Even if you know me well you might be surprised to hear I’m a big hip hop fan. Believe it or not, at this very moment I have Wu Tang’s Wu Chronicles Chapter II on repeat in my Ford Ranger. I regularly sing along, loud, even at red lights. Especially to that D’Angelo jam. I may be a white boy from the suburbs, but I’m down with the Brooklyn Zoo.
Yesterday at UNC Chapel Hill, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities hosted their annual Next Level event. Held midday on the second floor of Hyde Hall, Global Diplomacy and Hip Hop: A Symposium, went off as planned at 3:30pm. And when I say, “went off,” I mean the roof was on fire and we let the motherfucker burn.
Director Professor Mark Katz opened the session by introducing the Next Level crew-a group of international hip hop artists invited to participate in the United States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program. Katz said they didn’t truly know one another until they witnessed each other sing or dance, so that’s how he got the audience acquainted with them, too. As a public speaker, I imagined beginning my presentations with some form of physical expression rather than the standard and boring bio. Maybe I’ll open my next gig with some freestyle and freak everyone out.
The 2016 Next Level team consists of five up-and-coming international hip hop artists:
B-Boy Joseph from Thailand — At age 17, Joseph is the youngest of the crew. He’s a break dancer and works in the newish K-Pop genre, too.
MC Kichelegend from Tanzania — An MC and rapper in both English and Swahili, Kichelegend started his own record label in Africa.
B-Girl Key from Uganda — B-Girl is a dancer of all styles. She works with nonprofits to promote dance to encourage self-empowerment within communities.
MC Ainara from Honduras — Rapper and singer in English and Spanish. She’s currently an anthropology/psychology double major and an activist for women’s rights and community togetherness.
DJ Cue Bass from El Salvador — Cue used to be a school teacher but left to work as a musician full time. His dream is to start a hip hop academy that includes meditation and yoga-a school that promotes peace and well-being.
Katz asked a question to get the panel talking, “How can hip hop be used to promote peace?” Turns out the hip hop (and rap) with which Americans are familiar, namely the violent and misogynistic faction of the art form, represents a small (albeit popular and powerful) force in the genre. The panel agreed that pure hip hop is where myriad voices are organized into one, a platform where people from different backgrounds come together, a place without judgment, of pure acceptance, a safe haven where personal branding is not the goal. Hip hop, they proclaimed, is synonymous with something like freedom.
Katz used this concept of freedom as a segue to dig a bit deeper into Next Level’s connection to the US government. He asked how the artists felt about coming to the states. How did they feel being connected to something that might be (mis)understood as a imperialistic? Their consensus reflected the hip hop “vision” — one that refrained from expectation as much as possible. They were here to do what they love.
B-Girl Key said, “I believe that nobody’s really bad and nobody’s really good. We’re all just humans.” Then MC Kichelegend spoke up and admitted he was afraid to come to the US. His mother, in fact, didn’t want him to leave. She argued that having black skin in America is dangerous, even if you do the right thing. Key jumped in and said yes, “you have to be careful in America because they feed your soul with money.” The crowd sat with this information for a moment before DJ Cue Bass added, “Yeah, my friends who had been to the US said to watch out for cops because they don’t play around.” The room laughed nervously, their own emotions swirling in silence, but Katz kept things moving by asking the crowd for questions.
What’s the world wide image of hip hop? Money, cars, glamour, materialism?
MC Kichelegend: It’s the same in Africa as it is in the US. But there’s a fear that US rap culture will disturb African traditional culture. But most folks, however, know that this is not a reality.
Is it hard to be a woman in the hip hop industry?
B-Girl Key: Yes, but it’s all about hard work and dedication. When I love something I don’t care about the risks that come out of it. My mentors push me hard, then push me harder. And I can tell you that if we get into a rap battle, I will smoke you.
MC Ainara: I am creating a scene in my country. I am the only woman who has ever been a freestyle champion. When women see me doing this, they want to do it too. I am contagious. I help other women feel powerful.
What’s your impression of the USA? (Compilation of the group’s comments)
– I was amazed by the diverse racial coexistence of people just going about their business.
– Body building TV infomercials are mind-blowing.
– Too many people are always saying “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.” Makes me crazy.
– People in general are extremely kind and loving. We’ve all had very generous exchanges with the public.
After this question it looked like things were going to wrap. But MC Kichelegend interrupted and asked why no women were asking any questions. A few (female) hands raised for two final questions.
What got you all stuck on hip hop?
Besides a few folks dropping names of inspirational artists like the Beastie Boys, Onyx, Crystal Fellowship, Tupac Shakur, and influential big brothers and mentors, MC Kichelegend told a story of how it began. At age six he was walking past a group of men listening to Biggie Smalls on a small transistor radio under a mango tree. He stopped to listen too and could see the song’s details playing out in his head. He knew right then that he wanted to rap too.
Is hip hop on the forefront in your country?
The African scene is rocking. The Honduran and El Salvadoran scenes are small and on the ups. And the Thai scene is solid, especially dancing. A few bands were mentioned I want to look up later, so I’ll name them here: Diamond Platinum, a rapper who claims to be more popular than the president of Tanzania (and he might actually be), and Black Zhang, a Bangladeshi group who splices Bangla sounds with modern rap. The Next Level Crew raved about them both.
The session ended at 5:00 and was followed by a catered (Lucha Tigre) music party in which the crowd was invited to participate in some freestyle action. Without a doubt, we were totally having the most fun on campus. I left feeling inspired by a group of five young people hell-bent on following their passions. Which is something we all ought to be doing.