Absent from his discussion was perhaps America's greatest, most positive attractive magnet: its youthful, vibrant force as a cultural power. Arguably, America's music, movies, arts, images, and books, are more popular than they have ever been. Indeed, if there is any group of Americans that is winning the hearts and minds of people all over the world, it isn't military leaders, diplomats, business leaders or academics. It is the makers of America's popular culture. The actors, musicians and other celebrities. At the vanguard of this group, the Marines of this group, if you will, is the youth culture of Hip Hop, born and nurtured in the Bronx. Hip Hop has even touched the hearts of youth in corners of the world where America the military power is hated. American leaders should pay attention to what his happening among the youth of the world.
Join me for a brief tour around the world of those who made America's hip hop culture a truly global phenomenon.
Russia may be a nation that still carries some of the vestiges of the hostilities of the Cold War with respect to American military power. The relationship between the two nations varies between coldly diplomatic and occasionally frosty. But in the case of who Russian youth tend to emulate, there is no question who is winning. On the streets among Russia's poor, Russian Hip Hop is the music of choice. Bands K.A.S.T.A (click here to see K.A.S.T.A in a freestyle cypher) and Belarus' highly successful MC Sergoya have found a devoted following not only in Russia but throughout the former Soviet republics.
There are many other Hip Hop groups in Russia that have devoted fans and followings. I won't mention all of them here. But needless to say, you can see from these images (even if you don't understand the wording), that American Hip Hop culture has invaded Russia in a way that Russian political leaders must surely envy.
In the PRC you'll find the same thing on streets of Beijing and Shanghai. Even in this society of heavy state control, Hip Hop has proved America's strongest cultural magnet among China's young and poor. The Chinese call Hip Hop shuōchàng, which means "narrative." My friends have told me that Chinese rappers use devices commonly found in Hip Hop: use of poetic technique, storytelling and of course out-and-out bragging. Everyone in the hood knows of the great love the Chinese have for breakdancing and graffiti.
Here is a sample from Yin Tsang:
Even in a nation whose government considers America the "Great Satan," the people of Iran have a penchant for Satan's music. The government, much like the Chinese government, takes a very negative view of Hip Hop. I'm sure this has less to do with the music itself, which in Iran takes on some of the traditional Persian rhythms. The problem is that Hip Hop is American. For sure, some of the messages and styles become a part of youthful self-expression, something will bring down the Iranian regime more successfully than an American military invasion. State-owned media cracks down, especially on some of the more politically oriented lyrics. Yet, even in the middle of all this, Hip Hop flourishes.
Here is excellent flow from one of my favorite progressive Iranian MC's, Hichkas from Teheran.
One trouble spot where Hip Hop has had difficulty penetrating is North Korea, a totalitarian state without an precedent or antecedent. But in South Korea, Hip Hop culture is influential and well established.
There are other lesser known places in the world Hip Hop culture has taken root. Pick any nation in the world and you will find it. Interested in Vietnamese Hip Hop? It's there. Try these young men forming a cypher in Kenya. Consider Peru. Or tiny Montenegro. Even in Pakistan, which is perhaps the biggest breeding ground for terrorists opposed to the United States, American Hip Hop flourishes among the people.
There is no other nation on earth that lay claim to a cultural phenomenon going from a few young people in a ghetto to global acceptance in the span of one generation. Only the United States. Global leaders around the world can see that America's most persuasive, expansive power isn't military or economic, but cultural. They look at their youth, and the youth want Hip Hop. Even among our allies, it isn't British literature, French cuisine or German classical music being emulated around the world. It is ours. Our music of the poor, following the traditions of Jazz and Rock.
Perhaps the United States has a secret weapon in its arsenal of powers that it fails to understand or make use of. Instead of closing off nations that are hostile to us, bombing them, or crushing them with sanctions, perhaps we should consider playing the culture card first. Perhaps we could have more influence by sending in our artists and rappers instead of our soldiers and Marines. I would think we could be a bit more expansive with our selection of ambassadors, for example. They don't have to be limited to major campaign donors or foreign service climbers. I'll bet you Russell Simmons could gather a crowd in Mongolia that America's ambassador there, Piper Campbell, never could.
Not too long ago I ran into Big Daddy Kane at a dinner party. A living legend in Hip Hop, I asked him what he was up to lately. "Man ... they love me in Slovenia! Croatia too!" Not only did I find it amazing that he was still touring, but ... Slovenia?! I figure they would know who Jay-Z is, but you have to know your stuff to know Big Dad. One can't put enough value on having an ambassador like BDK, a pure gentleman if there ever was one. If I were the American ambassador in Slovenia, I'd make sure to attach myself to that kind of publicity.
America should always be the country that is looking forward, appealing to the virtues of the young: passion, optimism and a yearning to be oneself. The best way we can remain a beacon of hope for the world is by putting our best foot forward. That should mean tapping into one of our greatest strengths, our youthful culture.
Personal note: A one who has lived his entire life as a part of the Hip Hop movement from its birth, I have to say how amazing it is to see something so local and personal to me become a global form of self-expression for young people. It is something I never thought would find an audience beyond Black and Latino neighborhoods in NYC.