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UNC and State Department program connect global communities through hip-hop

lifestyle-next-level-hip-hop-diplomacy

In 2011, then UNC student and current hip-hop artist Joshua “Rowdy” Rowsey cooked up something fresh in the dining hall.

Around the table, the hip-hop group No9to5 Music was founded. The group included Rowsey and fellow artists, who recorded projects in the studio of the Undergraduate Library's Media and Design Center during their time at the University.

After growing his career between New York and North Carolina, Rowsey became interested in the global scale of hip-hop. In 2019 he was on the way to Mexico to teach students the genre through the organization Next Level.

Next Level, an initiative by the U.S. State Department, was created at UNC by music professor and former chair of the music department Mark Katz. Katz is the founding director of Next Level, but its current director is Junious Brickhouse.

“The broadest goal is not actually just to help people become better rappers, but to use hip-hop as a platform where people from different countries, different identities, languages, any number of differences, can come together and connect over a shared bond, a shared love for hip-hop,” Katz said. 

Next Level was launched in 2013 after receiving a federal grant and collaborating with a number of hip-hop artists. A year later, the first team of U.S. hip-hop artists went on a two-week residency to India.

Since then, Next Level has visited and taught in underserved communities in more than 50 different countries.

These residences consist of a multi-day "Next Level Academy," where the team's artists — which includes rappers, dancers, graffiti artists and more — instruct classes on their art form. The artist educators also collaborate for classes on entrepreneurship and conflict transformation. 

“It creates a kind of family feeling,” Katz said. "People talk about the Next Level family which encompasses all these countries, and I do feel like I could now travel to any of these countries and be welcomed very warmly.”

Rapper JSWISS said he will always feel like a part of the family. 

JSWISS, whose real name is Julian Caldwell, also started his hip-hop career as a student at UNC — he was a part of No9to5 Music with Rowsey.

After getting to know Katz and other artists through his musical involvement at UNC, Caldwell was prodded to apply for Next Level. He was a part of the 2023 team in Lagos, Nigeria. 

“I expected to definitely learn something myself, because I'm coming into a community that I don't know anything about,” Caldwell said. “And it's got its own history in music and hip-hop, separate from what I know. I did expect the students to be enthusiastic. What I didn't see was just how collaborative all of our classes would be, and it was a really beautiful thing.”

This chemistry between the classes, Caldwell said, helped the final performance at the end of the trip. On the stage under the lights, students rapped over beats made by classmates, while others danced along. Caldwell, fitted in a gifted custom-made Nigerian suit, freestyled while being lifted up into the air by his students. 

Caldwell said it was a blessing to help educate a new generation of artists and be a part of building the legacy of hip-hop.

“So I really left like 'Wow, I have this group of people from a part of the world thousands of miles away who are gonna be able to say that they were impacted by me,'" Caldwell said.

That impact, according to Katz, is still felt in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from a residency almost 10 years ago. People from the city — some of whom Katz is still in contact with — continue to reminisce on the Next Level visit from a decade ago, and say that it catalyzed a movement.

This is all that Next Level is about, Katz said — building a global community through hip-hop. 

“For those of us who work specifically in Next Level, from the hip-hop side, it just makes the world feel like a smaller place,” Katz said. "And that's a beautiful thing.”

@jacksonfromm29

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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