Blog: Hip-Hop and Civic Engagement

For the past half century, hip-hop has grown significantly not only in its style and its hundreds of variations but also in its ability to share stories and important messages and its capacity to inspire social change. Though hip-hop was born in the United States, it has grown in popularity throughout the world, and has served as a tool to discuss important issues and share unique perspectives.

On April 15th, 2024, Meridian International Center welcomed 22 artists from across the globe for a two-week International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in the United States. The group consisted of rappers, break-dancers, poets, singers, and DJs who sought to use their careers for social change in their home community. The program provided a unique opportunity to learn about hip hop’s origins and opportunities to use music and performance as a means of social change.

Discovering Hip-Hop’s Roots and History

The ability for artists from around the world to connect with hip-hop’s American origins yields global benefits. Last summer, the hip-hop community celebrated the 50th anniversary of the genre. Its cultural origins date back to 1973 when DJs and artists from The Bronx combined disco and funk beats and created tracks to share stories and express everyday hardships. This group was able to visit New York City and speak with the directors of the Hip Hop Museum in The Bronx. The museum is set to open in 2025, but the group was able to have an in-depth conversation on hip-hop’s Origins and how it has grown and changed over the past five decades. Just like the pioneers of hip hop 50 years ago, these artists are seeking new ways to share their experiences through music, and opportunities like these provide them with the context on how to do so.

International Dialogue in Hip-Hop

A highlight of this program was the opportunity for these artists to collaborate and perform together, celebrating of a genre loved by the visitors and by millions more across the globe. Whether it was during scheduled studio time or spontaneous performances in public parks, this group utilized every opportunity to share their talents. Due to its ability to tell stories, hip-hop is a great and creative way to promote cross-cultural communication. This was seen during these performances. Though each performance was in a different language, each artist could share the meaning of their songs or poems, their inspiration, and more about their backstories. Though audiences could not fully understand the lyrics of these songs, they were fully engaged and energized because they could understand the artist’s passion. Instances like these performances highlight hip-hop’s ability to create connections and share stories.

Hip-hop is unique in its ability to discuss serious issues and share perspectives from those who often do not have a voice. Through programs like these, individuals from different backgrounds and cultures use the universal language of music to bring unique perspectives to light to bring about the much-needed dialogue to solve specific global issues.

Sam Billings is a Senior Program Associate who has worked with the International Visitor Leadership Program at Meridian International Center since 2022. He holds a bachelor’s from American University in international studies.

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