Diplomacy, Competition and Conflict

Hip-hop is often stereotyped as an art form with a lot of beef, and that’s not completely false. Not only has hip-hop been the sight of much conflict over the years, some of these clashes – like the BPD/Juice Crew rivalry of the Eighties - are considered some of the most important historical building blocks of hip-hop culture.

As hip-hop becomes increasingly global, the potential for division would seem to become even greater. When you take people from different cultural backgrounds with different ideas about personal space, respect, and etiquette, and have them compete in an art form that is often based on directly insulting your opponent, you would expect misunderstandings - and even fights - to be commonplace.

So it’s actually remarkable how rarely hip-hop crosses the line that separates competition from conflict. And it’s worth asking why that is.

This answer may actually be hip-hop culture itself.

Each community around the world develops its own unique styles and techniques to serve their particular artistic, social, economic, and cultural needs. But that strong sense of individual identity doesn’t stop the community from connecting with the broader global family of hip-hop. If anything, it actually helps people to connect with each other. And that’s no accident. Hip-hop is able to bring diverse cultures together without sacrificing the things that make each one special because that’s exactly what it was designed to do. As it spread around the world, it welcomed each new community into the fold on equal footing; you were to be judged based on what you brought to the table – no more, no less. And, if that was the case, there was a good chance that what you had to offer was something connected to a unique aspect of your particular culture.

Looking back over the first five years of Next Level residencies, it is clear that this dynamic – representing your community to the world with no apology, but also respecting that others are doing the same - is one of the main things that drives our hip-hop diplomacy.

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When people think about hip-hop’s international growth, they naturally tend to think about it in terms of the music, but – due to that fact that rapping is based on language – other elements may have had an easier time being accepted in non-English-speaking countries. For example, one of the main ways that hip-hop spread around the world in its early days was through breaking and graffiti movies. Unlike rapping, dance and graffiti could easily be understood – and imitated - by people who didn’t speak English.

Another way that hip-hop grew was through individual travel, either by U.S. hip-hop artists to other countries, or by hip-hop artists from other countries to the United States. Given the importance of mentorship in hip-hop, an entire hip-hop scene could be spawned by one or two international travelers. One important way that this happened  - which is often forgotten in retrospect - was when African American and Latino hip-hop practitioners joined the military and were stationed at various bases around the globe.

Based on their particular needs, each community developed their own scene (or multiple scenes, based on different elements). Depending on the circumstances, these scenes sometimes remained separate from the rest of the hip-hop world for years, if not decades .(1)

But over the last fifteen years, as more people around the world have gained access to the Internet, these scenes have reconnected with each other, and the global nature of hip-hop has become more apparent.

The graffiti website Art Crimes, for example, showcases artists in literally hundreds of cities around the globe. Extensive international travel is pretty much required to be a top level b-girl or b-boy, since the top battles, such as Red Bull BC One (and soon the Olympics), are held all over the world. And the same is true for DJ battles, such as the DMC, which holds preliminary battles all over the world before the final international battle. As a result, the global culture around these competitions has become more unified.

As the world’s cultures become increasingly connected, hip-hop is in a perfect position to make the most of that trend, because that approach has been part of the culture from the very beginning.

In that sense, then, hip-hop diplomacy isn’t a matter of using hip-hop as a tool of diplomacy, so much as emphasizing the diplomatic aspects of hip-hop that have always been there. Each country has its own unique hip-hop history – and sometimes multiple histories. And yet, somehow, all of these diverse stories are still part of one larger story: the global history of hip-hop culture.  

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(1) In East Germany, as a recent film documents, artists were only able to reconnect with the larger hip-hop world after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Joe Schloss