15 Minutes with … the Dent Medallist (Interview with Mark Katz)

Continuing our series of interviews with RMA prize winners, we interviewed the 2016 recipient of the Dent Medal, Professor Mark Katz, before his keynote lecture at the RMA’s 2017 Annual Conference at the University of Liverpool. We asked him about a range of topics ranging from hip-hop in musicology to advice about funding opportunities.

1) What are your most and least favourite aspects of your job?

My favourite aspects involve talking to people about their ideas. Whether they’re students or colleagues, what I find really exhilarating is when I have a conversation with someone about whatever they’re working on, and we come up with some great ideas together. Being able to help someone achieve whatever goals they’re aspiring towards is one of my most favourite and energising aspects of my job. I do perhaps a surprising amount of menial tasks, and even physical labour in my job. When I was chair of the department, I realised that there must be a good reason for it being called chair, because I was always stacking chairs, and setting out chairs for meetings! I don’t mind these tasks terribly but I’m sure I could find better things to do.
2) What would be the most important piece of advice you would give to doctoral students aspiring to a career in academia?

If you are going to devote years of your life to a subject, make it something that you would stay up late to work on and get up early in the morning to work on, regardless of how tired you might be. It’s an internal check on whether you’ve found the right topic, if you find yourself absolutely driven to do it regardless of what else is going on in your life. Make sure that you’re doing something that satisfies your own interest and drive. Don’t cast about for a topic which you think is hot or marketable.
3) Have you had any mentors or people who have inspired you during your career?

I always saw my doctoral adviser, Richard Crawford, as a role model, because he was an original scholar who did important work, but also had the time to meet with anybody who wanted to meet with him. He knew all the students’ names in his classes. He’s just a good guy, and I think it’s possible to both be successful and a decent human being. He modelled that for me.
4) What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I don’t think it was intended as advice, but sometimes when I was younger, my parents would say: ‘be a mensch!’ Mensch is German but they used it as a Yiddish term which literally means human or person. But really, it means, ‘be a decent person.’ That wasn’t so much advice, because they would say that when I was not being a decent person, so essentially it was, ‘don’t be a jerk’! But I’ve broadened that to mean that whatever I do, I need to be a decent human being while doing it. We can sometimes forget about that when we’re trying to succeed in our careers.


5) You have done academic research on popular music and hip-hop music in particular: have you encountered resistance from within academia? What arguments would you give for the inclusion of hip-hop in musicology?

I have encountered some resistance, but not as much as I feared. One of my colleagues told me on a number of occasions that he didn’t think that this music was worth studying. I think he just said it was garbage… I don’t think he even went to the next step of saying I shouldn’t study it, it was just self-evident to him that it wasn’t worthy of study. For the most part, however, my colleagues have welcomed the work that I do. And my family, who wouldn’t have thought of hip-hop as a subject of study, have come around to it, too. I think that we should all try to persuade whomever is listening to us that what we’re doing is worth doing. No matter how mainstream the topic may be—I actually think we should defend why we study Beethoven as much as we defend why we study hip-hop or other non-canonical subjects. One reason that I think I don’t get too much resistance is that I bring in a lot of money studying this topic, in the form of grants. If you bring in money to support what you study, it goes a long way in gaining acceptance.


6) You were awarded a $1 million grant for Next Level, a programme that sends American hip-hop artists abroad to foster cultural exchange, conflict resolution and entrepreneurship. Could you tell us more about it? What advice would you give to early career academics about receiving such substantial funding?

That was actually just for the first grant and it’s been renewed four times, so it’s more than that now. I learned about it through a rapper that I know who said: ‘you’ll never guess what I saw, this call for proposals from the State Department, and it’s for all this money’. I looked at it and it was very similar to work that I was already doing with the hip-hop community. So, it wasn’t that I set out to find a large grant and got it. I found something that was within my expertise and I went for it. There was a bit of a stretch because it was to create this programme and run it, basically be an administrator. They said nothing about scholarship; they didn’t say they wanted anyone to write papers. They just needed someone to run it. I guess one thing I would encourage is not to sell yourself short in terms of the transferability of your skills. If I had taken a narrow view of what I can do as an academic I wouldn’t have applied, because this wasn’t an academic grant. Also, look outside of your field! One of the first big grants I got was from the National Science Foundation in the US, which was to study hip-hop. I learned that there are many ways you can pitch what you do and still stay true to your approach, but also attract funding that you might not imagine would come your way based.


7) How important do you think it is that academia engages in outreach work?

I hesitate to sermonise on the subject. I personally feel a drive to engage with the public. It’s in part to do with the anxiety that I feel about the significance of my work, and it feels more significant to me if I’m talking to a broad range of people, not just academics. Also, it’s personally important to me to partner with people outside of academia to create real-world change. I would encourage fellow musicologists and music scholars to engage with the public simply because it can be so rewarding. In terms of how to go about it, it’s just a matter of talking to people who are musical practitioners. If possible, talk to the people who make the music you study. Invite them to speak with your students if you teach, or interview them about what they do. Find ways to collaborate with them. Don’t just treat them as interview subjects, but actually work with them as partners.


