Next Level is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Meridian International Center. Its mission is to use hip hop music, dance, and art to foster cross-cultural creative exchange in diverse communities. The program works to promote understanding and conflict transformation in these audiences, and support the professional development of artists in those communities. It also builds on the historic legacy of the Department of State’s Jazz Ambassadors, who first traveled the world in the 1950s to connect with people through music.
On this episode of cultureXchanges, Next Level Founding Director, Dr. Mark Katz is joining us to discuss the history of global hip hop and how hip hop can be a bridge for cultural diplomacy.
Episode 1: Global Hip Hop Diplomacy
Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts.
Today on cultureXchanges, Next Level Founding Director, Dr. Mark Katz is joining us to discuss the History of Global Hip Hop. Next Level is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Meridian International Center meant to use hip hop music, dance, and art to foster cross-cultural creative exchange in diverse communities. In addition to his role in Next Level, Mark Katz is a professor of Music at the University of North Carolina. His scholarship focuses on music and technology, contemporary popular music, musical diplomacy, and the violin. On today’s episode we are going to discuss the Hip Hop arts and culture movement, which originated among Black and Latinx communities in New York and took the world by storm in the 1970s. We will also dive into how Hip Hop, in its various art forms, has contributed to cultural diplomacy and what role Next Level plays in that.
TK Harvey – Hi and welcome, thanks for joining our program! We’re so pleased to include Dr. Mark Katz and are grateful for his time. We’re going to get started. From a historical perspective, Dr. Katz, I wonder if you could share a little bit about how hip hop developed into an international art form
Dr. Mark Katz – Hip hop actually began as an international art form in several ways. It grew up in the Bronx, NY and it was very localized. However, that was an area in which people from all over the world worked together, played together, made music together. So hip hop, even though it is rightfully considered an African American tradition, it was from the very beginning influenced by a variety of different traditions. So Caribbean traditions, Latin American traditions, whether in terms of sound system culture from Jamaica or Barbados, or some of the dances or rhythmic patterns of salsa, and other Latin American traditions. However, in terms of its international footprint, that didn’t happen for several years after its birth, and there was a tour early on of some hip hop artists in France and England, so you might call them the very first, hip hop diplomats. But really, I would say internationalization of hip hop came through technology and media, so particularly film. So, there are some films in the early 80s that were seeing around the world that had little elements of hip hop. For example, Flash Dance from 1983 had a well-known break dance scene. But then over the years there were a number of hip hop related films that really got the attention of people around the world, so it was really through media that hip hop became an international phenomenon.
TK Harvey – And really absorbed by many different countries and you know leading us to current day, hip hop is really one of America’s best exports. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about how hip hop has been used as a tool for cultural diplomacy. And as a follow up to that, how does our shared Next Level global hip hop exchange program fit into this history of hip hop diplomacy?
Dr. Mark Katz – Hip hop diplomacy in terms of its official State Department funded and supported activity was founded in 2001 and that was when Toni Blackman, who is very close to the connected with the Next Level program, was asked to do some tours in West Africa, particularly Senegal that happened in 2001. But it wasn’t until a few years later that the State Department started doing more, and that was generally one-off programs. And then it really wasn’t until after the Arab Spring or in the midst of the Arab Spring that the State Department began to really pay attention and devote resources to hip hop. And Next Level was created in 2013 and its first residencies were in 2014. And Next Level represents an expansion of the State Department’s work in cultural diplomacy around hip hop, and still is the only program devoted just to hip hop. And right now, even though there are quite a variety of programs that involve hip hop, it remains the main way which the State Department I’d say deploys hip hop in its cultural diplomacy activities.
TK Harvey – These residencies, I mean really embodies this cross-culture of communication and dialogue between the U.S. and other countries. I wonder you know we do together with you about five residencies per year and we’re into our 9th and even 10th cycle of Next Level program work quite proud of to be partnering with you and UNC. I wonder if you could share an example of the time that you were surprised to see how a nation or culture had Put their own spin on an element of hip hop. Doubtless there are so many, but maybe a couple stick out for you.
Dr. Mark Katz – I would say that I’m constantly surprised and delighted by how hip hop has been adapted, adopted, absorbed into local cultures. And that’s one of the really one of the strengths of hip hop is its adaptability. So, I saw Bollywood dance merged with hip hop dance when we were in Calcutta. When we were in Bandung, Indonesia, we saw some very traditional fan dances that you know would have connected to middle class culture connected with hip hop beats. In Egypt, we heard a Nubian funk band playing hip hop. Basically, every place we have gone, we have seen how local communities infuse hip hop with traditional elements, whether it’s classical music or traditional music or popular music.
TK Harvey – Yeah, and what’s surprising I’m sure to you is when you, when you reach these countries, you sort of, you fall into this local hip hop scene that perhaps you knew very little about. And it’s not just in emceeing, right, it’s aerosol art and breaking and dancing and singing and producing music. So is there a country that you felt wow, I had no idea that there was this hip hop infrastructure and here we are, we’re doing our residency. We’ve got participants involved and boy, what a refreshing perspective to come and find that the community of hip hop professionals is quite larger than you thought.
