American Musical Ambassadors Offset the Negative Trump Brand Abroad
From Papua New Guinea to Ghana, from Croatia to Vietnam -- cultural ambassadors are sent by the US State Department to facilitate cultural exchange through music and other art forms.
Photo via Pixabay and YouTube
There's usually a person synonymous with the American identity, a representative face that shouts who we are and what we believe to the world. For now, that face is Donald Trump. But there are other voices that carry the American identity to the far flung reaches of the Earth, from Papua New Guinea to Ghana, from Croatia to Vietnam. Cultural ambassadors are sent by the US State Department to facilitate cultural exchange through music and other art forms, and to show the world that the face of America isn't just one old white man.
This kind of exchange, from the perspective of the musicians, is one without political or economic agenda. It's an exchange of ideas, art, message, and inspiration. Musicians climb further away from the motives of political power as they improvise spontaneously together. But this exchange also begets a kind of political capital that feeds the narrative that Americans are creative, open, and optimistic: a narrative that has served American companies and policies around the world for decades.
Perception is a powerful thing, and one that spin artists in the political arena have come to master. But in the face-to-face, moment-to-moment interactive exchanges of music, perceptions and labels fall away. Baba Israel, a hip-hop artist raised in New York City, has not only taught beat boxing all over the world, but he's also learned about the homegrown hip-hop germinating in unexpected places. With his band, Soul Inscribed, he's recently been to Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Croatia as a cultural ambassador.
"In a political climate where there's so much tension and conflict," Israel told VICE Impact, "music is a powerful and immediate way to communicate. We have perceptions that aren't always accurate, that are based on misinformation or larger agendas. I want people to experience what people are like from America, to realize there's diversity of perspectives."
Because hip-hop is more of a culture than a single art form, people can express themselves in a variety of ways. There are the beatboxers, the freestylers, the MCs, the dancers, and even the graffiti artists. They're all different paths to get to the same place: the heart of the matter. But what's surprised Israel, as a New York based beat boxer, is the depth of understanding of hip-hop culture all over the world. During his two-week immersion in Croatia, local artists blew him away.
"New York is where the culture originates," he said. "But there's a deep passion and commitment. They knew about the independent culture outside of pop culture, and about the roots of hip-hop."
He uses that experience when he returns to New York, where he teaches local kids too.
"I'll tell them, 'This culture of hip-hop created in your neighborhood in the Bronx, you can feel proud of that'," he said. "It gives them a feeling that they are connected to people all over the world, and that they can travel anywhere."
American Music Abroad, one of the State Department's programs sending musicians abroad, is mindful of the many genres that fall under the umbrella of American music.
Bennett Konesni traveled to Mongolia and Ukraine as a cultural ambassador, hired directly by the embassies, to introduce the genre of American folk music. He collaborated with a local group called Altai on an incredible version of the classic folk song Wayfaring Stranger, and the results went viral in Mongolia.
"We mashed up an American bluegrass song with a traditional Mongolian song," Konesni told VICE Impact, "and it was a wonderful collaboration that captured the spirit of two different types of music."
More than anything, Konesni found his concentration in traditional work songs really spoke to people.
"We taught lumbering songs from the Maine woods and the Adirondacks, and southern African American work songs," he said. "I try to give a sampling of American folk music with specific reference to work. That little snapshot of America through this one interesting and particular window is a way to show that America isn't all what you see in the movies and on the internet."
Konesni sees this diversity of backgrounds and experience as America's great strength, and relishes sharing that with other countries.
"The fact that we have different people from different cultures and different skill sets, there's potential for conflict, but in the diversity you have to find solutions to the problems," he said. "When you have only one way of thinking, it becomes groupthink. I am critical of some parts of American culture, but one part I love is the diversity, and the way it manifests itself in the music and in the way we solve problems."
Konesni noticed that there was a high concentration of cultural ambassadors traveling in the countries around Russia.
"It's part of this geopolitical tug of war," he said. "They send over ambassadors where they want American culture to be an influence, where Russian culture is also an influence."
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Under the Trump administration, it remains to be seen whether the cultural ambassador program -- which has shared American music since Louis Armstrong was sent to Africa and Eastern Europe by the State Department in the 1960s -- will continue. I told Konesni I had reached out to the State Department for some facts and figures for this article, but hadn't heard back.
"You might not," he said. "They've fired a lot of people and not replaced them. We had a trip planned to Mongolia that was cancelled. They want to get rid of as much ambassadorship and diplomacy as possible."
Cultural ambassadors like Israel and Konesni exist to build bridges and forge bonds across cultures. As musicians from other countries collaborate with American musicians, they find their own voices and tell their own stories. And even though their backgrounds are different and their problems are unique, when you sit and listen to their stories, they're more familiar than you might expect.
"Part of it is realizing what's unique," said Israel, "and another is what we have in common. A lot of people were writing about their struggles: Economic struggles, how to survive as an artist, how to support a family. These universal themes come out and remind us that wherever we are, we may have different versions, but there's a lot that connects us."
Learn more about the American Music Abroad program before it might be too late.