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Hip Hop As Cultural Diplomacy

By Stanley Kirshner-Breen

First Step Iraq performs in the SIS Atrium.

First Step Iraq, a dance troop consisting of young men from the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Basra, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah, recently danced their way to American University as part of their “Hiplomacy” tour.

The dancers were selected to travel to the United States on an East Coast tour after a competitive audition process sponsored by the YES Academy in Iraq, which brings American genres of music, dance, and theater to the Middle East and Asia. The YES Academy is organized by American Voices, which conducts cultural diplomacy programs with countries emerging from conflict or isolation on behalf of the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The dancers’ performances at SIS on October 18 merged elements of classic hip hop B-boy style with elements of modern and contemporary dance, along with gravity-defying stunts. After the show, the group answered questions from the audience and told about their journey to hip hop and the struggles they had to overcome back at home.

They explained that in the Middle East, and especially in Iraq, anything related with Western culture is frowned upon. This makes hip hop, which has American roots, an often dangerous art to practice. Several of the performers had been threatened or blackmailed to prevent them from dancing. One of them, from Baghdad, said that six artists had been murdered recently just for dancing.

When asked what message they wanted the audience to take away from their performance, their answers were humbling. They described themselves as cultural ambassadors who can show the world that Arabs, too, share similar dreams, and believe in peace. They said they were excited to take their experiences, observations, and new dance moves back home with them and hoped, someday, to teach others how to dance, as well.

American Voices Executive Director John Ferguson said, “First Step Iraq…gives U.S. audiences an opportunity to get to know Iraq’s new generation of Hip Hop activists: hopeful and dynamic, they have a compelling story to tell of perseverance, determination and the belief that Hip Hop can stimulate dialog and peaceful co-existence among the Iraq’s youth.”