asen, co-creator of, which I swear I didn’t know existed until just this moment as I searched for a quote

Why it’s relevant: because someone already ran with this idea…apparently all the way to the State Department, which evidently went so far as to name a Hip Hop Ambassador in 2007, and which already has begun to sponsor hip hop efforts across Africa

The quote: “Duh.” (note: loose translation)

  1. “Duh” …..!?!? Think in the Oxford Book of Quotations Homer Simpson is credited with that line!

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