US Secretary of State Antony Blinken performs a Muddy Waters song during a celebration marking the launch of the Music Diplomacy Initiative in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department in Washington, DC, on September 27, 2023. AFP
The lifelong music fan turned top US diplomat showed off his guitar chops as he launched a new initiative of music diplomacy through which the United States will send top artists to countries including China and Saudi Arabia.
After performances in the State Department's formal reception room by the likes of jazz icon Herbie Hancock, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame, and rising young pop singer Gayle, Blinken took the stage himself, joking that he was sure to "clear the floor."
Playing rhythm guitar to a house band and turning his usually soft-spoken voice to a deep bellow, Blinken offered a rendition of "Hoochie Coochie Man" by blues legend Muddy Waters, with the audience -- many of them his subordinates at the State Department -- not leaving, but cheering.
US pop culture for decades has dominated much of the globe although it has mostly grown without government support.
During the Cold War, the United States eagerly sent artists to woo audiences overseas, including many Black artists who at the time were forced to play in segregated venues in parts of their own country.
As part of Blinken's new initiative, Hancock will travel to Jordan on the anniversary of a 1963 tour by jazz pianist Duke Ellington. He will also pay a first-of-its-kind trip to Saudi Arabia, a strict Islamic state that has only recently begun opening to public music performances.
The Philadelphia Orchestra will head to China in November to mark 50 years since its first tour to the Asian country in 1973 -- then largely closed to the world and winding down the Cultural Revolution.
Way to 'build bridges'
The Global Music Diplomacy Initiative will bring a new generation of tours, with plans for travel to 30 countries over the coming year by a range of American acts.
The initiative will also see US rappers heading to Nigeria to discuss using music to address conflict.
"For generations, US diplomacy has worked to harness the power of music to actually build bridges, to foster collaboration between Americans and people around the world," Blinken said in a speech before his performance.
"You don't have to know any history to connect the feelings behind the music because music at its core is about a bond rooted in our shared humanity," he said.
The evening brought a rare bipartisan note in Washington as Representative Mike McCaul, the Republican head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who praised Blinken's "great work" and likened the evening to the legendary performances at the White House under John F. Kennedy.
The performances took place in the State Department's newly renovated reception room named for Revolutionary War diplomat and polymath Benjamin Franklin, under gliterring chandeliers and a spruced-up ceiling seal of the United States bearing an eagle.
"I am deeply honored but also a bit freaked out to be here," pop-rocker Aimee Mann said as she opened her set.