Georgetown Sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson and Nas visited the school’s Gaton Hall for a more than hour-long conversation with James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University. Sitting down in front of a live audience the night before Nas’ anniversary performance of Illmatic at the Kennedy Center, the pair discussed the state of Hip Hop and the culture’s recent spike in academia.
Remembering their first meeting, Nas recounted being surprised that Dyson, who has written several academic books on various topics within Hip Hop, knew his lyrics by heart. “We met and I didn’t know he would know my stuff and since then we just clicked,” he said. “He’s had my back. I had his. He’s like one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met.
“There’s not a lot of people from your generation that really educated people, that have a voice out there, who really can identify with us and you,” Nas added in reference to the largely student-filled audience. “He’s our guy. We been tight for years.”
Asked about his view on the current state of Hip Hop, Nas explained pride in seeing musicians like 9th Wonder and himself engaging academically at institutions like Harvard. “It’s so many layers to that question, where is Hip Hop?” he said. “You talk about 9th Wonder at Harvard, I recently been over there and met with Skip Gates and Dr. Morgan and just watching where Hip Hop is today. Myself, re-releasing an album from 20 years ago is like, ’20 years? That’s crazy.’”
Later in the interview, Nas described the difficulty in balancing socially conscious subject matter in music without coming off as preachy. “I don’t see enough emcees who are brave enough to be honest,” he said. “I would like to see more of that. There’s a lot of good stuff. There’s a lot of bad in Rap. The socially conscious stuff can come off sometime as preachy, so a lot of people tend to stay away from it. That ain’t their bag. That’s not what they do. But still, they kind of have some artistic responsibility to do more than what’s the latest trend…I would like to see people remember it’s an artform because the better we all become we push each other to make the whole artform better. Then we won’t have to worry about who won the Grammy.”
During the sit-down, Nas described his early motivation to bring his music into higher education. “When I first started I said, ‘You know, it would be cool to talk at colleges…but that would never happen,’” he said. “That’s really what I thought. I didn’t know. It’s kind of like surreal but then at the same time, it’s what it’s supposed to be. Especially for me, at a place like the John F. Kennedy Center, I had like dreams of that kind of stuff early. I didn’t think it was really possible. I kind of gave away those dreams. I let those dreams go. Now that it’s here, that it’s come around to this, it feels like this is where it’s supposed to be.”
Dyson, who authored the book Holler If You Hear Me on Tupac Shakur, argued the case that artists like Nas deserve a place in the classroom. “The word genius is bandied about, but this guy is a rhetorical genius,” he said. “And at 16: ‘Verbal assasin, my architect pleases / When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus,’” he rapped, referencing Nas’ professional debut on the Main Source album Breaking Atoms. “Sixteen? Like dude, who is this guy at the barbeque? That ain’t no regular barbeque. And then, at 19 as a prodigy: ‘I need a new nigga for this black cloud to follow / ‘Cause while it’s over me, it’s too dark to see tomorrow / I changed my motto…’”
“The point is, now, a guy with a PhD from Princeton, a guy with a PhD from Penn is discussing the music of a guy from Queensbridge,” he continued. “So his dream about getting into college, celebrate that…The fact is, we teach at Harvard, at Georgetown, at Princeton, at Yale…the works of these gifted artists because they have something profound and important. And I think, just as we study Hemingway, I think, just as we study Morrison, I think, just as we study Homer, we study a Nas to understand the verbal invention of the culture.”
Referencing his Q-Tip produced song on Illmatic, Nas explained the inspiration behind “One Love” and talked about the realities he faced as a youth in New York. “When Doc over here was saying that I have a brother in prison, it wasn’t my blood brother,” he said. “It was a friend brother, a couple of friends, and I wrote about them on a song called ‘One Love’ on my first record. It resonated with him because he has his real blood brother behind the wall, been there for years. Of course we all know the problems is out of hand with the amount of Blacks, Latinos and poor Whites that are thrown in jail and not given a chance to get out. In New York alone at least 46,000 a year get locked up, it’s probably the highest in the nation. Most of them are probably 16 and 17 years old, charged as adults for the most part. It’s really like a railroad system. We know how easy it is to be profiled. We know what we’re up against.
“When I was 15 or 16, we were hearing that most Black men won’t make it to be 25,” he added. So we were kind of like on a hurry-up process. Get it now, get money now, live now, have kids now. Everything now because tomorrow is not promised in the situation that we was in.”