Dr. Mark Katz – That experience going into a country and being surprised at how robust the hip hop scene is. Actually, it’s happened many times and one of our first residencies was in Zimbabwe and I was interviewing one of our local partners and I said, “did you have—do you have any concerns about having Americans coming into your country and doing this program?” And he said, “well, my concern was that you would come here and try to teach us hip hop. We already know hip hop and we don’t want you to teach us, we want to build with you.” So early on, I really got the sense that people wanted to collaborate. They didn’t want us to bestow our authentic hip hop upon them, they had authentic hip hop. So, we saw that in Zimbabwe, in Senegal encountered several different hip hop organizations across Dakar in Alexandria. Cairo saw really robust hip hop scenes. Really, I could just go on and list almost every country we’ve been to, and it really is a testament to the power of hip hop. And in that it’s a form that is very closely associated with the U.S. but has been adapted into the local cultures of communities all around the world.
TK Harvey – In a lot of ways hip hop has turned into an international language and a power to bring communities together, which is really what the founding of hip hop originated with in New York so really exciting to see that take place elsewhere and even more exciting to have our residency and country to instill those values and traditions. You know many would compare the current day Next Level exchange programs to the Cold War jazz diplomacy exchange programs, where America exported our jazz musicians at the height of the civil rights movement, and so music really did play a political role. And so, I wonder, as a hip hop which came out of urban, black, and proud communities has called out for years systemic oppression such as police brutality and mass incarceration since its creation, how do you interpret the intricate relationship hip hop as a culture and movement that critiques legal, political, and social oppression?
Dr. Mark Katz – Well, hip hop has long been a form of critique of power. It’s not just a form of protest.; there’s a lot of celebration, there’s a lot of joy in hip hop, but there’s no doubt that hip hop is really powerful way of speaking truth to power. And that is a tradition that was born when hip hop arose, or you might say it arose out of the need for that kind of critique and truth telling. And I would say it makes it both kind of fraught form for the government to work with, but a really powerful one. It’s fraught because if you allow free speech and encourage freedom of expression, you might well be criticized for and you open yourself up to criticism. But that’s exactly what I see the State Department at its best doing, which is allowing citizens of the U.S. to critique the government, and we’ve seen that in our residencies. I will say sometimes it makes embassy staff just a little uncomfortable when they hear these really harsh critiques. But we’ve never—we’ve never encountered someone telling us that we cannot say what we want to say, never had people try to censor Next Level’s message. And I think that tension and that actual discomfort is really productive and when it comes to the historical scope of cultural diplomacy it does show a connection with jazz diplomacy, which was said to be powerful because it allowed citizens of the U.S. to critique their own government, which is something that other countries, in particular the Soviet Union, was not willing to allow.
TK Harvey – Would you say that it’s fair to say that other countries also use hip hop in the same way, sort of that that vehicle of I guess protest is the word, but really criticism of local authorities. I mean would you find that to be the case that this element has no boundaries and the fact all countries are going through the same reality?
Dr. Mark Katz – I do see how hip hop across the world is used as a form of protest, as a form of critique. We’ve seen that very clearly in our residencies. It’s interesting how in every place it manifests itself differently. When we’re in Zimbabwe, and this was during Mugabe’s reign, you couldn’t just criticize Mugabe, you know, explicitly and get away with it. But we encountered hip hop artists who would use coded messages or allusions or metaphors to call out injustice. We saw similar things happening Egypt. When we were in Colombia, we saw actually more explicit articulations of disaffection with the police. But yes, it’s something that happens everywhere but is kind of modified to suit what is possible in the local environments.
TK Harvey – Yeah, and to sort of end on a positive note, it definitely transcends far beyond any sort of musical form that is intended for protest. I mean, hip hop by its definition is really all about community building, right? And creating a safe space for people to come in and express themselves. What I found really inspiring about our Next Level program is that it is an open door and there are no wrong approaches to this art form. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that, just the real community messaging of hip hop as a culture.
Dr. Mark Katz – Well, the protest element, and kind of oppositional stance gets the most attention. But I would say most of the time when I’m hearing hip hop being created in the Next Level program, it’s not explicit anti-government or anti-authoritarian protest, it’s about just people’s lives. It’s about—it might be about love; it might be about family. And it is often explicitly about community, about bringing people together, and it’s one of the most powerful things about hip hop and about the Next Level program is how it builds community. How, we are coming from the U.S., can go to another country where we don’t speak the language, we may not share religion, culture, systems, government histories and so on, and within minutes can be connected with each other very powerfully through hip hop. A lot of times people use the metaphoric family and think of hip hop artists coming from the U.S. as family who they just had never met before. So, I would say that’s really the contribution of hip hop diplomacy is in bringing people together and creating common cause where you might not think there isn’t.
TK Harvey – Yeah, that’s really the nature of the program and it goes without saying that with every residency, there’s just a massive alumni component to this, there’s a lot of follow on activities. I want to encourage our audience members to learn more about the Next Level exchange program at nextlevel-usa.org. And I want to thank you Dr. Mark Katz for joining us in this discussion.
Dr. Mark Katz – Thanks a lot. It was great talking to you.
Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy, in its many forms, on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy.
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