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In April 2010, the US State Department sent a rap group named Chen Lo and The Liberation Family to perform in Damascus, Syria.

Following Chen Lo’s performance, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was asked by CBS News about US diplomacy’s recent embrace of hip hop. “Hip hop is America,” she said, noting that rap and other musical forms could help “rebuild the image” of the United States. “You know it may be a little bit hopeful, because I can’t point to a change in Syrian policy because Chen Lo and the Liberation Family showed up. But I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.”

The State Department began using hiphop as a tool in the mid-2000s, when, in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the resurgence of the Taliban, Karen Hughes, then undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, launched an initiative called Rhythm Road. The programme was modelled on the jazz diplomacy initiative of the Cold War era, except that in the “War on Terror”, hip hop would play the central role of countering “poor perceptions” of the US.

In 2005, the State Department began sending “hip hop envoys” – rappers, dancers, DJs – to perform and speak in different parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The tours have since covered the broad arc of the Muslim world, with performances taking place in Senegal and Ivory Coast, across North Africa, the Levant and Middle East, and extending to Mongolia, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The artists stage performances and hold workshops; those hip hop ambassadors who are Muslims talk to local media about being Muslim in the US. The tours aim not only to exhibit the integration of American Muslims, but also, according to planners, to promote democracy and foster dissent.

Read more at aljazeera.com

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