Feb 26 2014, 1:41pm CST | by Forbes
One of America’s greatest strengths is its culture. Which is why the State Department runs a cultural diplomacy program that engages in efforts around the world to build bridges through culture. Our nation’s first hip hop ambassador is Toni Blackman, a veteran hip hop performer and educator. I spoke with Blackman about hip hop’s role in creating positive social change.
How did you get involved with hip hop and this program?
I started rapping when I was a cheerleader in high school and I was the chair person of the Spirit Committee. I would change rap lyrics to fit whatever team we were playing against. So I got my younger cousin and her girlfriend, who were also cheerleaders, and we started doing raps together and then we formulated a group and then it’s just always been a part of my life ever since.
When I started working, I ran a Freestyling Cipher Workshop. It attracted the best emcees because we were in DC and there wasn’t much of an outlet for hip hop. It was during the gangster era and gangster rap was being forced down everyone’s throat in mainstream media. So if you were a real artist it was hard to get put on. So then there was this space where we got attention, we got opportunities, a few of the artists toured with some major jazz musicians to all the jazz festivals around the world. I had done all of those workshops around the DC metropolitan area and they were looking for an artist who had taught and was an arts educator. They were looking for an artist who had experience doing work internationally.
What is a hip hop ambassador?
In the State Department there are Foreign Service Workers and part of the job of the Cultural Attaché and the Public Affairs Office is to provide programming that shows some of the positive ways America has contributed to the world. I was the first hip hop artist invited in 2000 and I did my first assignment in 2001.
When you say assignment, what does that entail?
It’s basically an artist residency. You do workshops, you do lectures, you facilitate discussions. I’ve also taught master classes and performed concerts. I’ve often been able to collaborate with artists and one of the things I always try to do is to record, with a traditional musician and with ancient instruments. The focus is the art. Because art is such a connector, relationships are built. It happens through the art.
What are some examples of assignments that you’ve done since you’ve been hip hop ambassador?
I’ve worked in Senegal with the hip hop community, which is very strong. I visited the National School of the Arts. I worked with about 50 different emcees. We did a huge concert at a cultural center. In Guyana I worked with teachers of the arts and then visited a couple of universities outside of the city.
In the Congo, the assignment was to do an artist residency working with artists to create a public service announcement to stop violence against women. Women are used as war weapons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There have been more rapes than can be counted at this point and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, and it’s systematic rape. I was partnered with a Congolese hip hop leader and we coordinated and we worked with male and female artists and then we created a song and did a music video for those folks.
How do you approach a collaboration? You’ve just gotten together with a bunch of strangers and you’re representing the American government, how do you break down barriers quickly to get to a point where you can make meaningful music together?
I’ve been facilitating ciphers for 20 years and a cipher is when artists gather in a circle and they create together. It’s about giving and exchanging information, energy and ideas. So that has always been my commitment as an artist. We sit in a circle and there are basic ground rules that I announce, and then I give out topics. Then we do introductions, storytelling, we might analyze a proverb, debate current events, but it’s all improvised.
Hip hop is such a language-based medium, how does that work across the language barriers?
It just comes down to your heart and I think a lot of artists have very big hearts, very deep hearts and a lot of artists love deeply. And the participants in the workshops, the people can feel it, and that’s why many of us can track our lives via songs.
There are some artists who rap and it’s all about the words and it’s all about the language. But there are others when they rap their voice becomes another instrument. And so over the beat the voice is an instrument. The voice becomes like music and that’s why flow is significantly important to an emcee, to a person who raps, because your flow interacts with the beat and the music and also your flow can create its own music. And so sometimes we’re not even listening to what a rapper says. It’s the way they said it. It’s the tone of their voice. It’s in the inflection. It’s the pitch. It’s the rhythmic pattern that they’re creating while they rap that makes it magical. Some even use melody in the rap and so it’s like they’re talk singing. And I think that’s a big part of it. And then if you’re committed from the heart that adds a whole other layer if you’re passionate about it.
What do you think is the unique power of hip hop?
It’s 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. And someone can add a melody with their mouth and you can create music. And then the dance of hip hop, I just think its part of the continuum that people need to move and express themselves creatively and hip hop offers that. It’s the thing that exists right now that’s powerful right now.
There are people who love hip hop, and they respond to the beat in the same way. No matter what language you speak, the heads nod, the heads start to nod, the body starts to rock back and forth and you start to think in terms of flow whether you’re a dancer or a DJ, or an emcee, and then it all comes together and people connect around that.
What kinds of emotions is hip hop particularly good at expressing?
Hip hop can convey any emotion from anger to sadness, to joy, to love. Hip hop can be very introspective and lyrically you can tell stories. You can talk about family. You can talk about social issues and concerns. I think there’s a stereotype and a negative stigma attached to rap music now because of the excessive commoditisation and over-commercialization of the music and because it’s been narrowed down to this one narrow lane of clichés. But that’s the mainstream.
Underneath the radar, there is hip hop happening and occurring every single day that has more varied content, that has more of a creative focus, that has a community of artists that are focused on the craft and on expressing themselves just because it makes them feel good. That’s why you can land in any country and you can find your kindred spirits who do hip hop because it makes them feel good. They dance because it makes them feel good. The DJ spins beats, makes beats records because it makes them feel good.
Watch the “Invisible Woman” video from Blackman’s residency at the Democratic Republic of the Congo below. For more about the intersection of rock n’ roll and business follow me on the top of this page or on Twitter, Facebook, or Google.
Source: Forbes Business
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