Style Peace: Hip-Hop as Cultural Diplomacy

At Next Level, we are proud of our deep commitment to hip-hop as a culture. And one of the most fundamental aspects of that commitment is to make sure that hip-hop culture doesn’t only influence what we do, it also influences how we do it.

That philosophy can take many forms: sometimes it’s about what Next Level artist and site manager Jaci Caprice calls hip-hop’s “Make-do-with-what-you-got-ness”.

Sometimes it’s about finding connections between hip-hop and other traditional arts, like this collaboration that developed during the 2015 Uganda residency:

And sometimes it’s about the way we share knowledge.

Many people don’t realize that traditional hip-hop arts are usually taught through an apprenticeship system. This system not only provides instruction in the actual techniques of the art form, it provides a personal connection to the material and – in a deeper sense – a connection to the history of hip-hop itself. This system not only provides guidance and structure, it offers the student legitimacy and their own place in the ongoing history of the art form. In that sense, all hip-hop practitioners are ultimately branches of the same tree. Making people aware of that fact and its implications is an important part of the teaching system.

At Next Level, we try to embody this philosophy as much as possible, not only because we respect hip-hop’s traditions, but also because it’s a great way to build a sense of community with people around the world.

The first part of the process, of course, is to choose artists who are qualified to be mentors in the first place. Many of our artists are internationally recognized for their historical contributions to hip-hop culture, and all are experienced practitioners and masters of their craft. In fact, most of our artists practice multiple hip-hop art forms.

Team Tanzania – Graffiti

The next step is to connect with people in our host countries who are a good fit for the program, particularly in terms of being mentors themselves and thereby carrying on the tradition. This is largely the work of Next Level’s leadership team, all of whom are hip-hop practitioners, scholars, or both. Their experience and philosophical approach informs the process of building these connections in many ways, from the actual collaborations to the pre-existing contacts they have through their outside artistic practices. More often than not, after the locations of our residencies are set, someone in the Next Level orbit will mention that they know a b-girl or DJ in that area that we should get in touch with while we are there.

The third part is the actual collaboration that develops during the residencies. The hip-hop teaching system is naturally based on sharing because it assumes that anyone who wants to learn the art form also wants to contribute to it. Hip-hop arts are not something to be uncritically imitated; their goal is to open spaces and opportunities for self-expression. For people and communities whose voices have historically been ignored, this is often one of the most empowering aspects of the culture.

But finding your voice is not only the goal of learning hip-hop, it is also an important part of the process. In many ways, to study hip-hop is to study yourself. And when that process involves a collaboration between people of different cultures, it can help to build a connection between those cultures and help individuals find their place in the global hip-hop community.

In fact, the common language of hip-hop culture allows us to communicate beyond words. Our MCs can understand a great deal from another MC, even when they don’t speak their language, by focusing on their flow, gestures, and expressions. Our dancers, too, are able to communicate without speaking a common language, just as our beatboxers, beatmakers, DJs, and graffiti artists can teach effectively through their gestures and examples. We always have interpreters, but sometimes they’re not even needed.

In this video from our Next Level 2.0 Honduras residency, for example, B-Boy Jeremy  (HaviKORO) cyphers with some random b-boy he just met on the street:

The final component is maintaining the connections we have built after the residency is over. This process is accomplished formally through the Next Level Global residencies and reunions (links) and informally through individual relationships. Most of our participants have maintained international friendships for years after the end of the residencies, and many have even continued to work together, either in person or long-distance.

From this point of view, the concept of “hip-hop diplomacy” is almost redundant. At its deepest levels – from its learning style to the art itself – hip-hop culture is a form of diplomacy.