Cultural historian Josh Kun researches music and migration in Berlin this spring, asking ‘what music can do to us, and what music can do for us’

Photo by Salvador Ochoa


Culture historian and 2016 MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Josh Kun says although there’s no “magic science” to figuring out a city, there are at least three types of places he visits from the outset: bookstores, record stores, and stationery stores. Plus, he eats out – preferably street food.

Originally from Los Angeles, Kun is in Berlin as a Bosch Fellow in Public Policy at the American Academy and is researching the relationship between music and global migration, specifically forced migration, and issues of displacement, detention and deportation. “What keeps propelling me forward is a much larger question about what music can do to us, and what music can do for us,” whether understanding this world, imagining a new one, or grieving one left behind. One area he’s been exploring is the Arabic music scene in Berlin, which he says is growing fast.

Kun has found Berlin a fascinating backdrop for his research: “For a student of 20th century issues around freedom, justice, nationalism, community, society, belonging – these key issues that are central to my work – it’s just an extraordinary place.” The L.A. native is also happy he can get by without driving. “The trains, everybody takes the trains. And they’re clean!”

Kun will be presenting some of his research in a talk at the American Academy on March 20 entitled “Sounds of Detention, Sounds of Escape: Listening to the Migrant Songbook.”

The track heard in the piece is called “Down With The Homeland” by the Syrian group, Mazzaj Rap Band.

Photo by Salvador Ochoa