Rebellious hip-hop culture and the ivory tower make strange bedfellows, but lately there seems to be a palpable trend towards the two cozying up next to each other. On the heels of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine chipping off a piece of their Beats by Dre and Interscope fortune to start their own school within the University of Southern California, Harvard University – not to be outdone – has named a fellowship after Nasir Jones, a.k.a. Nas.
The details are as follows: the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship will be administered by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard and its Hip-Hop Archive. The fellowship will provide chosen scholars and artists an opportunity to show that “education is real power … through their manuscripts, performance pieces, album work, curriculum planning, primary archival research and exhibition preparation,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
The Queens, N.Y.-bred rapper himself had this to say: “In my roller-coaster of a life, I’ve endured good and bad for sure, and I’ve truly been blessed to have achieved so much through art in my short life thus far. My hopes are that greed for knowledge, art, self-determination and expression go a long way.”
Bravo. Of course, the irony of a multi-platinum rapper who never finished high school being chosen as the fellowship’s namesake is inevitably going to raise the ire of conservatives, no doubt creating fodder for TV shows, radio and columns. None of that can now take away from the fact that one of Harvard’s institutes has made a bold statement in acknowledging Nas’ impact on mainstream culture. It might be surprising to the likes of Bill O’Reilly, but to even casual rap fans, Nas is a hero.
For some perspective, I wrote an editorial in 2008 for Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates’ then-startup website TheRoot.com, comparing Nas with Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School who published a book titled N***er. At the time, Nas was prepping an album of the same title, centered around the history and usage of the n-word. (He eventually caved to corporate pressure and left the album Untitled.) Besides being a Billboard-charting album, Untitled was – and still is – every bit a musical equivalent to Randall Kennedy’s tome about the state of race relations.
Toni Blackman, a New York-based hip-hop scholar, artist and teacher, shared her thoughts on Harvard’s announcement to MIMO through a poignant story. “I remember being in undergrad at Howard University in D.C. and taking a class by Dr. Stephen Henderson,” Blackman, a one-time U.S. State Department hip-hop cultural ambassador, said. “He was a renowned scholar with expertise on the Black Arts Movement, poetry and the oral tradition. Author of the book Understanding the New Black Poetry, he was the only elder to support my fascination with freestyling and my desire to study hip-hop. He told me stories of being at parties in the 1940s where people would rap for one another and about prison poetry where cats would battle.
“I got dissed for hip-hop education, for creating hip-hop theater, and for putting all of my energy into developing an event that looked at rap as an art form, but he affirmed my passion,” Blackman continued. “I’ll never forget how serious he was when he told me, ‘Your generation is the first generation of Black Americans where the creators of the art can become the archivists and write the history exactly it was. Do not take that privilege lightly.’ I don’t know why, but for some reason I think he might be somewhere in the afterlife smiling, knowing that Nasir Jones, son of bluesman and prolific musician Olu Dara, and highly respected rap lyricist, is who inspired this fellowship.”
This isn’t the first (nor likely the last) time that we’ll be hearing of Nas and academia, although it will certainly be hard to top having a Harvard fellowship named after him. Besides numerous academic papers on his work now certain to see the light of day, a Nas autobiography co-authored by Toure is also in the works. It was written, indeed.