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How a Group of Brooklyn Beatboxers Became Ambassadors to the World

Members of the Beatbox House, a group of five vocal percussive artists from Brooklyn, will follow in the footsteps of American music legends Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong when they travel abroad later this month to serve as cultural ambassadors for the United States.

Chris Celiz, Gene Shinozaki, Amit Bhowmick, Kenny Urban, and Neil Meadows (better known as NaPoM), all beatboxing champions, will visit Indonesia and Singapore with the State Department for three weeks of beatbox competitions, workshops and collaborations with local musicians as part of American Music Abroad, an outreach program sponsored by the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The Beatbox House, a group that has tens of thousands of fans, creates drum and instrument sounds with accented speech, distorted singing and lip oscillations. The music covers many genres, including hip-hop, EDM, grime, trap and rock. The group is also known for its popular cover of the Rednex song “Cotton Eye Joe.”

Members of the Beatbox House have won competitions individually, in pairs and as a group, and they are active in music education efforts around New York City. In the group’s workshops, students are introduced to basic beatbox sounds, as well as to the endless possibilities that the human voice offers for musical expression. Now, the group has the chance to share the same lessons abroad.

Known for holding inclusive, community-oriented competitions — known as battles — around the city, the Beatbox House has an itinerary that will include visits to plenty of community centers abroad. Alison Bassi, a cultural affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Singapore, hopes that the locations beyond bars and concert halls will make the music “accessible to lots of different people and a slightly different audience,” not just beatbox devotees.

Dancers recently performed in a collaboration with members of the Beatbox House at the Guggenheim Museum.Credit…Jordan Macy for The New York Times

Originally one of the five pillars of hip-hop, beatbox made its way to Europe in the late 1980s by way of American soldiers. Since then, the appetite for the art form in Europe and Asia has grown. The international beatbox community now numbers in the millions, with Asia representing many of the recent gains in support and participation. For the State Department, sending the Beatbox House musicians abroad — the first time it will recognize the musical genre in the cultural program — presents an opportunity to share an art form that is both specifically American and quite popular overseas.

“We depend upon our American artists to join in our country’s diplomacy,” Lee Satterfield, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, wrote in an email. In recent years, this mission has led American Music Abroad to partner with fewer chart-topping artists and more mission-driven performers like the Beatbox House, a shift that reflects what Mr. Satterfield said was the department’s goal to “expand the reach of music diplomacy.”

Of course, security issues, on a smaller and more intimate scale, might crop up in Indonesia, where the group is already popular. “They love us out there,” Mr. Shinozaki said. Last time some of its members performed in the country, he said, they had to be escorted out of the venue.

Mr. Shinozaki, Mr. Celiz and Mr. Bhowmick are all first-generation Americans whose families came from Japan, the Philippines and Bangladesh, respectively. For the five band members, performing an American style of music, in a diverse group, sums up the spirit of hip-hop, the spirit of democracy and the best of what this country has to offer.

“My parents wanted the American dream,” Mr. Celiz said. “I feel like I’m getting to live it. But we’re also redefining what that means. This is our version of it.”

Mike Quinlan, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia, wrote in an email that the Beatbox House was the Embassy’s “top choice” for the visiting artists program.

“They have a good amount of people who are very excited about them being here,” Mr. Quinlan said, adding that “the Beatbox House is a living example” of the diversity of the United States, and of its music.

Mr. Shinozaki, left, and Chris Celiz in their show, “The Missing Element.”Credit…Jordan Macy for The New York Times

Some Beatbox House members have experience in the region already, like Mr. Shinozaki in Indonesia. And four years ago, Mr. Bhowmick, Mr. Meadows and Mr. Shinozaki performed in Bangladesh, enjoying a warm reception, especially Mr. Bhowmick.

“They look up to me,” he said of his fans in Bangladesh. “I’m a Bengali kid who changed his parents’ minds and broke the conventional path. So when we went there, the crowd was just amazing.” The trip with American Music Abroad, he said, “is going to be very similar in that way, if not even crazier.”

Ms. Bassi pointed out that the biggest beatbox battle in Singapore is typically held in December. But when the organizers of the competition learned that the members of the Beatbox House would be in the country in February, they delayed the competition until then “to bring a bigger audience,” she said.

After visiting Singapore, the group will continue its tour in the Philippines and Japan, doing the same community building, on their own time, that they are doing with the government program, simply because it matters to them. This will be the first trip to Asia that will involve all five members of the group, so they want to make it last as long as possible.

Mr. Urban summed up the mood on behalf of the group, saying he was “just excited to be with my squad” and to “tour the world.”

In addition to performing, the Beatbox House is dedicated to community outreach. Credit…Jordan Macy for The New York Times

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