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What we’re listening to: US tries out Hoochie Coochie diplomacy

Secretary of State Antony Blinken plays guitar at the State Department, September 27, 2023.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken plays guitar at the State Department, September 27, 2023.


To be honest, if you told us that the US secretary of state, a 61-year-old white guy, was gonna grab a Stratocaster and belt out some Delta Blues in public, we’d have braced for a much more awkward outcome than this.

But Antony Blinken’s rendition of the Muddy Waters classic “Hoochie Coochie Man” was actually … pretty good! Like, not “Bill Clinton in sunglasses blowing sax on late night TV” good, but probably better than Vladimir Putin nervously crooning “Blyubyerreh Khill” to a room of captive celebrities.

America’s top diplomat sang the blues earlier this week at the launch of a new US initiative that enlists music and musicians to “convey American leadership globally and create connections with people worldwide.”

The Global Music Diplomacy Initiative envisions worldwide exchanges of US and non-US musicians and musical scholars. Music as a way to learn English is one big (and smart) focus. An early round of tour programs includes a Herbie Hancock visit to the Middle East, a Philadelphia Orchestra residency in China, and bringing hip-hop artists into conflict resolution efforts in Nigeria.

The whole thing is reminiscent in some ways of Cold War programs that sent US musicians — sometimes handled by the CIA — to the far corners of the world to spread the gospel of American free market capitalism and artistic liberty.

The world has changed a lot since then — no doubt the US still boasts some of the best and most innovative musicians in the world (we just celebrated the 50th birthday of hip-hop, arguably the most transformative musical genre in history, which was born in the Bronx).

But does the US — divided at home and less trusted abroad — still have the political credibility to really make the world, as Muddy Waters sang, “wanna know what this all about”? We’ll turn up the volume and see where this goes.


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