WASHINGTON — In a first for American diplomacy, a U.S. diplomat performed on the inaugural season of Pakistan Idol in April.
Phillip Assis, the Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. consulate in Karachi, sang on stage on national television during the Pakistan Idol semifinals last month, performing alongside the semifinalists.
"They had never had a foreigner on," Assis, who goes by the stage name Phillip Nelson when he's performing, said in a phone interview from Pakistan. "It was exciting to be on an authentic Idol show."
Pakistan had its first official version of the Idol franchise this year. The embassy reached out and said, "We have a real live singer here if you're interested in having an American on the show," Assis said. A few months after the initial contact, Assis was booked to perform.
Assis, 48, a native of Portland, Oregon, has been singing and playing the piano all his life and "always had a passion for bringing people together culturally and forming bridges between cultures," he said. He was diagnosed with cancer after graduating from Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in 1996, an experience he credits with making him realize that "tomorrow's never guaranteed, and I always dreamed of doing more with my music, and that spurred me on."
Assis previously did tours in Guyana and in the Vatican before coming to Karachi. His next tour will be back in Washington, where he has been invited to perform at a celebration for Pakistan's independence day.
In Pakistan, Assis has been involved in other musical projects, including recording a song in Pashto, the video for which became a hit locally. Though he doesn't speak the local languages, Assis has learned to sing in them phonetically.
"I'm lucky that I have Pakistani colleagues plugged into the cultural field here, so that's how the connections were made," Assis said.
The embassy's press secretary Andrew Armstrong said that Pakistan Idol faced "all kinds of skepticism that they could even pull it off," since auditions were held all over the country, even in remote or dangerous areas.
"It was a cool thing for us to have Phillip be a part of because it builds a different narrative," Armstrong said.
Assis said he does encounter Pakistanis who recognize him from the performance and the song he did previously.
"People have seen the clip, they've seen the song, and people are very excited about it," he said. "They mostly are very excited to — happy to see that I'm here and mostly astonished."
"People do want their picture taken with me all the time but they want that with all foreigners," Assis said with a laugh.
A former U.S. diplomat in Pakistan, Shayna Cram, also had some musical success in Pakistan before Assis' arrival. She recorded a song in Pashto about Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban and who has become an advocate for girls' education.