8) Your early research focuses on the use of recording technology in the early twentieth century. How did you become interested in this field?

Well, I think I might be unusual in that I can pinpoint the very day that I became interested in this subject, which was sparked by a newspaper article by Will Crutchfield. It was August 12, 1990. It was a review in The New York Times of several CD reissues of early twentieth-century violin playing. CD technology was fairly new and they were just starting to reissue these early twentieth-century violinists. The reviewer remarked on how different the performance practice of these violinists was from what we would hear today. There was one throw away comment about the increased use of vibrato, where the author wondered whether the technology might have had something to do with this. For some reason that opened up a whole new field of inquiry for me, which was to wonder whether a technology that was designed to reproduce and preserve music actually had an impact on its creation. That blew my mind, and I wanted to pursue it. Since I was a violinist I started with violin playing. I produced an honours thesis on violin playing, then I did a dissertation where I brought in Jazz and Stravinsky, and then I wrote a book where I brought in hip hop.


9) You have experienced working both in university departments and also in conservatories. How do you think these institutions differ in terms of research and teaching demands?

I taught at The Peabody Conservatory for seven years, and now I’ve been at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for eleven years. There are obvious differences in that at the conservatory, the creation of music was at the forefront and everything served that, and I was fine with that. I feel we need to serve those who create the music we study. They are the ones who are responsible for our field of study. So I knew what my place was, not in a negative way, and I found great pleasure in working with very high-level musicians. I felt I had a good rapport with the students even though any of them on their worst day could outperform me on the violin. So it was about demonstrating respect for their craft and dedication. I didn’t find that I had any problems fitting in as a musicologist in a conservatory. At UNC there is more weight on the scholarly side, and it is wonderful that we have PhD students and resources devoted to musicology. But I still find the need to work closely with my colleagues in performance, composition, and music education. Conservatories and university departments are different in the way they approach the study of music, but they aren’t so different in my experience.


10) How did you first become interested in hip-hop?

Most of the hip-hop scholars I know got into the field because they were ‘hip-hop heads’. They had an interest from an early age and they grew up with it, but that wasn’t me. I grew up playing the violin and listening to Classical music, and Rock, but I was more interested in Brahms than the Beastie Boys. But I loved the sound of scratching. The idea of turning a turntable into a musical instrument really appealed to me. I first heard that when I was thirteen, but it wasn’t until I was doing my PhD and casting about for a new case study to bring into my book on music and technology that I remembered that sound, and thought what a rich topic it would be to study. I really came at it from an academic angle, but it’s now been eighteen years since I started researching hip-hop, so I now feel less of an outsider, though I’m certainly not a practitioner. It was really an intellectual decision, then I became really immersed in the aesthetics.


11) Do you think that hip-hop as diplomacy can be a positive development in a time of uncertainty?

There are several reasons why hip-hop can serve to bring people together from different cultures. Firstly, it is popular throughout the world. Everywhere this project sends me—whether Africa, Eastern Europe, South America, or South Asia—there is already hip hop. People know it, love it, appreciate it, and think of it as part of their identity. So that means that hip-hop can be a bridge between cultures. You start with something that is common, and discovering other commonalities follows from that. Secondly, hip-hop right is not just popular but it is also accessible. All you really need is your own body to dance, beatbox, and rap. And finally, I’ve found that hip-hop has a very appealing mythos. The story is that a group of young people created something out of nothing, something that could express both their frustrations but also celebrate their lives. People around the world find that appealing because that situation wasn’t unique to the Bronx, New York and the early seventies. I was in Croatia and a young woman said that she identified with these African-American artists who struggled to find a way to express themselves. She faced similar issues such as lack of employment, lack of opportunities, and a lack of platform to express herself. So I would say really those three things: the popularity, the accessibility, and an appealing origin story help make hip-hop a really powerful tool for musical diplomacy right now.


12) Where do you see your research going in the future?

Right now I’m immersed in this hip-hop diplomacy project and I’ll write a book about it. But I see pursuing a similar line of inquiry in terms of music and the public good. I also want to acknowledge that if music has power, and we believe it has the power to do good, it also must have the power to do harm. I can also imagine an interesting comparative study on the way music has been deployed to do good, but also to do harm.


13) What do you listen to in your spare time?

It changes every week. I have a playlist on my phone that’s just called ‘new’; it’s a combination of music that I’ve just heard (whether it’s new in the world) and music that’s in my library that I don’t actually know yet. In my current new playlist I have a combination of new music that I found through Shazam or Soundcloud during my travels. So I have hip-hop from South Africa, some Bollywood music that I also heard in South Africa, some German pop music I heard when I was in Germany, music from Senegal, some Joy Division, and The J. Geils Band. It’s all over the place, but I’m an explorer in all facets, so I like exploring music.



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