Anas Canon

Interview with a Hip-Hop Ambassador (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of my conversation with Anas Canon, founder of the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, a group that does cultural diplomacy through hip-hop around the world. When the last post left off, we were discussing the need that Anas felt to take responsibility for putting out music into the world that is both socially conscious and entertaining, to counter many of the images of Americans — and particularly African Americans — that the US media exports. Click Here to read Part 1 of this interview

That has been one of the things that’s always in my mind when I think about what sacrifices have to be made in order to do these tours. There are a lot of sacrifices. Money is one of them, but also coming to grips with what it means to me to work with the State Department, which is a branch of the US military industrial complex. There are a lot of people who critique that, and J’m open to that critique. But I’ve made my peace with it because I’ve seen the effect that this work has on the ground. And there’s no script, it’s not choreographed.

Azeem from Creme De La Ultra, Tariq Snare and Kumasi from The KAJ, in Tunisia with university students

I was on a panel in Jakarta, with fifteen or twenty people from the press, and this woman from the BBC goes, “Is America at war with Islam?” And there’s no script. I could have said whatever I wanted at that moment. Luckily I have the kind of social sophistication and political savvy to address those questions in a way that can be really honest and candid, but also think about the effects it’s going to have on every other American, or on anybody who’s going to read about it. What you say matters. You could make or break relationships in terms of how people perceive Americans or African Americans — by looking like you’re just a sellout and you’re saying whatever the State Department wants to hear, or on the other side looking like you’re this extremist marginalizing yourself from the people who invited you there in the first place. So that’s my mind, man. I’m thinking about what every single person that I bring wears that’s on the tour, every word that comes out of their mouth, every greeting that they do. You gotta pick a guy who’s a great musician obviously, but at the same time you gotta think, “How is this dude gonna be off stage?”

It sounds like you’re taking very seriously your role as a representative of the United States and African Americans.

That’s the only reason I do the job. Do I represent all Americans? Absolutely not. Are there some Americans who would like to drop bombs on every other country? Sure there are. But that’s not most Americans. Most people are open to the idea of meeting people that are different. There’s a verse in the Koran that says “Allah made you different tribes and nations so that you could come to know one another.” This is the Koranic understanding of why we’re different in the first place.

How does the music fit into this vision of the connections you want to make?

To me the music is naked expression. You don’t actually have to like it, but you can understand that this is somebody’s expression of who they are. And the neat thing about hip-hop is that anyone can express themselves through hip-hop as long as they have rhythm and a decent grasp of their native tongue. It’s kind of lowest common denominator music. And combined with the fact that America has exported it to the far ends of the earth and it has permeated youth culture everywhere, it becomes this currency that we can use to exchange. Anybody can start banging on a table to get a beat, and one of my guys can jump up and spit sixteen bars, and someone else can jump up and spit sixteen bars in their language, and they don’t have to even understand what each other are saying.

The hip-hop part is interesting because hip-hop is not my music, I make hip-hop, but I don’t really listen to it. And when we go out and play do we play hip-hop music all the time? No. I always have rappers, but I also have vocalists, and I usually take a full band: drummer, a guitar player. We’re doing covers of songs and original songs, running through the lexicon of American music, showing how with a basic hip-hop drum-beat you can superimpose all these other components. That’s not me as a DJ with a couple of rappers, but that really is hip-hop to me.

It seems that you specifically go to majority-Muslim countries. How do faith and spirituality and religion fit into this for you?

Most of the guys on remarkable current are Muslim, and the connection was initially built through Native Deen, who are Muslim. So we are not exactly stuck in a niche, but the State Department knows we are comfortable being in those spaces, and aware of the cultural sensitivity that needs to be adhered to in a Muslim country. It also acts as a sort of currency for the State Department to say, “Not only are these guys hip-hop artists but they share your faith.”

Do you think that opens doors for you in those countries?

There’s no question about that. They’re still open to other kinds of Western music, but when they find out we have Muslim artists there’s a curiosity. And when they see the guys praying they’re like, “Oh wow, there’s Muslims in America, real ones like us.” That part is kind of a trip. I don’t think it’s an exploitative relationship form the State Department’s position; it’s more of an opportunity break down multiple walls. For me personally, I think religion and spirituality are private. Most people would consider me a devout practicing Muslim for most of my adult life, but most recently I’ve been beginning to separate myself from formal religion. I just don’t want a label. I’ve been on a journey for many, many, years and I don’t every plan to stop thinking.

