The Amazing Journey of the Next Level Global All-Stars Part I: Washington, DC

Over our first year of existence, Next Level has sent teams of American hip-hop artists and educators to six sites around the world: Bosnia and Herzegovina/Montenegro, India, Serbia, Bangladesh, Senegal and Zimbabwe. To close out the year, we invited one artist from each of those countries to come to the United States to participate in a series of workshops, panel discussions, performances, collaborative musical interactions and public presentations.

The residency took place in two parts: the first half was spent in the urban environment of Washington, DC, while the second half brought the team – who quickly became known as the “Next Level Global All-Stars” – to the smaller community of Chapel Hill, NC, home of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (This portion will be dealt with in the second installment of this blog).

The six individuals who were chosen for the Global Next Level residency – Adjelko Angelo Pavlovic (Serbia), Black Zang (Bangladesh), Nyari ‘FTR’ Mazango (Zimbabwe), Malabika Brahma (India), Toussa Senerap (Senegal) and Zlijay (Bosnia) – have distinguished themselves not only as artists, but also as educators and social activists (You can find their bios and social media links here). Although most of them had not met each other before the program began, they quickly found common ground in their love of hip-hop and what it could accomplish, particularly its ability to create a space where people from different cultures could communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

It is worth taking a moment at this point to remember this kind of communication was actually one of the original goals of hip-hop’s creators. Though hip-hop’s pioneers were mostly of African ancestry, their families traced their roots to many different places in the African Diaspora, including the English-, French-, and Spanish-speaking Caribbean and the American South. At its very foundation, hip-hop was designed to facilitate communication between youth from diverse backgrounds, and support them in expressing their individual and collective identities. Hip-hop doesn’t just allow its practitioners to articulate their own distinctive point of view – it demands it.

Hip-hop represents a worldview where diversity is the norm, not the exception, and we strive to uphold that. One of Next Level’s main goals has always been to use the framework of hip-hop culture to expose participants to a diverse range of experiences and perspectives. The same performance can even be meaningful to different people for different reasons, and this understanding has always been at the heart of our diplomatic mission.

This attitude was in the air when the team arrived in Washington, DC, to meet each other and begin collaborating. Only a day after arriving in the U.S., they were already gathered in a hotel room making music together:

In 2015, it may not be shocking to learn that a Bosnian DJ/Producer, a Zimbabwean beatmaker, an Indian singer, and two MCs from Senegal and Bangladesh respectively could collaborate with each other, but it is notable that they could do so without compromising either their own individuality or the quality of the song itself. This theme – that hip-hop culture can provide valuable guidance in how to maintain individuality while working towards a common goal – ran through all of the week’s activities.

The previous afternoon had been spent at a roundtable on developing community arts programs with representatives from several local hip-hop arts organizations, including Words, Beats & LifeUrban Artistry, and Guerilla Arts Ink. DJ 2Tone Jones (WBL) Asheru Benn (GA), and Junious Brickhouse (UA) engaged participants in intense, practical and very candid discussions about how to manifest hip-hop’s most idealistic goals in the real world. Some of the topics discussed included how to integrate hip-hop with specific curricular goals in a formal educational setting, strategies for explaining hip-hop’s pedagogical traditions to skeptical educators, and how to help youth integrate hip-hop into their lives in a productive way. As Asheru Benn pointed out, “Being a rapper shouldn’t stop you from being anything else you want to be.”

The second evening was spent at a jam sponsored by Words, Beats & Life. WBL, who describe themselves as “unapologetic advocates for the transformative power of hip-hop culture in all its forms, empowering artists to relentlessly create and refine systems that demonstrate this notion of positive change through creativity,” welcomed the Global NL team to their headquarters in the heart of the city. The team joined members of Words, Beats & Life and the dance collective Urban Artistry to interact on the dance floor, on the mic and on the turntables in an object lesson in how hip-hop can help people from different cultures to express their perspectives in a way that is mutually valuable.

zangziltousmala

Later in the week, the team visited the School Without Walls for a lecture/demonstration before a crowd of almost unbelievably enthusiastic young students. Just seeing B-boy Angelo warming up before the performance elicited waves of cheers from the appreciative audience. Team members took turns demonstrating different aspects of hip-hop, talking about its role in their home cultures, and emphasizing that hip-hop itself was invented by kids and teens as a creative outlet. And since hip-hop was specifically created to allow youth to develop their own interests – both artistically and educationally – it still holds tremendous potential to do just that.

On a fitting side note, it was not lost on participants that the School Without Walls’ location was directly adjacent to Rock Creek Park, namesake of one of hip-hop’s most enduring breakbeats, by Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds:

These events – and many others over the course of the week, including a workshop on engaging communities with poetry with the writers’ collective Split This Rock, and a well-received performance at the American University School of International Service – served as a fine way to cap off the first year of Next Level, as well as to demonstrate the value of its approach.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of all of the team’s activities was the sense of mutual sharing. None of the programs were about one person imposing their ideas on another; the assumption was that everyone had something valuable to contribute. This assumption was proven true time and time again, both internally within the Next Level team and externally in their interactions with others. The team’s meetings with other artists and organizers were a unique opportunity to discuss strategies and outcomes, and their workshops with youth, teens and college students showed hip-hop’s potential to guide individuals to a disciplined approach to skills development, social change, and education.

With these experiences under their collective belt, the team said goodbye to the nation’s capital and turned their attention to North Carolina…