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This interview is from Bookmark This, a feature that highlights new books by College of Arts & Sciences faculty and alumni, published on the first Friday of every month during the academic year.

Mark Katz
Mark Katz in the Hill Hall rotunda with his book, “Build! The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World.” (photo by Kristen Chavez)

Featured book of January: Build! The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World (Oxford University Press, November 2019) by Mark Katz.

Q: Can you give us a brief synopsis of your book?

A: Build is a study of hip-hop diplomacy — it explores the history of the U.S. State Department’s use of hip-hop as a means to build bridges with other countries around the world. At heart, the book is about the power of art — and the complexities and challenges of the state’s use of art as a form of power — especially when the art originates from historically marginalized and oppressed communities.

Q: How does this fit in with your research interests and passions?

A: I’ve been studying and writing about hip-hop music for 20 years, so in some ways this book is a comfortable extension of my previous work. But I’ve also delved into new territory here by writing about diplomacy, dance and Islam, for example, which has been very exciting for me.

Q: What was the original idea that made you think: “There’s a book here?”

A: In 2013, I received a large grant from the State Department to create a hip-hop diplomacy program, which came to be named Next Level. Since then the program has sent teams of U.S. hip-hop artists to run workshops and perform in underserved communities in more than 30 countries. My role was to create and direct the program, but I immediately saw the scholarly potential of the project. I started doing interviews with people at each residency and began learning about the history of U.S. cultural diplomacy. The people and issues I encountered were absolutely fascinating, and it wasn’t long before I decided to write a book. Obviously, I wouldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t been entrusted with leading this program, but at the same time my research for the book helped me be more attuned to the fraught history of U.S. international relations and the complexities of cultural diplomacy.

Q: What surprised you when researching/writing this book?

A: Two things surprised me. Well, I should say that both are just common sense, but what surprised me was the complexity of these commonsense facts. One was just how hard it is to do good in the world, even with the best of intentions. Funding arts programs abroad might seem to be straightforwardly good, but it can create problems for those it is meant to serve. And there’s nothing straightforward about the cultural exchange programs run by the U.S., which is almost always more powerful than the countries it engages with and almost always has a history of intervention, often unwanted and damaging, in those very countries. The other commonsense fact is that the State Department, and by extension the U.S. government as a whole, is not a monolith. I realized that there are many different agendas at work even in operation of this one program, and that it’s impossible to identify a single State Department agenda. I met many really wonderful civil servants and foreign service officers who truly care deeply about the arts and culture, and I met a few that really didn’t understand or care to understand the distinctive nature and history of hip-hop. Public discourse about the government, especially nowadays, is often black and white. Writing this book has certainly disabused me of that idea.

Q: Where’s your go-to writing spot, and how do you deal with writer’s block?

A: I write in my home office. I used to call it the Den of Despair, but although writing still doesn’t come easy to me, I don’t despair so much anymore. I’ve found ways of tricking myself into writing when I feel blocked. One is what I call meta-writing. I write about what I have to write, for example, I might jot in a notebook, “OK, in this paragraph I need to write about [subject x, y, or z]” and sometimes that’s enough to get some words flowing about subject x, y, or z. I also walk a lot, and often my thinking about a particularly troublesome section of a paper or book crystalizes during my rambles. I then pull out my phone and dictate my thoughts about it, which helps me get back into writing when I return to my computer. I have many voice memos called “Thoughts about Chapter 3,” and the like.

Read a review of the book in The Washington Post.

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