Nas Gives a Benediction for Harvard’s Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship

Nas performing in New York in June.
Nas performing in New York in June (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)

The rapper Nas made his first appearance at Harvard University on Thursday, not to perform but to give his blessing to a new fellowship in his name – formally, the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship.  The fellowship will be awarded to two scholars or artists annually, chosen by a Harvard faculty committee. It is primarily a research fellowship, although Marcyliena Morgan, a professor of African and African American Studies and the founder and director of the Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute, which will administer the fellowship, said on Friday that fellows could teach courses as well. The application process, she said, has just started.

“The main purpose of the fellowship,” Ms. Morgan said, “is to support people doing work that has to do with the ways hip-hop itself reaches out to youth through the world, and particularly how it brings together issues of social justice, art and politics. That relationship – and how difficult it can be – is an important aspect of what we’re looking at. Hip-hop has been a way of getting the word out in very difficult situations.”

“Hip-hop is not a kid’s game,” she added. “It’s what kids are doing, and have been doing, to try to explain the world they see, and what they are dreaming. But it crosses so many boundaries, geographically. And the feeling behind the fellowship is that if hip-hop is doing all these things, throughout the world, we have to support people doing it, documenting it, analyzing it and critiquing it.”  Part of the critique, she said, will involve an examination of how hip-hop is perceived in the broader society.

“It’s important to think about what it means to produce a certain kind of art that gets read as reality because it describes harsh situations,” Ms. Morgan said. “You might have an opera, in which the tenor sings an aria saying he is about to kill his wife, and you may have a hip-hop artist singing about the same thing. One is considered art, one is considered life.”

The idea for the program came about when Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard (which includes the Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute), asked a board member about sponsoring a fellowship.  “Normally, people are attracted by naming opportunities,” Mr. Gates said, “but this donor said, ‘I’ll do it, and it want it to be named for Nas.”  The donor, Mr. Gates said, has insisted on anonymity.

Nas did not hesitate when he was asked to lend his name to the fellowship, Mr. Gates said. The educational side of hip-hop, after all, has never been lost on Nas. He has said that although he never graduated high school, references he heard in hip-hop often inspired him to look further into the subjects that rappers raised. His own work has drawn on a variety of influences, including films and, in one notable case, classical music: he quoted a passage from Orff’s “Carmina Burana” in his 1999 hit “Hate Me Now.”

Ms. Morgan described the donor’s decision to name for fellowship for Nas as an inspired move.  “Nas is one of the quintessential hip hop M.C. poets,” she said, “someone who describes the landscape of life in ways that are incredibly touching and interesting. And having a fellowship in his name is like telling someone who’s eleven, ‘This is going to be here when you’re ready.’”

article by Allan Kozinn via nytimes.com

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