Hip-Hop Diplomacy: Voices of the Media vs. Voices of the Artists

Cultural diplomacy is a difficult topic, especially when it hinges on youth culture as global as hip-hop. Whose music is whose? What's Western or American and what is Arab? This piece consists of several case studies in cultural exchange and explores what it really means to "drop beats not bombs."


  1. CNN Covers Cultural Diplomacy

  2. CNN calls hip-hop "America's soft power with a hard beat." In the video below Jill Dougherty covers the State Department's program bringing hip-hop artists from across the globe to the United States for a three-week program.
  3. Dougherty quotes a Palestinian artist who maintains that "getting to know American rappers gave him the courage to keep on rapping in Arabic about peace." However, Dougherty doesn't mention who these American rappers were or comment on the U.S. government's pro-Israel politics. Therein are the limits--and perhaps even hypocrisy--of soft diplomacy. Such programs, part of a greater effort to repair the United States' negative image in the eyes of the world, do nothing to alter the policies that have tarnished their image in the first place.
  4. Arabian Knightz on the Arab Roots of Hip-Hop

  5. Egyptian hip-hop group and founders of Arab League Records, the Arabian Knightz explain that Arab hip-hop is not a mere appropriation of Western culture. It has roots in Arab culture as well.
  6. "Our music is not Western. It has Arabic rhythms. We sing in Arabic and sometimes in English so that our music reaches people in the West and corrects the wrong idea they have about us." - Kareem
  7. "But what they forget is that there were people in Saudi Arabia fourteen hundred years ago beating on drums and battling each other with poetry even before Islam. That’s hip-hop."
    - Hesham Alofoq (Sphinx)
  8. Hip-hop Unites African-American and Arab-American Interests

  9. In 2007 the Arab Summit, held in Riyadh, Egypt, included diasporic rappers. In attendance were Arab American artists such as Iron Sheik, Syrian-American Omar Offendum, Iraqi-Canadian The Narcicyst, and Palestinian-Americans Excentrik and the Philistines. As author Sujatha Fernandes explains, such cross-cultural exchanges have "forged a new global politics of solidarity that connects racism against African Americans to anti-Arab profiling in urban areas."
  10. "These kinds of collaboration are rooted in cross-ethnic activist alliances of black activists from hurricane-stricken New Orleans, Palestinian activists demanding a right to return, and people opposed to the militarization of the US-Mexico border and the apartheid wall in Palestine."
    - Sujatha Fernandes, Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. 
  11. Pictured: Native Deen, Muslim American Hip-Hop Artists
  12. The Arab Summit is just one example of this cultural exchange. The African-American hip-hop group Native Deen is composed of devout Muslims who rap about their religion. Recently, they accepted an invitation by the U.S. State Department to perform across the globe as part of cultural diplomacy. It is likely that the department's decision to recruit this group owed to their popularity with Middle Eastern audiences.
  13. "At Native Deen shows, audience members are more likely to be from Middle Eastern or South Asian backgrounds than to be American blacks. One reason, according to Suad Abdul Khabeer, a Purdue University anthropologist who studies Islamic hip-hop, is that Native Deen’s 'harmonies and melodies sound like the kind of nasheed'—Muslim praise music—'you get from the Middle East.'”
    - "A Diplomatic Mission Bearing Islamic Hip-Hop," New York Times.
  15. This video is a montage of Native Deen in concerts across the globe.
  16. Islam and Hip-Hop - Not Always a Successful Pair

  17. "Islam and music don't go well together." - Iren Ozgur, Princeton Postdoctoral Associate
  18. Whether it's big money hip-hop moguls or a controversy over a woman in a hijab dancing suggestively to hip-hop beats, "Western," when applied to hip-hop, does not always signify praise. For its connections to promiscuity and greed, American hip-hop is often seen as "tainted" by "Western" mores, further complicating the State Department's appropriation of the genre.
  19. Muslim Hijabi Caught Twerking On Stage To Pon De Floor
  20. After going viral on Twitter and YouTube, this video was removed by the user--but not before it was replicated and re-posted by this user as well as another who titled the video "FEAR ALLAH !" The comments are quite heated, both for and against the woman's dancing.
  21. "And yet, because we’re wearing 'hip-hop clothing' and because the music we perform is 'western music' they say that kind of shit. ... You know, when you watch TV you see Arabs you see a lot of them wearing Dolce and Gabbana or whatever Paris Hilton’s wearing. How is that any less western?" - Hesham Alofoq (Sphinx)
  22. DEEN TIGHT Documentary (Official Trailer)