The art of (hip-hop) diplomacy

Cultural exchanges can help boost America's image abroad.

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The 15 teenage hip-hop dancers break into a sweat as the demands of Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" take their toll. Despite the air conditioning in the sparkling new cultural center, the 125-degree heat finds its way inside. Dance teacher Michael Parks Masterson takes the students to task over a fumbled step. "You guys are awesome, but you must concentrate," he shouts.

There are only seven more days to prepare for the Unity Performing Arts Academy gala show. Hip-hop, one of America's newer cultural exports, is about to make a debut in northern Iraq.

In a leap of the imagination supported by the State Department and the US Embassy in Baghdad, this summer my small not-for-profit organization, American Voices, created a 10-day conservatory of artistic expression and learning for Iraqi performing artists. During that time, participants proved that Iraqi unity is not necessarily a myth – and that cultural diplomacy can work wonders, even in conflict zones.

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In a country that has seen little, if any, cultural exchange with the US for decades, the hunger for knowledge was palpable. With a faculty of 10 Americans teaching ballet, hip-hop, musical theater, jazz, chamber music, and orchestra, the students were treated to a smorgasbord of learning previously unavailable to them.

There was extraordinary energy in the air as Iraqis put in 12-hour days studying "cool new things," as one of them put it, from Vivaldi's Baroque style to a choreography of George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." With participating groups ranging from the youth theater of Irbil, Iraq, to the Iraq National Folk Dancers' more experienced artists, there was a unique blend of ages, ethnic groups, languages, and art forms.

While the program began with some mutual wariness among the groups from various regions of Iraq, by the end, there was strong camaraderie. Perhaps most remarkable was the Unity Orchestra, composed of 130 players from all four of Iraq's principal orchestras. It left an indelible impression of what united Iraqis could achieve in the realm of art.

Once back home, however, each orchestra faces unique challenges. Baghdad's Iraq National Symphony Orchestra braves rehearsals and performances amid terrible violence. Irbil's orchestra is still on informal strike after years of salaries not rising above $30 per month. Sulaymaniyah's two orchestras are younger, active, and relatively well trained; this summer a group of its members won second prize at a youth orchestra competition in Vienna.

At the gala concert, all of the orchestras came together to give a buoyant performance of music by Duke Ellington and Iraqi composers. At the final reception we danced till dawn – despite the awareness that for most, tomorrow would bring a return to the uncertainties of Baghdad or the isolation of the Kurdish regions.

Two months later, the faculty still gets almost daily messages from participants. Some are requests for help with a double bass bridge or advice on how to teach from a method book we donated. Many simply say thanks for offering a glimpse of a way forward and breathing new life into Iraqi conservatories and arts organizations. Many Iraqi performing artists tell me they have toiled for so long and in such isolation that they assumed the world either did not care or had forgotten them.

Repairing America's image and standing in the world will require a group effort. The US government cannot and should not do this alone. As someone deeply involved in the field of cultural diplomacy for close to 20 years, I would like to see cultural exchange written into the mission statements of America's arts organizations and places of learning: more effective exchanges, more scholarships, more hip-hop. In the case of Iraq, such programs not only help heal Iraq's deep-seated divisions but also give Iraqis much needed insight into the US and its culture, beyond foreign policy.

Fears that the US may be forcing cultural diplomacy programs upon an unwilling or indifferent public are, in my experience, unfounded. From Iraq to Vietnam to Venezuela, audiences are clamoring for more. Many Americans assume that our culture is as unwelcome abroad as our foreign policies often are, but we should not underestimate the sway our unique art forms hold over audiences deprived of cultural contact with the US.

In the post-9/11 world, nations must develop ways to not only understand but also embrace one another. Art, music, and dance can help facilitate such positive exchange. It is time for new visions of what is possible – even essential – in America's cultural relationship with countries emerging from conflict or isolation.

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