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A new UNC international exchange program created with more than $1 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of State and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will foster cultural diplomacy through popular music and dance.

Next Level is an initiative of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the UNC music department. It is led by Mark Katz, professor and chair of music in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, recently tapped to become IAH director July 1.

“In hip-hop, when artists say that they want to ‘take it to the next level,’ they are saying that they want to improve themselves, to surpass their current abilities,” Katz said. “Next Level’s artists will teach young people to develop skills and express themselves in ways they wouldn’t have thought possible. The name has another meaning, too. We want to use this as a way to model peaceful and productive collaboration, to transcend conflict in creative ways.”

Next Level grew out of work begun in 2011 by Katz and producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) using an IAH Innovation Grant. The grant program supports entrepreneurial faculty projects that venture beyond traditional methods in the arts and humanities and serve as scalable and translatable models.

“I applied for a grant to support a new approach to teaching music, one that brings academics and practitioners together to teach popular music,” Katz said. “We offer hands-on instruction in composing and performing hip-hop and rock, but we also focus on the cultural, entrepreneurial and historical aspects of the music. This combination is rather unusual. Universities often teach pop music from a cultural or historical perspective, but we are teaching how to make beats, how to rap, how to be in a rock band and the business aspects of each. The students have found this to be an excellent way not only to learn music but also to develop the entrepreneurial mindset. The IAH grant helped launch that.”

From those beginnings, the “Beat Making Lab” grew in unexpected ways. Pierce Freelon joined Levitin to co-teach the class in 2012. With the support of UNC, Levitin and Freelon then expanded the original lab in a grassroots campaign to collaborate with communities around the world by donating equipment and software to community centers and conducting two-week residencies with talented youth. They filmed workshops and created music videos as part of a web series with PBS Digital Studios.

“That got a lot of attention and generated invitations from a number of different countries,” Katz said. “So the Beat Making Lab became its own thing, an international workshop that reaches out to young people across the globe.”

When the State Department issued its request for grant proposals for a two-year grant program to teach hip hop to young people around the world to promote cultural understanding and conflict resolution, it essentially described what the UNC team was already doing.

“We leveraged the success of our courses and workshops to get the State Department grant,” he said.

The Next Level program will take teams of American hip-hop artists to six countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and South Asia to teach hip-hop music and dance. Artists from each of the six countries will travel to Chapel Hill and Washington, D.C., to participate in workshops and performances.

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