Diplomatic Immunity: How The US State Department Uses Hip Hop For Peace

One year ago, Dweez joined Audiopharmacy on the first three days of the Indonesia portion of their U.S. Government sponsored Pacific tour. As the debate rages on about “America’s Hip-Hop Foreign...
By    April 8, 2014


One year ago, Dweez joined Audiopharmacy on the first three days of the Indonesia portion of their U.S. Government sponsored Pacific tour. As the debate rages on about “America’s Hip-Hop Foreign Policy,” here is the view from the ground.

The band splits into two taxis and journeys to the outskirts of Jakarta. The drivers get lost leaving the Indonesian capital more than a few times. They call Bizmo, the brains of local Indonesia fusion group KunoKini, to redirect the cabbies. The traveling Americans are far from their fancy hotel that was bombed by terrorists in 2009 and even further from their humble California beginnings. It takes about an hour and a half for Audiopharmacy to arrive.

When the ensemble meets KunoKini once again, this time under less official circumstances, friends are scattered around the grounds of Bizmo’s family home. More like an artistic compound or retreat, it’s stuffed with handcrafted furniture and gardens that would put Bali resorts to shame. There are mattresses on the floor and doors that never close. It’s serene — a far cry from the mosquito-buzzing motorcycle madness in the heart of the Jakarta. Crickets swoon, geckos crawl and gentle rain on jumbo leaves relaxes the vibe even more.

Audiopharmacy is a Bay Area based quartet traveling with the American Music Abroad program. They are the modern manifestation of the famous Cold War era’s Jazz Ambassadors. A couple days earlier, the two bands participated in a mock version of what they’re here to do tonight. They were billed to perform together at an official U.S. State Department event, attended by the United States Ambassador to Indonesia. The country is at the convergence of two giant foreign policy and economic ellipses: it’s in Asia, where the U.S. is pivoting militarily, and it is the world’s most populous Muslim country.

From the mid-1950s to late-1970s, jazz musicians — including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong — were dispatched to countries during the Cold War culture wars with the Soviet Union. Many of these countries were in the developing world. Many hadn’t yet taken sides. Americans abroad faced an uphill battle in countering perceptions of a racist, uncultured society in the United States. The Jazz Ambassadors provided a surge that played no small part in their country’s victory in those culture wars.


IMG_9609The current American Music Abroad program is being used in the post-9/11 world in a way that is not completely dissimilar to its predecessor. The goal is the same: counter a deteriorating image of the U.S. abroad through music and people-to-people cultural connection. Tours are prioritized according to both an embassy’s broader goals and how frequently locals are exposed to American musicians. The purpose of the American Music Abroad program, like the Jazz Ambassadors program of the past, is to open a dialogue in places where conversations about America are too one-sided.

Today’s program employs jazz, folk, bluegrass, and hip-hop. The artist rosters now feature musicians who are expected to be educators, facilitators, collaborators, talking heads, and cultural diplomats — as well as performers. The Jazz Ambassadors were famous faces and household names. Some of today’s artists have won Grammy’s but most are only marginally popular in the United States. Focusing in places like Indonesia, today’s program sends groups like Audiopharmacy — talented, diverse but decidedly more niche. Promoted as “San Francisco’s Conscious World Hip Hop Ensemble,” most of Audiopharmacy’s catalog reflects the collective, cautious optimism about the world each member embodies. Tonight there is no stage. There is no show. Audiopharmacy ventured to Jakarta’s fringes for something else. For the night, they are off philanthropic and diplomacy duty. They can just be artists.

Here in Bizmo’s artistic commune, Teao gets ready. He crumples his stringy hair into a pony tail and stuffs it into an Audiopharmacy fedora. As the guitarist and DJ, he’s also the group’s motor and logician. Slender frontman Ras K’Dee disappears into some corner of the house. The head-wrapped bassist and bucket drummer Keepyajoy, and U.S. Virgin Island percussionist Kwome are examining various instruments that look dreamed up by Dr. Seuss. KunoKini and company introduce a ginseng-flavored wine in plastic bags and two types of flat bread called murtabak, one filled with sweet, the other with salty things. It’s already 2 a.m. The local guys seem to do these musical late night missions every night.

