The announcement last week that Harvard University is establishing the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship has drawn praise from scholars lauding the work of the Queens, N.Y.-born rapper, as well as for the scholarship of Dr. Marcyliena Morgan, who is credited with laying the groundwork for the fellowship.
To his fans, 39-year old Nasir Jones is simply known as “Nas,” and the multi-platinum Def Jam Recordings artist is admired as one of hip-hop’s most celebrated lyricists. The fellowship, a joint project between Harvard’s Hip-Hop Archives and W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, will fund artists and scholars who demonstrate innovative scholarship and creative potential in hip-hop and hip-hop inspired art.
“I think for anybody who grew up listening to hip-hop, Nas is, without question, a pioneer, and as an artist, he is someone who exemplifies the connection between artistry, ideas, ambition and insight,” says Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, an assistant professor of education policy, organization and leadership in the college of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).
Morgan, the founder and director of the Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute, said in a statement last week that “with the introduction of the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship, [the archive] will continue to be the leading resource for those interested in knowing, developing, building, maintaining and representing hip-hop.”
In 2002, Morgan founded the Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute. Its mission focuses on scholars and artists developing projects that build on the rich and complex hip-hop tradition. Archive projects are expected to incorporate “historically grounded and contextualized critical insights” and demonstrate creative and intellectually rigorous contributions to hip-hop scholarship.
“The Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute is uncompromising in our commitment to build and support intellectually challenging and innovative scholarship that reflects the rigor and achievement of hip-hop performance,” noted Morgan, who is a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard.
As a rapper with a career of over 22 years, Nas has been critically praised for his lyrical skill, social analysis and commitment. He is credited with introducing “an original form of hip-hop debate and analysis that reflects on and represents urban youth angst and conflict, as well as intelligence, confidence and ambition,” according to the Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute. His best known works are the albums “Illmatic,” “It Was Written” and “I Am” and the song, “If I Ruled the World.”
In a statement, Nas said that “it is a true honor to have my name attached to so much hard work, alongside great names like Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois and to such a prestigious and historical institution, and all in the name of the music I grew to be a part of.”
Dr. Aaron Taylor, an assistant professor at the St. Louis University law school and Diverse op-ed contributor, said the fellowship clearly honors Nas and his work. “Nas has always been the voice of disaffection [and] the voice of urban youth who often have opportunities stifled. And for him to be acknowledged by an institution like Harvard, it’s ironic in a good way,” he explained.
Dr. Emery Petchauer, an assistant professor of teacher development and educational studies at Oakland University and Diverse blogger, concurred, describing the fellowship as “an incredible honor for Nas to be recognized by an institution of higher education” with Harvard’s considerable prestige.
“It’s another iteration of higher education institutions aligning themselves with hip-hop,” says Petchauer, who specializes in investigating and demonstrating how K-12 teachers can utilize hip-hop culture and art in the classroom.
Petchauer continued, citing Cornell University as another university that has embraced utilizing hip-hop in the academy. Besides the Cornell University Library’s Hip-Hop Collection, the university has hosted hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa as a visiting scholar.
For Brown, not only has it been inspiring to see Morgan successfully launch and manage the Hip-Hop Archive, but she says the fellowship help creates “new space” in the academy for scholars whose interdisciplinary work includes hip-hop. Her own scholarship incorporates hip-hop feminism and performance.
“[Morgan] has broken new ground in terms of creating a space at an institution that confers legitimacy not just for the culture of hip-hop, but also for advancing hip-hop scholarship in the academy,” says Brown.
Dr. Christopher Holmes Smith, a clinical associate professor in at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California (USC), noted that with the Nas fellowship announcement coming just weeks after USC announced that hip-hop producers Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine were donating $70 million to USC to establish a combined creative arts and media business undergraduate major, higher education institutions are embracing hip-hop as a means to attract students and to develop new sources of philanthropic support.
Smith adds that the embrace of hip-hop reflects the growing influence of young scholars such as Morgan, who are bringing the culture into colleges and universities. “I think the main reason behind it is that you’ve got the coming-of-age of a whole generation of Black leaders in academia … that grew up under hip-hop, and they have influence, institutional clout, credibility and decision-making power,” says Smith.