Hip-hop DJs, emcees, beatmakers, and dancers from around the world descended on a hotel conference room in Washington, D.C., this spring to learn how to turn their high-energy musical art into tools for empowerment, entrepreneurship, and conflict resolution.
The program is called Next Level, which teaches “hip-hop diplomacy” and is sponsored by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the University of North Carolina’s music department. Program organizers called on George Mason University professor Arthur Romano for the second year to conduct the workshop of participants from danger-laden conflict zones in Uganda, El Salvador, Tanzania, Thailand, and Honduras.
The idea, Romano said, is to build on their creativity and leadership to change attitudes at home and amplify the voices of young people. They were selected because of their leadership skills and their desire to make a change.
“The richness of the discussion was amazing,” says Romano, who has been teaching about peace- and social justice-related themes with artists and musicians for some 20 years. “Everyone had experienced different forms of violence, but they shared a creative language and connection through hip-hop.”
During their session, the artists were challenged to employ critical thinking about theories of conflict, inequality, and conflict resolution as well as “how power functions, and how to shift those dynamics,” says Romano.
Among other themes, the musicians discussed ways of challenging youth stereotypes as they experience them in their own countries.
The participants are now on missions throughout the world to serve as artists-educators to conduct hip-hop academies.
“They were brilliant,” says Romano. “It was an honor to work with them.”