Mark Katz Interview

Mark Katz is one of the preeminent academics working on hip hop. In addition to his duties as a Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina, he is also the founding Director of Next Level, “a U.S. Department of State–funded program that sends U.S. hip hop artists abroad to foster cultural exchange, conflict transformation, and entrepreneurship.” His most recent book, Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World, is a bit of a culmination of his work at Next Level, distilling the lessons learned since he started the program in 2013. I caught with Mark via email late last month to find out more.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally?

When I was younger, I never imagined I would ever be a professor, and I never thought that traveling the world with hip hop artists would be part of my research. I originally wanted to be a lawyer, but the pull of music was too strong. I didn’t want to be a performer, but I really loved learning and talking about music. I went to grad school and got a PhD in musicology in 1999. Until then my research was mostly on classical music. But I had always enjoyed the sound of record scratching—I was hooked when I heard Grandmixer D.ST scratching on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” in 1983—and decided to do research on hip hop DJs. I then spent years attending battles and shows, interviewing DJs, and learning how to scratch and mix myself (though I never became any good). 

For 20 years now, I have been interacting with and researching hip hop communities, and have written three books that are either all or partly about hip hop: Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music; Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip Hop DJ; and Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World. This last book grew out of my work with Next Level, an international cultural diplomacy program that sends U.S. hip hop artists abroad to work with young people in underserved communities. Through Next Level, which I created and then directed for five years, I went to more than two dozen countries across the globe. My new book draws on the experience of watching hip hop artists from different countries work together and on the more than 150 interviews I conducted along the way.

Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?

My undergraduate and graduate advisors, William DeFotis and Richard Crawford, taught me the importance of clear thinking and writing, and called me on any BS I spouted; they also showed how powerful positive encouragement and reinforcement can be. I’ve also learned so much from the amazing hip hop artists I’ve worked with over the years. They've taught me how to do a lot with a little, they’ve shown me the importance of judging people on their values and their creativity rather than on their social status or wealth, they’ve shown me how to create community through art, and much more. 

How did you come to this subject for a book? What made hip-hop as diplomacy so interesting to you?

I started doing research on hip hop diplomacy because I was running the program. It gave me a ready-made project and I had funding to travel. Hip hop diplomacy is so interesting to me because of its complexities. The phrase “hip hop diplomacy” might seem like a paradox, and people wonder why hip hop artists would deal with the federal government and why the government would spend money on hip hop. Although there are tensions and ambiguities in this work, hip hop diplomacy is not a paradox, and in fact hip hop is an incredibly powerful platform for creating peace. I’ve had the great fortune of observing artists from different countries make music and dance together, and seeing the deep connections people make through art always gives me hope.

Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal. 

In my case, I had already written a book for Oxford University Press (Groove Music), and when I told my editor, Suzanne Ryan, that I was thinking of writing a book about hip hop diplomacy she encouraged me to pursue it and submit a proposal to OUP. So I wrote a detailed proposal, explaining the significance of the topic, my qualifications for writing it, and the audiences I would be writing for; I also provided a chapter outline. I talked to other editors as well, and some of them invited me to submit proposals. I was fortunate to have interest from a variety of good presses. 

I'd love to hear about the research for the book. What did that look like? 

The main source of material for the book was interviews. I did more than 150—with artists from about 25 countries, with State Department officials, with arts activists, and others. I also did a lot of research on global hip hop, on cultural diplomacy, on colonialism and imperialism, and a variety of other topics.

Who had some of the most interesting or surprising things to say in your research? Why?

I really appreciated just how wise, thoughtful, and perceptive hip hop artists can be. This doesn’t surprise me, but I think it would be a surprise to readers whose impressions of hip hop are based on the narrow and often negative depictions in the media. For example, Frankie Perez, a dancer, told me how he can learn about other dancers just by watching them move. As he told me, “I feel like I can get some insights into their personality, the way that they think, in some cases even how they were brought up.”

