April 19: Mark Katz

Hip Hop Diplomacy as Subversive Complicity

Hip hop and the U.S. government are unlikely partners. And yet, since 2001, the State Department has been sending U.S. hip hop artists abroad to perform and teach as cultural ambassadors. Some criticize these artists as sellouts or dupes; others insist that it’s just another gig. This paper offers a different perspective, proposing hip hop diplomacy as a form of what sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel calls subversive complicity, a stance in which a marginalized group participates within an exploitative system as a means of survival or as a form of resistance. Drawing on interviews with dozens of hip hop artists, I explain why those who embrace this work often see it as both subversive and empowering. As rapper Kane Smego put it, “I’m taking that money. They’re going to use it to build rockets and missiles anyway, so I might as well take it and build songs instead.” Those who do this work tend to recognize the ambiguities, even paradoxes of simultaneously fighting the power and collaborating with institutions that have perpetuated racist and imperialist policies. “Hip hop has its own contradictions,” self-described anti-government activist DJ Kuttin Kandi has explained. “We live within the contradictions.” Using the lens of subjective complicity, I offer a complex picture of artistic agency at work, and explore the fraught realities that hip hop artists navigate on a daily basis. Finally, I reflect on my own agency and complicity as a scholar who has directed a hip hop diplomacy program for the past five years.