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Mark Katz

Mark Katz is Tyson Distinguished Professor of the Humanities and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the author of Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music and Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. He is co-editor of Music, Sound, and Technology in America and former editor of the Journal of the Society for American Music. Since 2013 he has directed the U.S. State Department-funded cultural diplomacy program Next Level.

“Selling Out or Getting Paid? The Dilemma of Hip-Hop Diplomacy”
It has now been nearly 15 years since the U.S. Department of State first sent a hip-hop artist abroad on an official tour. During that time the State Department has increasingly turned to hip-hop in order to "enhance people-to-people diplomacy, especially among young audiences," and in 2013 it established Next Level, a program that sends American hip-hop artists abroad to teach and perform with youth in underserved communities. Hundreds of American hip-hop musicians have now toured and taught in scores of countries around the world, all on the State Department’s dime. Although this relationship between the U.S. government and the hip-hop community is no longer new, it remains, or is at least perceived to be, a fraught one. Some commentators suggest that hip-hop artists who tour in service of America’s foreign policy agendas are necessarily selling out, becoming tools of government oppression. Others insist that hip-hop can serve the country of its birth with integrity, and that artists getting paid by the government to do what they love is a welcome development. 

Can hip-hop artists maintain their unique voices when they sign on to State Department tours? As the creator and director of the Next Level program, I believe, not surprisingly, that they can. I recognize that hip-hop diplomacy faces perennial challenges, some unique to hip-hop and some common to all forms of American cultural diplomacy efforts. I argue, however, that hip-hop diplomacy has the potential to do good in the world and does not demand that artists lose their agency or their voices. Drawing on my experience helping run residencies in ten different countries, and based on dozens of interviews with participants of the Next Level program, I explain the challenges and opportunities of hip-hop diplomacy, and ultimately defend its value.

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