The Amazing Journey of the Next Level Global All-Stars, Part II: Chapel Hill, North Carolina

After a week in Washington, DC (see Part I), the Next Level Global All-Stars set out to experience another side of American life in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Home to the flagship campus of the University of North Carolina (which administers the Next Level program), Chapel Hill offers the close-knit and personal feel of a small town, combined with the vibrant intellectual culture of a region commonly known as “the Research Triangle” (in addition to UNC-Chapel Hill, the area is home to two other major research universities: North Carolina State University and Duke University).

The Next Level Global All-Stars, as they had come to be called, are top-level hip-hop artists from all over the world: B-Boy Andjelko Angelo Pavolovic (Serbia), MC Black Zang (Bangladesh), Beatmaker Nyari ‘FTR’ Mazango (Zimbabwe), Singer and percussionist Malabika Brahma (India), MC Toussa Senerap (Senegal) and DJ Zlijay (Bosnia)

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You can find their bios and social media links here.

Though they had only met each other a week earlier, by the time they reached Chapel Hill, they had not only become a team, but a team with a mission. “Wherever they went,” observed Next Level director, Dr. Mark Katz, “they made music.” This included improvised performances with such diverse collaborators as an aspiring rapper at a taco truck, elementary school students eating lunch, college students walking between classes, and shoppers at a food coop, among many others. And those interactions went hand-in-hand with the purpose of the visit itself: to use hip-hop to draw out common human experiences across cultures. A week earlier, the idea of reaching out to people in different environments might have required a conscious effort on the part of the team, but by now it was second nature.

In a sense, the team didn’t really visit different places; they visited different parts of a single community. This, in turn, made their week here feel less like a series of individual events, and more like a single, ever evolving, experience. And that experience – of thinking about the implications of hip-hop as a force for international understanding – took a variety of forms over the course of the week. Some were practical like the concerts, collaborations and free-form jam sessions that the team initiated, while others were more reflective, like the panels, classes and workshops that they attended.

On the more reflective side, the team participated in a number of symposiums that allowed them to share ideas and perspectives on hip-hop diplomacy with experts in a variety of fields. A session on arts entrepreneurship with veteran music entrepreneur Ken Weiss  and Next Level artist Andre Barden (DJ A-Minor), gave them the chance to share practical tools and strategies for creating performance opportunities as well as maximizing the real-world effect of those performances. A roundtable with Prof. Chérie Ndaliko, author of the forthcoming book, Charitable Imperialism, on the risks and rewards of working with Non-Governmental Organizations, inspired team members to think about the political and philosophical implications of working with different types of institutions. An afternoon devoted to the theory and practice of conflict resolution facilitated by Dispute Settlement Center offered a chance to study conflict theory and practice techniques for de-escalating difficult situations. And a Hip-hop Diplomacy panel at UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities gave the artists the chance to share their own expertise on larger issues of art and cultural interaction with the university community.

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In the realm of education, activities included several events that integrated performance with pedagogy. Team members shared their experience in a variety of educational settings, from a guest appearance in Chérie Ndaliko’s “Hip-hop Diplomacy and Social Change” class at UNC to a collaboration with students in the university’s innovative beat-making lab, to a showcase at nearby Carrboro Elementary, which principal Jillian LaSerna declared was the most exciting assembly she had seen in her years at the school.

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You can hear the team’s excitement and dedication for yourself, via another one of the activities they participated in: an enlightening discussion on WUNC’s signature program “The State of Things” about their work in North Carolina and around the world. (listen here).

All of these experiences – both in North Carolina and Washington, DC built to their stirring final performance at the Strowd in Chapel Hill, which brought together all that they had learned and shared over the previous two weeks. Innovative musical collaborations among musicians from around the world became everyday interactions between artistic peers.

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With the residency now complete, the All-Stars began the difficult and emotional process of going their separate ways. Reflecting on their experiences individually and collectively, all agree that it had been a powerful and transformative two weeks. They began their journey as a group of strangers and left as a hip-hop crew and a group of friends. Although continents now separate them, they are in constant contact and are actively planning their first reunion.

For most of the participants, the main lesson to come out of the experience was not so much the community building, the entrepreneurship, the collaboration or the educational interactions. Though all of those were important, the real value was to be found in the relationship between those things. How can artistic collaborations  build relationships that support entrepreneurship? How can the experience of teaching and learning from others facilitate meaningful artistic collaboration? How does a sense of community provide context and opportunity for education? How can education reveal previously unrecognized social and economic opportunities for individuals and communities? The Next Level Global All-Stars explored all of these questions over the course of the residency; the lessons they learned and the friendships they developed will sustain them long into the future.