“Hip-Hop is People Who Don’t Want to be Invisible”: Welcoming Next Level’s New Director, Junious Brickhouse

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As we complete our fifth year of international hip-hop diplomacy, we look back on successful residencies in over thirty countries on six continents, conducted by more than 100 U.S. artist-educators from across the United States. Over the years, these residencies have organically merged into a worldwide community of hip-hop educators, artists and activists.

We are very proud of what have already accomplished. But we are even more excited about the future. And a big part of that future will be charted by Next Level’s incoming director, Junious Brickhouse.

Junious is not exactly new to Next Level, having begun his journey with us as an artist on one of our very first residencies in Senegal. He went on to work as a site manager for several years before becoming associate director for Next Level 4.0 and co-director for Next Level 5.0. This summer, he officially replaces Dr. Mark Katz as the director of Next Level. Beyond his extensive experience with Next Level, Junious also has a long history of his own as a folklorist, performer and community organizer with his own group, Urban Artistry, and as a committed hip-hop dancer since childhood.

Speaking about his vision for the future, Junious emphasizes that hip-hop’s contribution to the Next Level model of cultural diplomacy is not – and should not be – a superficial one. Hip-hop culture has influenced his perspective at every stage of the process.

“When you remove all the glitz and glamour,” he says, ”hip-hop is people who don’t want to be invisible. People who just want to be seen. And that’s a human need. That’s a human condition. Any place you go, people who are marginalized or who feel disrespected have something that allows them to redefine themselves.”

“So when I think about what we do at Next Level, my question is, “How do we welcome people to be unapologetic about who they are?’”

“And when you’re done learning about hip-hop and listening to my advice or my instruction, how open am I to learning about you? And how easy do I make that? Do I make that a disrespectful experience? Or am I going to take a minute to imagine myself living your life, for the sake of seeing you a little bit better?”

In that spirit, Next Level is not only about building bridges between different hip-hop communities around the world, it’s also about extending those connections beyond hip-hop. As he points out, hip-hop itself is particularly well suited to that goal, simply because the culture itself is so diverse.  “The landscape of hip-hop culture has so many different pockets and understandings. And that’s great, because that means we have a better opportunity to meet all different types of people where they’re at. And that’s my goal: How do we show what’s going on in the hip-hop community?”

“So what we’re doing in Next Level going forward is building on what good art and culture can do for all of us. And we’re doing it through the lens of hip-hop. And I think we have a lot of reachback of different experiences and ideas and ways forward for the diverse audience that we have.”

Mark Katz officially passes the mic to Junious Brickhouse at the Next Level Global Mixer and Jam (Photo by Adum7)

Mark Katz officially passes the mic to Junious Brickhouse at the Next Level Global Mixer and Jam (Photo by Adum7)

For his part, Mark Katz emphasizes that although Junious’s philosophy of cultural diplomacy was an important part of why he was recruited for the leadership of Next Level, it wasn’t the only factor.The reason why I was interested in having Junious take over the role of director is not only because of his excellence as an artist and excellence as a teacher, as a pedagogue and a cultural ambassador, but also because he has something very distinctive in that he has years of practice and training in running organizations and running complex initiatives. That’s what he did as a logistics officer in the Army, and lives were at stake in his job. So he takes these things very seriously.”

“So this is really a unique profile. Someone who is an artist, an educator and an expert in logistics. So, to me, I couldn’t make up someone with a profile that would be more powerful and more effective for leading Next Level.”

“And there’s one other piece to it that I think is really important: his commitment to community. All of the things that I mentioned wouldn’t be enough if he didn’t really care about the personal aspect. The community building aspect. The unglamorous, everyday work of building relationships and building community.  And building understanding. And that’s what drives him. He’s not simply trying to keep the operations running smoothly. He’s thinking about this in terms of a legacy of African American artistic practice. He’s all about community building.”

In that sense, one could say that Junious Brickhouse has been a cultural ambassador for his whole life, and Next Level is merely the next step of that evolution. “I’m honored to be this organization’s latest director,” he says. “I don’t take the responsibility lightly. I go into it with a warrior’s spirit and a servant’s heart. I take it very seriously.”

 “If you would have told that 8-year-old kid that wanted to join City Limits Crew in Norfolk, Virginia that I would be directing a State Department program about the same culture that I was falling in love with, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” he reflects. “But a lot of things have come full circle with me.”

Joe Schloss