Anas with Habib Saggaf in Indonesia, being fitted for a suit Habib had made for Anas

So what’s your outcome? What are you hoping comes out of these meetings with other people when you travel?

There’s the micro and the macro. There’s the heart and mind of each individual you come in contact with. And then there’s also the impact on people who hear about the event or see the event via social media. My first concern is the micro.

I’m mixed race — my mother’s White and my father’s Black. My mom’s family was upper-middle class, fairly conservative. My grandfather was from Idaho and my grandmother was from Missouri. They were for real white people, as white as white people can get. When you’re mixed you’re forced into an identity crisis at a very early age. Depending on how you navigate that situation, typically mixed people I know will realize there is no one thing, and that people who live in these polarized cultural identities — that’s self-created. So mixed people walk around the planet in this kind of no-mans land, and when you’re in that space you feel compelled to show people how much the same they are.

That’s my contribution, I want to find ways to bring people together. That’s something that’s ingrained in me — it’s not like a book I read in college made me say, “People need to come together.” It’s who I am. I don’t separate myself from another molecule, let alone another creature from my same species. So this work is the most effective thing that I feel I can do. I can show up in a space and sit in front of somebody who’s a representative of their community with their constituents surrounding them — whether its a group of students or politicians — and I can show them how open my heart is to them. And if that’s their first and only interaction with an American, that’s how they will feel about America, on a visceral level. They might think all kind of things about America, but now they can’t say, “All Americans are this,” or “All Americans are that.” They can’t use George Bush or Barack Obama or American foreign policy to say, “This is how American people are.”

You have no idea how you might change someone just by meeting them one-on-one. And you know how I know that bro? Because it happened to me. Every time I go to these places I see things and think, “I never thought to look at the world like that.” I’m just observing somebody, their etiquette, their mannerisms, their vibrations, and then I see an entire culture that vibrates like that. And I incorporate that into how I vibrate, how I move in the world.

For my own self-interest I want to have as many of those experiences as I can, that kind of exchange, to be an ambassador for my nation, to be an ambassador for my ethnicity and my culture, and then also figure out how that can be amplified through our respective communities.


Thank you to Anas Canon for speaking with, and to Tracy Curry, for making this interview happen.


Interview with a Hip-Hop Ambassador (Part 1)

Recently I had the chance to speak with Anas Canon, founder of the independent hip-hop label Remarkable Current, and the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, which builds cross-cultural bridges around the world through music. He was very open, kind, and actually surprised me quite a bit with some of his answers. We discussed the founding of the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, working with the State Department, the goals of cultural diplomacy, and the roles of spirituality and hip-hop in bridging across difference.

DJ Anas Canon giving a radio interview in Tunisia. Listen to the interview here:

How did you get involved in music and producing originally?

I was raised around music my whole life, I have it in my blood. My father’s a professional musician — he plays the organ. And my stepfather, who raised me past the age of 3 or 4, was an audiophile. He and my uncle had music listening rooms, where they would put the speakers just right and put on a brand new pressing of a certain recording, like Miles Davis. Then they would smoke a joint, put the needle on the record, and sit there and listen. Then they’d stop it, get up and move the speakers a little bit, and then sit back and listen. Listening to music was their hobby and their passion. So I grew up listening to music in a unique way. And we would listen to high-end jazz, more avant-garde stuff; they were tuned into that and I wanted to be cool like them.

And then in late high school I started teaching dance at the dance studio of a man named Keith Banks, who is still a mentor of mine. And I was making a lot of money compared to cats who were flipping burgers or working at the yogurt shop. I was a choreographer and dance instructor through my early 20’s. Then because of a certain spiritual trajectory I was on, I decided to travel. I traveled to North Africa and Europe and hung out and studied, and when I came back I went to work as an assistant in a recording studio. That sort of began my career as an engineer.

Basically ever since then I’ve kind of been bouncing around studios, had some great mentors, and then began freelancing. Somewhere along the line I decided that I wanted to make music as well, so I started recording and producing with friends and in 2001 founded Remarkable Current. I think we’re at 14 or 15 releases now.

How did the Hip-Hop Ambassador’s program come about?

