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The Government’s Efforts To Build Relationships Through Hip-Hop Diplomacy

Rowdy performing in front of the Washington monument.
Courtesy of Mark Katz
Triangle-based hip-hop artist (J) Rowdy performing in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Department of State has a long history of utilizing cultural “people-to-people” diplomacy to advance national interests. One of those programs sends hip-hop artists all over the world to engage in artistic exchange.

The Next Level program was designed by UNC-Chapel Hill music professor Mark Katz in response to a call from the State Department  seeking a program that would “connect Americans with other countries through hip-hop and/or urban music.” In the past six years, it has sent American artists on two-week trips to collaborate with hip-hop beatboxers, beatmakers, dancers, DJs, MCs and graffiti artists all around the globe. In the new book  “Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World” (Oxford University Press/2019), Katz outlines the history of the program and its connection to the hip-hop mythos of creating something out of nothing.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Katz about his book, and the two are also joined by one of the recent participants: Joshua Rowsey, who goes byJ Rowdy on stage. Rowsey recently spent two weeks with the Next Level group in Mexico and shares his experience working around a language barrier to collaborate with other artists. He recently released his sophomore album, "Black Royalty"(No9to5 Music, LLC). Katz and Rowsey will continue the conversation at the book launch, a ticketed event at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 6:30 p.m.

Interview Highlights

Katz on finding out that the State Department chose his proposal for a hip-hop diplomacy program:

Maybe it tells you something about bureaucracy. I got a call from the State Department. They said: We can't say whether you've gotten the grant or not, but can you answer a question? And the question was: What if we gave you $160,000 more than the grant already provides? Do you think you could do something productive with this? And, of course, the answer is yes.

J Rowdy on the global hip-hop culture and challenging the ‘affluent artist’ stereotype:

Well, it was just amazing to see that hip-hop culture that was founded here in America is spreading out globally. And the fact that we were able to collaborate even though we had different languages, like being able to come together through hip hop, it was just amazing [...] I mean, there's a misconception that all hip-hop artists are like a Drake or a Kanye or Jay Z, but to actually understand hip-hop artists and [their] ability to be at this independent level, that was something that [the local artists] were starting to see when we were coming over [to Mexico].

Katz on the global hip-hop culture exchange:

One of the great pleasures of doing this work is going to another country and seeing how they create their own hip-hop. They're not importing hip-hop. They're creating their own. We've seen Bollywood infused hip-hop. We've seen cumbia infused hip-hop, or maybe hip-hop infused cumbia. We've been to Zimbabwe where we've played we played with mbira artists. So when we go places, they don't think of hip-hop as important American culture. They think of it as local culture that they've created through U.S. influences. So it does complicate the question of, say imperialism and globalization, because there's flows both ways and all of our artists who travel abroad come home with new ideas and new styles and sounds to bring into their art.

J Rowdy on talking with the Mexican hip-hop artists about use of the n-word:

I had to break down … [The history] about American slavery and whatnot. But then we even got into talking about different people in Mexico, because a lot of the students that we had were of indigenous backgrounds, so getting that understanding of that divide as well … There was just like, huge dialogues from my understanding of where I'm coming from as a black man that's also a hip-hop artist, but also where they're coming from as someone that is consuming the actual hip-hop culture.


Josie Taris left her home in Fayetteville in 2014 to study journalism at Northwestern University. There, she took a class called Journalism of Empathy and found her passion in audio storytelling. She hopes every story she produces challenges the audience's preconceptions of the world. After spending the summer of 2018 working in communications for a Chicago nonprofit, she decided to come home to work for the station she grew up listening to. When she's not working, Josie is likely rooting for the Chicago Cubs or petting every dog she passes on the street.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.