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Mark Katz sits cross-legged on a table in the UNC Beat Lab, surrounded by beat-making equipment.

Mark Katz in the UNC Beat Lab. He is the founding director of an international hip-hop diplomacy initiative. (photo by Donn Young)

When asked about the way hip-hop can create bonds between people across geopolitical divides, Mark Katz said that he once asked a Serbian break dancer if there were challenges in performing with dancers from other Balkan countries.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You can’t fight when you’re dancing together,’” Katz said. “‘If you have a shared goal, you set aside your differences because collaboration is more important than your ego.’”

Katz, the John P. Barker Distinguished Professor of Music, has seen many of those examples as the founding director of Next Level, an international hip-hop cultural diplomacy initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, UNC-Chapel Hill and the Meridian International Center.

Katz stressed that even though he launched the program, its success is due to a robust creative community of hip-hop artists from the around the world, artists who have helped to fulfill Next Level’s goal of building a global community through hip-hop culture.

The program, which has now been to more than 50 countries, engaged with over 100 hip-hop artist educators and reached thousands of people, celebrates 10 years in 2024.

“It has been a way for people with a common love of hip-hop to connect across vast differences of language, religion, culture, race, gender and more,” Katz said. “What I value the most is that people often say, unsolicited, that this was a life-changing experience.”

Katz, a classically trained violinist, has been studying and writing about hip-hop music for almost 25 years. He wrote about Next Level’s impact in a 2019 book Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World.

To mark the program’s major milestone, Carolina Performing Arts convened global hip-hop artists in the spring for a series of master classes, workshops, jam sessions, talks and performances.

Read a longer version of this story by Kim Spurr ’88

Published in the Spring 2024 issue | The Scoop

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