I was working as an independent producer for a band called Native Deen. They were doing some work for the State Department, and they asked me to go out with them. Native Deen does Muslim rap, so the state department would send them to Muslim-majority countries. That was my first exposure to the fact that the State Department was using music for cultural diplomacy. But I realized that the state department didn’t have anything designed to utilize real, serious, authentic hip-hop. Meanwhile I had this roster of artists from the label, and tons of original content. I knew the history of the Jazz Ambassadors program, and I thought, “Why don’t I start a company that’s designed to fill that need?” We did a website and I reached out to some contacts I had known, and that was the beginning of it, man.

And this was in the Condoleeza Rice and George Bush era. George Bush was actually spending a lot of money on cultural diplomacy, more than Obama has. You’d think it would be the other way around. We think of him as being this real right wing conservative, “we don’t care about anybody but Americans,” but there was a whole other side to that administration. Of course the knee-jerk counterargument was that they were doing so much harm around the planet, they were doing this stuff to balance it out. But i don’t know if that’s completely true.

Ambassadors Tyson and Kumasi performing in Indonesia. Watch the video here:

When you go out on a Hip-Hop Ambassadors trip, what exactly do you do while you’re there?

I’ll use Indonesia as an example. We hit the ground and went directly to the US ambassador’s private home and did a show for his guests, maybe 150 people. Then every day, in the morning, we’re either at a radio station, a TV station, or a school. Then we grab lunch, and in the afternoon we go to the next location. It could be an orphanage where we do an impromptu show, or a panel discussion. From there we usually go to a venue and do a sound check, have a little break, and then play the night show. And then we wake up the next day and do it over and over and over again. It’s hardcore. We don’t stop.

Who do you work with in the country?

If we’re going to a Muslim country I often know somebody there. Or I go on Facebook and ask “Who’s the best rapper in Tunisia,” and I’ll Google search the cat, watch them on YouTube. And if he’s dope I’ll contact the State Department and ask if they can get in touch with them and tell them I want to meet with them while we’re there. Sometimes the liaisons at the embassy, younger cats who are locals, will have relationships already. So then the embassy will reach out, and say “Hey, we’re going to be in your city. Would you be interested in coming and performing with these guys or having dinner? Inevitably we’re gonna hit it off because we’re all musicians. And because I’m a recording engineer and producer and I do a lot of remote recording, I can record anywhere. I’ll be like, “Yo, let’s do a song,” and we’ll record in the hotel room.

I’m curious what made you want jump into this work. And why did you feel like there was this need for a hip-hop ambassadors program?

I’m really into American foreign policy, and I’m very much into music and the history of American music, so this is kind of a fusion of all the things that I’m really passionate about. And it’s also a way for me to try to make some impact. When I was on the early tours before Hip-Hop Ambassadors I was really able to see the impact that connecting with Americans could have on people in developing countries who maybe have never met an American, and who have probably never met an African American person.

I think it was probably one moment that I had in Zanzibar, when I was out with Native Deen. One of the guys in the band had lost his luggage on the flight, so we went out shopping. We’re in this little shop, and a kid starts speaking to us, he’s maybe 17. He speaks a little English, and he’s like, “Where are you from?” We’re said, “Oh, we’re from America, from California. And he’s like, “Oh, California. Tupac.” And he starts spitting Tupac rhymes, like 16 bar verses, not missing a word. At the end of it he goes, “I don’t really like west coast, I like the east coast, I like Biggie.” So he starts spitting Biggie verses. And we’re just standing there watching this dude. He doesn’t understand the words that are coming out of his mouth, but that’s how he’s showing us what he understands about our country and about our culture. And I’m very critical of Tupac. He was a drug dealer, a misogynist, and a criminal. So to me this was like if someone was in Africa and might be like, “Ooga booga,” or some ignorant shit like that, not having any point of reference. Or going to holland and saying, “Where are all the wooden shoes?” But it wasn’t his fault. That’s what we export. America’s greatest export is media.

We talked to the kid, we’re like, “Yeah, we don’t really do music like that, that’s not what hip hop’s all about.” But you can only say so much. This is how he understands the Black American experience. And I realized that people who are interested in the world perceiving African Americans and African American art in a different way, it’s our responsibility to create compelling content that competes with what major media companies are doing. We need to be finding ways to distribute and disseminate that content, and to make it equally entertaining. It’s not enough just to make it socially conscious, it has to be as entertaining and energetic and cathartic for the listener, and maybe it has to be as shiny or as aggressive or as sexy. If I don’t like walking into a little boutique in Africa and having somebody explain my culture to me vis-á-vis a Tupac lyric, it’s my responsibility.

Click Here for part 2 of my interview with Anas Canon