IMG_9512The ensuing conversation floats through the following topics: being asked to lip-sync on Indonesia’s most popular variety show, DahSyat; Teao running into Bill Murray when selling hot dogs on a golf course with his dad; the importance of carrying a $100 bill hidden in your shoe when traveling; New Zealand mining in Papua New Guinea; a proclivity to live in nature; iPad and iPhone ubiquity; moving to Amsterdam; drug legality on Bali’s Gili Islands; Sumatra’s one-horned rhinos; and Komodo dragons. Teao eventually suggests recording. They’ve been here a while and everyone has drank, eaten, smoked, and conversed their fill. They start with a kind of promo message, filmed by both Teao with his small, maroon camera and Keepyajoy’s massive, outdated camcorder.

It’s clunky at first. There are two guitars, three drums of various sizes, a lot of different people singing and rapping in English, Bahasa Indonesian and other languages. It’s factually a cypher and a jam session, but the experience is more akin to mixing musical watercolors. Soon, the collaboration kicks into gear and slides into a groove. It’s organic. It’s alive and charming and still somehow supernatural, magic. It’s not sponsored by anyone. Questions about the moment’s purpose fade away. It’s simply music, though not simple music.

Three unique instruments come into play during the recording. One looks like an oversized wooden tissue-box with a big slit in the middle that is knocked with a wooden staff for percussion hollowness. The second is a $250 saxophone made entirely out of wood that Kwome gushes over, warning that if they play it, one hundred cats will appear outside waiting for them. Both he and Teao take turns at it. The third instrument, stored in a room with an arsenal of other music machines, is a soccer goal-sized bamboo organ. Teao hands Bizmo the recorder and spends 15 minutes experimenting in fixation.

IMG_9650It’s nearly four in the morning and the instruments are finally quiet. “I can smell it comin’,” Kwome says. “The rain. The human body tells us things if we just stop and listen.”
Maybe it’s the rain that tells Teao it’s time to go. He starts to round up the troops. The downpour becomes heavier as the herding begins. The departure is something of a ceremony. Bizmo gifts everyone stylish KunoKini shirts. Numerous photos are snapped.

None of this late-night KunoKini jam-magic is going into the State Department’s official record. There is no chart tracing the trajectory of after-hours collaboration sessions coinciding with improving American sentiment abroad. The words and beats and songs are stateless. What can make today’s American Music Abroad tours tick the way Ellington’s Jazz Ambassadors did decades ago is the same thing: a resolution to pursue artistic merit despite forces pulling the opposite direction. The bureaucratic mazes, political theatre, and role multitasking innate in today’s State Department music tours can be pitfalls in that pursuit. At least this band, in this city, on this night, didn’t let barriers block them from walking down the same path as those lauded Jazz Ambassadors.

Racing back to Jakarta in the back of Bizmo’s station wagon, the band sits smashed together. No one in the car can know that most of the groups that toured with American Music Abroad in 2012-2013 will reapply for the following year. Only Audiopharmacy will be selected again. The sun threatens to rise. Teao sleeps, unfazed by the uncomfortable wagon rattle. Ras talks about what keeps him going in the struggle for artistic survival. “I read The Secret,” he pauses with a straight face, letting the joke sink in. “It all comes back to you. Creatives gotta trust that it will come back,” Ras finishes. “You gotta know it will.”

Tomorrow, the whole American Music Abroad tour flies to Balikpapan, a city on Borneo island, just north of Java. After that it’s Fiji, New Zealand, Soma, and the Solomon Islands. The first three days of Audiopharmacy’s first State Department-sponsored music tour have been packed with performances, TV appearances and workshops — on paper, their job was finished a dozen hours ago — but only now as the sun reflects off the fountain at their Jakarta hotel, do the musicians turn in.

Audiopharmacy are currently on their second State Department tour in Africa and the Middle East.

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