Josh Kun wins prestigious MacArthur Foundation award

The ‘genius grant’ honors the communications professor and cultural historian, whose innovative work explores unexpected cross-cultural connections

September 22, 2016 Gretchen McCartney

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor and cultural historian Josh Kun has been selected as a 2016 fellow of the MacArthur Foundation.

The prestigious fellowship, known informally as the “genius grant,” provides each recipient with a $625,000 “no strings attached” award over five years. Kun is one of 23 fellows selected this year by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The program recognizes “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” the foundation said.

Cross-cultural exchange

The foundation lauded Kun, who also leads the Popular Music Project at USC’s Norman Lear Center, for his unique exploration of the ways arts and popular culture are conduits for cross-cultural exchange: “Kun is showing how communities that may have historically been seen as separate actually have much in common,” and his success in making the histories of cultural production relatable to a wide audience “is demonstrating the power of public humanities at its best.”

“Josh’s important cross-cultural scholarship matches USC’s commitment to Los Angeles, a global city with fascinating, deep roots,” USC Provost Michael Quick said. “Yet, he is a true cultural historian whose work transcends the city and its borders and shows us all the connections that we have to each other. USC is uniquely positioned for this type of research which represents an overall mission of the university — to have a global perspective in a world-class city.”

Kun said he hopes the MacArthur announcement will bring attention to USC’s cross-campus, interdisciplinary work around diversity, culture and social justice.

“It’s such an honor that the award recognizes the work I’ve been doing personally. But a large part of what I do is inspired by, and comes out of, a collaboration with students, scholars and activists. My hope is we can use the energy and excitement around this award to galvanize and mobilize the work that so many of us are doing on campus,” said Kun, who holds a joint appointment in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.

“USC Annenberg is so proud to celebrate Josh’s imaginative and progressive work,” said Ernest J. Wilson III, dean of the USC Annenberg School. “Not only is the quality of his scholarship and the energy of his public outreach phenomenal, he is a natural at connecting with students and impacting their own world views.

“He upholds and extends the tradition of our school, and brings us tremendous honor as a member of our faculty.”

The award is well-deserved, said Sarah Banet-Weiser, professor and director of the USC Annenberg School of Communication. In a note to faculty, she enthusiastically congratulated Kun and added: “His work, and the way he insistently and passionately places race, ethnicity and border culture at the center of communication, is a model for us all.”

Kun’s longtime emphasis has been on the public humanities. He focuses on transforming traditional scholarship into projects with a wide audience — across campus and across Los Angeles.

Public work

The MacArthur Foundation published a bio of Kun that highlights that public work and outreach:

In work that spans academic scholarship, exhibitions and performances, Kun unearths and brings to life forgotten historical narratives through finely grained analyses of material and sonic manifestations of popular culture.

He complicates our understanding of the evolution of racial and ethnic identity in America in works such as Audiotopia (2006), a comprehensive comparative study of African-American, Jewish-American, Mexican-American and Mexican popular music, and the co-authored And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl (2008), a close reading of over 400 Jewish music album covers.

More recently, Kun has turned his attention to the diverse and vibrant culture of Los Angeles, with an emphasis on bringing present-day communities together around historical intersections of cultural expression. To Live and Dine in LA: Menus and the Making of the Modern City (2015) uses taste — and political, economic and sociological undertones of eating — as points of entry into urban history. An accompanying exhibition and a series of public events in Los Angeles introduced local and national audiences to a fascinating yet easily overlooked aspect of the city’s past.

Kun created a similar multiplatform presentation of the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection of Southern California sheet music from the 1840s to the 1950s. Including a book, Songs in the Key of Los Angeles (2013), new recordings and an exhibition, the project culminated in a free public concert that brought together diverse communities to hear Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne and other performers share their music in a spirit of unity and inclusiveness.

Kun received a BA in 1993 from Duke University and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1999. In addition to being a frequent contributor to newspapers, journals and radio, he is the co-editor of Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies (2012) and Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (2012). Kun has curated exhibitions and installations at such venues as the Getty Foundation, the Museum of Latin American Art, the Skirball Center and the Grammy Museum, among others, and in 2005, he co-founded the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, through which he has co-produced albums and organized several concerts of Jewish American music.

Kun is preparing to launch a new project, in partnership with the San Francisco Museum of Art and the San Francisco Public Library, that explores the city’s music and gentrification. Also upcoming, he has new work dedicated to Latin American music and the shaping of Los Angeles, as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time.

Kun is the fourth USC faculty member to receive a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.