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  • Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World by Mark Katz
  • Abimbola Cole Kai-Lewis
Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World. By Mark Katz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. [xvii, 232 p. ISBN 9780190056117 (hardcover), $24.95; also available as e-book, ISBN and price vary.] Bibliography, illustrations, index.

Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World chronicles the evolution of the Next Level hip-hop diplomacy program of the US Department of State. Author Mark Katz, professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, served as the director of Next Level between 2013 and 2018, a period throughout which 111 artists actively participated in the initiative. Build describes the involvement of artists in cyphers (freestyle emcee battles), concerts, and workshop sessions in over two dozen countries across six continents (p. ix). Katz incorporates artist interviews, performance observations, photographs, and personal recollections from a wide range of destinations in emphasizing that the purpose of the program was to foster cross-cultural interactions through the elements of hip-hop culture—aerosol art, breakdancing, deejaying, and emceeing. [End Page 241]

In the introduction, Katz explains that hip-hop diplomacy is "part of the US government's decades-long deployment of the arts in international relations" (p. 4), acknowledging that it began in the early twenty-first century but can be traced back to jazz diplomacy beginning in the 1950s. Katz links this form of diplomacy to building—collective and collaborative work intended for communal advancement—and frames building as both a "constructive, mutually beneficial model of engagement" and a way to "build bridges, connecting people who would have little reason to interact otherwise" (p. 17). Each chapter presents different aspects of Next Level, its international impact, and how it built linkages between the United States and other countries.

In chapter 1, "History from Jazz Ambassadors to Hip Hop Diplomats," Katz offers a survey of musicians that served as State Department diplomats. He traces the process of identifying artists that were deemed to be appropriate international envoys. Initially, this included the American Ballet Caravan, the League of Composers Wind Quintet, and the Yale Glee Club, who travelled overseas as part of the work of the Office of Interamerican Affairs. The selection of these artists was criticized for being unrelatable to the public because of its exclusion of diverse artists and genres of music. Katz shares the perspective of musicologist Charles Seeger, who opposed the choices of the State Department and declared, "But let us also live true to our democratic principles and encourage primarily the communication of that which is common between the common men of all countries. This, in music, must now, and for some time to come, be done in folk and in popular idioms" (p. 28). Jazz eventually became a vehicle for cultural diplomacy from the 1950s through the 1970s. Katz highlights festivals, performances, and tours between 1956 and 1973 and describes the tours of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in Argentina, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Greece, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Serbia, Syria, Turkey, and Uruguay. This engendered ensuing jazz diplomacy tours by other musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, and Randy Weston.

Katz transitions from jazz diplomacy to the rise of hip-hop diplomacy in 2001 by presenting poet Toni Blackman's initial trip to Ghana and Senegal. Blackman, recognized as one of the premier hip-hop poets in Washington, DC, at the time, was contacted by the State Department for a tour. The State Department, Blackman recalled, was "looking for someone who had travelled internationally, who was an educator, who was actively performing as an artist, who had experience in Africa and maybe Southeast Asia. That was me" (p. 33). Her time as a cultural diplomat solidified her role as the first "American Cultural Specialist in hip hop" (p. 33). Blackman was celebrated for her work and later became an integral member of Next Level.

In the wake of Blackman's international tours, the State Department selected additional artists to serve as hiphop diplomats, such as the Havikoro Dance Crew (which traveled to Azerbaijan and Vietnam) and Ozomatli...


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