Sometimes fellow academics tell me that hip hop artists are dupes or tools when they participate in government programs. But what would surprise them is just how aware these artists are of systems of power and how well they understand the ambiguities of their situation. DJ Kuttin Kandi put it this way: “When I come in to working with the United States Department of State, it may seem like a contradiction, but maybe it’s really a form of resistance in a different way.” For Kandi, diplomacy is a tool of hip hop: “I think we have to utilize every tool. This one is literally the tool of being under the United States Department of State, which is completely different, and it’s contradicting, and people can argue that with me, and that’s fine."  

How did you go about writing the actual book?

Although I’ve written a good amount by now, it’s never easy for me. I was fortunate to have some research leave from my university, and that allowed to do a lot of travel and interviews, and some writing. But most of my writing was done while I was a full time professor and administrator. In order to do make this work, I scheduled blocks of time almost every day dedicated to writing. For me, what’s most helpful is momentum. I need to be writing or at least thinking about the book every day. I can’t just write on weekends. It’s also important not to be too ambitious or too hard on myself. So it was OK if I just wrote a page or two on any given day—actually, that would be a good day—I just needed to keep up the pace. 

I’ve also come to know that my first draft (and usually drafts 2 through 10) will suck. My writing only becomes any good after I edit the hell out of it. So I don’t beat myself up when I read my drafts and they’re not works of art. I’ve never been one to write outlines. More accurately, I can’t write outlines until I’ve done some of the actual writing, so outlines help me most when I’m about a third of the way through a chapter. I’ve never been able to write a book from beginning to end. I break them down into less daunting chunks, and I’ll jump from chapter to chapter depending on how I feel. 

I've enjoyed your writing because it's rigorously academic, but also approachable. How do you reconcile these two things in your writing?

Thank you! That’s exactly my goal. I think that anything I write should be understandable by an intelligent non-academic reader, like my parents or the hip hop artists I write about. I also have a mantra that guides my writing: clarity above all else. I try to ensure rigor by imagining a skeptical reader and trying to answer any objections or doubts that reader might have.

Did you listen to any music while you were writing?

I write at home where it’s quiet and I never listen to music while I’m writing. If I’m listening to music it’s often because I’m writing about it, and I need to give it my full attention. 

Any go to snacks?

I try not to eat too much while I’m writing because it makes me want to take a nap. But my go to snack is roasted peanuts. Protein!

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at to get a better sense of hip-hop diplomacy?

I’d encourage people to people to subscribe to Next Level’s YouTube channel. You can see interviews, jam sessions, and performances from around the world. There are hours and hours of great videos.

Can you talk me through a few videos on the YouTube channel that are worth checking out specifically?

The above video offers a brief introduction to how Next Level residencies work; in this case it showcases the workshops that were offered in Myanmar in 2018. Two things (among others) to notice: how Benu says, “We need to learn from you,” which demonstrates how we treat these residencies as mutual exchanges and not as opportunities to spread American culture; also see how one of the dancers mirrors Tsunami’s moves—this is a nice example of how nonverbal communication plays a role in our work. 

The above video showcases B-Boy Samuka from Brasilia. He is an amazing artist who dances with one leg better than most people can with two. After the residency, the legendary b-boy (breakdancer) Kujo, who was a member of the Next Level team from the U.S., invited Samuka to join his crew. Samuka, who had never left his home state, has now traveled the world with ILL-ABILITIES. 

And for one more example, the above video features an exciting collaboration between a group of Bangladeshi folk musicians and American hip hop artists.

What's the best piece of music journalism / academic writing about music you've ever encountered? Why?

I want to recommend four academic books:  

Naomi André, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement.

Chérie Rivers Ndaliko, Necessary Noise: Music, Film, and Charitable Imperialism in the East of Congo.

Imani Perry, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem.

Shana Redmond, Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson.

I didn’t have to think hard to come up with these examples: they are all deeply researched, beautifully written, compellingly argued books. But this isn’t a random selection of excellent scholarship: I consciously chose four books by Black women. I take to heart the mission of the Cite Black Women movement, which seeks to acknowledge and honor Black women’s intellectual production. I highly recommend all four—please read, recommend, and cite them!

Anything you want to plug?

I definitely want to plug the new book, Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World. Here are two things to encourage you: a discount code (order online at with promotion code AAFLYG6 and save 30%) and the fact that I’m donating all my royalties to hip hop community organizations around the world. I’ve already used money from the book to support artists in Jordan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the U.S.