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UNC professor turns to hip-hop to expand music education, and to change the world

U.S. State Department and UNC create ‘community through hip hop’

UNC-Chapel Hill hosted the Carolina Hip Hop Institute in June, an 11-day summer program dedicated to the art of hip hop. Mark Katz designed the course based on Next Level, an international arts diplomacy initiative funded by the State Department.
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UNC-Chapel Hill hosted the Carolina Hip Hop Institute in June, an 11-day summer program dedicated to the art of hip hop. Mark Katz designed the course based on Next Level, an international arts diplomacy initiative funded by the State Department.

As an American institution, the university campus has long been a place to bring together different people and ideas. For instance, did you hear about the time the U.S. State Department teamed with UNC to promote hip-hop diplomacy?

This summer, UNC-Chapel Hill hosted the Carolina Hip-Hop Institute, an 11-day program dedicated to the art and sound of what is arguably the most influential style of music in contemporary popular culture.

“The impression people might have, even if they like hip-hop, is that it’s a kind of novelty that we’re teaching this,” said Mark Katz, a professor in the UNC Music Department. “But there is a very significant population of students across campus who identify with hip-hop, not just as their favorite music, but as a tool for living.”

He designed the program, adapting the course from his ongoing work with Next Level, an international arts diplomacy initiative he designed that’s funded by the State Department’s Cultural Programs Division.

Over the past five years, Next Level has brought a rolling interactive program of hip-hop music, dance and art to more than 30 countries. Similar to the Jazz Ambassadors program in the 1950s — in which American jazz musicians took their art form abroad — Next Level is a way to celebrate the egalitarian ethic of hip-hop around the world.

The summer school course was intended to be an immersive educational version of the international program, with UNC students earning up to three academic credit hours. In this year’s inaugural program, 14 students put in eight hours a day in one of two classes: beat making and hip-hop dance. Each student worked on his or her own project throughout the two weeks, with a final concert bringing all the elements together.

Jill Staggs, program officer with the State Department’s Cultural Programs Division, visited campus to see how Next Level was adapted to the college summer school experience.

“It’s great,” Staggs said. “The way the workshops are taught, it really engages the students and helps them see the bigger picture of how their art form can reflect and relate to other issues.”

The summer program was a homecoming of sorts. Katz also largely designed the federal Next Level initiative, building the program from a series of hands-on hip-hop classes he’s been teaching at UNC since 2011.

“It’s kind of come full circle,” Katz said. “I thought, why not bring Next Level back to the classroom? It just keeps building on itself.”

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Kerwin Young, left, a musician and educator who guest instructed a beat making class at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hip Hop Summer Institute, helps Daniel Odeh, right, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, pick out samples to work into his music on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Sharing art with students

Musician and educator Kerwin Young, guest instructor of the summer beat making class, previously worked with Katz in Next Level. Both the international program and the UNC class proceed from the same essential impulse, he said.

“We take our art and go out and share what we do — rappers, producers, dancers and graffiti artists,” Young said. “With this class, I’ve got nine students and a third of them, this is their first time doing anything like this.”

Young has a long resume in hip-hop and music composition. He worked on the classic 1990 Public Enemy album “Fear of a Black Planet” and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the group in 2013. He also composes music for string quartets, symphonies and film scores. His summer workshop class taught students how to build their own music tracks from the ground up, using computers, sequencers and other electronic devices.

Young gave visitors a tour around the Beat Lab, a dedicated space in Hill Hall for hip-hop music makers. He showed off the room’s dozen or so turntables and mixers, the primary instruments of the DJ-as-musician.

“People want to say hip-hop is a certain thing; it’s not a certain thing,” said Young, who first started deejaying in New York City in 1983. “The music has always been diverse. You look back, you’ll find rock with Run-DMC, you’ll find street funk, reggae, country, blues, jazz. It’s not a thing that’s locked into a box.”

Across the rotunda in Hill Hall, Young’s beat making students commandeered an empty classroom to spread out with their own laptops, sequencers and mixers. Sophomore Erin Goeke, a math major by day, worked on her new music tracks using a laptop and a borrowed MIDI controller.

“The whole beat-making process is really interesting,” Goeke said. “It’s really opened up the world of hip-hop for me.”

Goeke said she was surprised at how many hours she put into her project this summer — she took math classes, too — and how much she enjoyed her hip-hop education.

“You listen to the music, and it’s really personal, you really feel it, you know?” she said. “And to actually learn about hip-hop, the larger culture of it all, that’s something I had no experience with before.”

Meanwhile, across the way in the Kenan Music Building, guest dance instructor Junious “House” Brickhouse led his students in the hip-hop dance tradition known as popping.

“Shoulder, elbow, forearm, wrists, and down,” Brickhouse said, standing between his students and a giant wall mirror. Brickhouse, a folklorist and historian of African-American dance traditions, is also a veteran of the Next Level program. He recently was appointed director, succeeding Katz.

“That movement is called body cracking,” Brickhouse said to his students, checking their progress in the mirror. “I’m just cracking at each joint, and if I change the tempo on that, what we have is a wave. See? All I did was change the time signature.”

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Isaiah Caldwell, middle, and Alexis Dunlap, right, work on their music projects in Kerwin Young’s beat making class in Hill Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Expanding music education

For Katz, currently director of the department’s graduate studies, the summer Hip-Hop Institute is a part of a larger effort to open up new options for students in music education. Previously, Katz has brought in local artists — rappers, producers and DJs — to co-teach hip-hop classes in the regular academic year.

“The purpose of a music department is to connect with all students who are interested in music, period – and not just a certain kind of music,” he said.

Jan Yopp, dean of the summer school at UNC, said the Carolina Hip Hip Institute is a perfect fit for both the music department and the summer school program as a whole.

“Summer school offers students courses and experiences that they can’t get during the academic year,” Yopp said. “The Music Department has really been the poster department for this with programs in jazz, chamber music and the violin symposium.”

The new summer school classes reflect the massive popularity and importance of hip-hop in contemporary culture, Katz said. It is, quite literally, what the kids are listening to these days.

The term “hip-hop” is often used as a musical designation, Katz said, but it’s really more of an art movement or culture based on an ethic of radical inclusiveness. Like jazz, it’s a distinctly American art form.

Katz recently completed a book on his experience with the Next Level program. “Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World” will be released in November by Oxford Press. He’s also planning an expanded Carolina Hip Hop Institute next summer, adding a third class on rapping, emceeing and lyric writing.

“What we’re trying to do is kind of a domestic spinoff of Next Level,” he said. “It’s ultimately meant to be an innovative form of music pedagogy. It’s a way of fulfilling our mission as a music department.”

Glenn McDonald is a Chapel Hill-based freelance writer. He can be reached at glennmcdonald1@gmail.com.
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