By James Sullivan
When Henry Louis Gates emailed Nas to ask him to lend his name to a new fellowship at Harvard’s Hiphop Archive, the rapper replied yes “in a nanosecond,” said the professor. A decade ago, he might have had a different answer.
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“I said no to a lot of things in my twenties,” Nas said, sitting at a conference table in aviator shades and a very collegiate cardigan in the Cambridge building that houses Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Research Institute for African-American studies.”In the beginning, I was a fighter. I’m always going to be a fighter, but I fight differently, for different reasons, today.”
The Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship is the result of a major endowment from an anonymous donor who wanted Nas to be the face of the program. “He said ‘Nasir Jones is the man,'” recalled Gates, sitting with the rapper and Hiphop Archive founder Marcyliena Morgan. The fellowship is for visiting scholars and will help pay for their research and hip-hop related academic programs.
Gates, the host of PBS’ current historical series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, said that serious study of hip-hop is critical at a time when black Americans are experiencing “the best of times and the worst of times.” In the post-affirmative action era, he said, “we’re still fighting the structural causes of poverty and racism . . . To a great extent, we have to save ourselves. And that’s the message I get from your work,” he said, turning to face Nas.
Nas said his mother wanted him to go to North Carolina State, where his grandparents lived, but he didn’t finish high school. Even before he started performing, he said, he recognized that hip-hop could be an education in itself. “One thing that drew me to hip-hop was the things Kurtis Blow was saying, the things Melle Mel was saying,” he said. “I would ask my folks, ‘What do Run-D.M.C. or Rakim mean by this?’
“Hip-hop is important like computer science,” he continued. “The world is changing. If you want to understand the youth, listen to the music. This is what’s happening right underneath your nose.”