“No commodity is quite so strange as this thing called cultural exchange,” Louis Armstrong sang in The Real Ambassadors, a 1962 musical about the U.S. Department of State’s postwar adventures in musical diplomacy. As one of the jazz musicians whom the U.S. deployed to countries such as Asia, Africa, and the Soviet Union, Armstrong was intimately familiar with the contradictions inherent in serving the interests of a racist state with music set against it.
Fifty years later, the U.S.’s global musical language has changed from jazz to hip-hop, but that central conflict is as pointed as ever. Mark Katz, a prominent hip-hop scholar and a music professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, has been in the thick of it for twenty years.
In 2011, after a decade of hip-hop academia, Katz cofounded Beat Making Lab with producer Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid). A hip-hop workshop for UNC students, it grew into a broader vision after a professional connection led Katz, Levitin, Pierce Freelon, and filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala to take the program to a youth center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012.
Reshamwala’s video about the experience was picked up by PBS, and Beat Making Lab started traveling around the world, partnering with local NGOs and other institutions to embed American hip-hop artists in underserved communities. After offering two-week intensives—not just in music production and other hip-hop art forms, but also in entrepreneurship and conflict management—they would leave their equipment and lasting connections behind.
The project’s organic cultural diplomacy became official in 2013, when Katz founded Next Level, which essentially continues Beat Making Lab, but with more artists and on a federally funded scale.
“Pierce emailed me and said, ‘Hey, Mark, there’s this call for proposals from the State Department that looks just like Beat Making Lab,’” Katz says by phone, recalling how he got the grant. “Fast-forward to now, and their most recent residency was in Mongolia, which I think was country number thirty-two.”
Katz documents his journey with Next Level in his new book, Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World (November 4, Oxford University Press). Academic in form yet conversational in tone, it’s built around scores of interviews with hip-hop artists from many countries. Even more striking is how soul-searching it is, as Katz delves into the risks and paradoxes of using hip-hop for state interests and the role of his own white privilege.
We spoke with Katz about the difference between conflict resolution and conflict transformation, the sweet spot where the government’s interests overlap with those of artists, and why, after spending six years building Next Level, he decided the best thing he could do for it was to step away.
INDY: You write about using Next Level for confliction resolution—or “conflict transformation,” as you call it. What is that, as opposed to resolution?
MARK KATZ: If you go back to the history of hip-hop, it’s a form of conflict transformation. It’s a set of art forms that gives voice to marginalized, underserved, and oppressed communities, very explicitly used as alternatives to violence, to joining gangs. It’s always been a tool for channeling aggression, anger, or just the turmoil that exists in all young people into art.
The reason we use “transformation” instead of “resolution” is that we’re not peacekeepers or mediators. It’s a broader concept about addressing the conflict that everyone has in their lives, and not trying to eliminate it, because that’s not possible, but channeling it into something positive and constructive. It may seem like an odd thing to people who don’t know a lot about hip-hop—how can it be used for peace, given some of the themes that come up in the lyrics?—but it’s actually very organic to the art form and culture.
Another kind of conflict your book deals with is harnessing the revolutionary energy of hip-hop to work for a state that it’s fundamentally set against, in some ways.
Yes, that’s one of the most complex and thorny issues that we face, trying to promote hip-hop diplomacy. How do we avoid hip-hop being co-opted, hip-hop artists being exploited? I take that concern very seriously, and we clearly don’t want to be tools of U.S. imperialism. It’s a careful negotiation.
Part of the way we address it is, we have our own organization. It’s not that these artists go out with a foreign-service officer who tells them what to do. The leadership of Next Level is all hip-hop artists, alumni of the program, who are talking to people at the State Department about what we’re willing and not willing to do.
In a sense, we have overlapping agendas. The U.S. State Department has its agenda of promoting U.S. values and interests and protecting American citizens abroad. Next Level has a slightly different agenda, which is building global community through hip-hop. But they’re not actually at odds with each other. In an interesting way, we’re kind of using each other. The State Department is using hip-hop to connect with communities that don’t like the U.S. government but love hip-hop. The hip-hop artists are using the State Department to develop their craft, build community, and have life-changing experiences abroad. I don’t mean “use” in a cynical sense, but we have interests we can both serve if it’s done carefully and respectfully.
“I think it would be irresponsible for me, as a white man who has a certain amount of privilege and authority, to pretend that my position is irrelevant to hip-hop diplomacy.”
What’s interesting is that this is partly an academic book about cultural diplomacy and partly a book that critiques cultural diplomacy—and itself, with you reckoning with your whiteness and relative power. Why was it important to bring that into it, instead of treating it as a results-based academic book?
I think it would be irresponsible for me, as a white man who has a certain amount of privilege and authority, to pretend that my position is irrelevant to hip-hop diplomacy. There’s a reason I got this grant and one of the hip-hop artists I work with wouldn’t have. Because of my connection to a well-known university and my identity, I have access to funding that other people don’t.
I think it’s important for people, hip-hop fans or academics, to know that identity matters and that power structures shouldn’t be invisible. That’s not just applicable to Next Level. The concept I talk about, the “zone of ambiguity”—that is everywhere. I think of it when I go to meetings at UNC and we talk about Silent Sam and the history of slavery at the university. We all deal with this in our daily lives; the State Department isn’t an outlier.
I’ve been asking about the ideas of the book at the risk of making it sound less narrative than it is. You interviewed 150 people in many different countries. Did you gather all of this in the course of your work with a mind toward writing a book?
When I was awarded the grant, I immediately saw this as a research opportunity. My first interviews for this book happened in the first residency of Next Level. I’m getting sent around the world, funded, to interact with hip-hop artists, and I knew I should treat it not just as a program I needed to manage, but as an incredible opportunity to learn about hip-hop around the world.
The book takes us into the Trump age. How did the changeover from Obama change the nature of doing hip-hop diplomacy in, say, Muslim countries?
We were in Tunisia shortly after the election, and everywhere I went, people would tell me, “I don’t like your government and what they’ve done to my country over the years, but I love American culture and I love hip-hop.” Most of the places we went were not friendly to Trump and, oddly enough, it created almost a stronger bond, in solidarity against Trump and what he represented in terms of Islamophobia, anti-immigration, misogyny, and so on.
Why did you step down from Next Level last year?
I’m still part of the organization as founding director, but as I started to hire artists who had participated to help run the program, I saw that the best thing I could do was create the opportunity for Next Level to be run solely by hip-hop artists. I brought in Junious Brickhouse, an amazing dancer and historian and teacher, as associate director, and then he became co-director, and now he’s the director. I intentionally stepped away to be more in a support situation.
This gets back to my position in the world: I don’t think I, as a white man, should be taking up space when others can and should be. This whole project got me thinking very deeply about power relations, and I tried to bring that home and think about it in terms of myself, how I’m participating in power asymmetries or making them invisible.
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