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With rapper Nas, hip-hop is alive at Harvard

‘Knowledge is power’ rapper helps raise archive’s profile

Professor Marcyliena Morgan teaches a class at Harvard University’s Hiphop Archive, which she formally established in 2002.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Professor Marcyliena Morgan teaches a class at Harvard University’s Hiphop Archive, which she formally established in 2002.

When Marcyliena Morgan first floated the idea of establishing a hip-hop archive at Harvard University more than a decade ago, she heard predictable grumbling from academics who weren’t convinced the music of the streets deserved a place in the classroom. But she also heard from hip-hop artists themselves, who were concerned the ivory tower was the wrong color.

When rappers asked, “Why here?,” Morgan recalled recently, touring the museum-quality Hiphop Archive in Harvard Square, she’d reply, “Well, where else do you want it?” If the soundtrack of the contemporary ghetto was ready for its scholarly closeup, why not at the world’s greatest university?

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After some tumultuous years in transition, the Hiphop Archive is firmly settled back at Harvard. And it’s about to raise its profile significantly, with a new fellowship named for the rapper Nas, a widely recognized leader of hip-hop’s “knowledge is power” movement and a deeply serious lyrical poet routinely named one of the best rappers of all time.

The Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship, to be officially introduced this week, will be underwritten by a major high-tech investor who wishes to remain anonymous. When the archive first approached Nas (as he calls himself onstage) about lending his name, “he e-mailed back in nanoseconds and said, ‘I’d be honored,’ exclamation point,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, which oversees the Hiphop Archive.

Harvard is a much more natural fit than some assume, said Morgan, noting that the institution was one of several elite schools where rap music was first played on the airwaves, before commercial radio adapted. It was a group of Harvard students in the late 1980s who founded the Source, one of the first mainstream music magazines to treat the emerging style as a true art form.

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And there’s another reason, she said with a smile: “Hip-hop has an incredible ego, and so does Harvard.”

Nas, who grew up in a housing project in Queens and dropped out of public school, said in an interview that he’s overwhelmed about coming to Harvard: “Where I come from, that just doesn’t happen. At all.”

‘Your teachers are your community, your parents, your school, but hip-hop is the voice of real people.’

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Hip-hop, he said, has been a surrogate teacher for him. “Your teachers are your community, your parents, your school, but hip-hop is the voice of real people. If you want to learn about the streets of Compton, instead of reading about it, listen to an album by Dr. Dre.”

His own rhymes are about the streets that bred him, but they’re also about self-determination, such as the unabashedly inspirational “I Can.”

“I think about Du Bois and poets like Langston Hughes — I would never in a kazillion years think I could even stand next to those guys,” he said. “But I’m working toward it.”

Nas at a hip-hop festival in 2012.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Nas at a hip-hop festival in 2012.

The 40-year-old Nas, who will appear (alongside fellow rapper LL Cool J) on an upcoming episode of Gates’s PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” is the son of the jazz and roots mutli-instrumentalist Olu Dara.

Beginning with his heralded 1994 debut, “Illmatic,” the rapper has released 10 albums, the first eight of which went platinum (sales of over 1 million copies). The last of those, 2008’s “Hip Hop Is Dead,” featured a prime example of the trademark challenges he presents to the rap world, calling out the form’s commercialization and “reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business.”

Gates admits he was initially skeptical about bringing hip-hop into the realm of the Du Bois Institute, which was established in 1975 to award fellowships in the field of African and African-American studies.

“I’m an old-school guy. It’s not my music,” said Gates, who is 62. “I remember thinking, ‘I wish Marcy said [let’s create] an R&B archive.’ ”

But then he thought about the early years of jazz, which was originally considered “bordello” music. “What if some person at a major research university in 1925 had the foresight to archive that?,” he said. “As it turned out, that person would have been hailed as a visionary.”

Gates had a bit of his own history with hip-hop: In 1990 he was called as an expert witness in the trial of the Florida rap group 2 Live Crew, who were charged with obscenity. He argued that the group’s raunchy lyrics were a parody of stereotypes and were rooted in the long tradition of African-American street slang known as “signifying,” and thus should be constitutionally protected.

“Any true scholar knows that only time will tell what were the most important movements, factors, and impulses of any cultural era,” he said recently. “You can’t be arrogant enough to read the future. All you can do is preserve the record.”

That’s what Morgan, a cultural anthropologist, set out to do, collecting books, magazines, recordings, and ephemera related to hip-hop. Showing a visitor the vivid artwork hanging on every available wall on the upper floors of the Du Bois Institute’s immaculate offices, Morgan swept aside a heavy drape to peek at a newly renovated study space.

“I never met a curtain I didn’t want to open,” she said.

Raised in a large, musically oriented family in Chicago — an aunt, she said, played piano for Sarah Vaughan — Morgan was enthralled as a child by the endless conversation in her house. “They told street stories,” she said, leaning over a display case in the Hiphop Archive featuring artifacts of cultural responses to Hurricane Katrina. “I heard the stories about the stories and stories about the storytellers.”

Making the study of language her area of expertise, she earned a master’s degree in theoretical linguistics at the University of Essex in England and a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. While teaching at UCLA in the 1990s, she spent time in Mississippi, where she compared the ways longtime residents talked about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till to the reactions of Mississippi natives living in Chicago.

“The people in Chicago always talked about rights,” she recalled, speaking over the muted thump of the hip-hop videos screening continuously on wall-mounted flat-screen TVs. “In the South, they never did.”

Some of the women she interviewed pressed her to find work for their sons, whom she met as they were standing around a car in a state of extreme disrepair. The only thing that seemed to be working was the stereo, which blared N.W.A.’s provocative track “[expletive] Tha Police” on repeat.

“I’d heard it, but I hadn’t heard the whole song,” said Morgan, who’d been focused on women’s issues and had been leery of hip-hop, given its reputation for misogynistic lyrics.

Not long before, while studying in Pennsylvania in the late ’80s, she’d coped with a frustrating situation in her department by immersing herself in a local cinema’s “Kung Fu Saturdays” — marathon screenings of classic martial arts movies that invariably dealt with “the battle of good vs. evil.”

It didn’t take long for her to notice that she was in a distinct minority in those crowds, which were dominated by teenage male hip-hop fans. (Hip-hop, as she often says, has become a “lingua franca” between racial and ethnic groups, as it has been for blacks and Asians.)

Incidents such as those eventually convinced Morgan that hip-hop, then still in its relative adolescence, was ripe for analytical research.

“Hip-hop has been pulling me this weird way all along,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is material culture, so let’s study it.’”

She came to Harvard in 1999 and formally established the Hiphop Archive in 2002. Three years later, embroiled in a widely reported dispute over tenure with then-university president Lawrence Summers, Morgan and her husband, social sciences professor Lawrence Bobo, decamped for Stanford.

“I was sure I’d never come back to the ‘world’s greatest university,’ ” she recalled. “I despised it at every conceivable level.”

But Gates wanted the Hiphop Archive back at Harvard. In 2007, with Summers’s departure and the incoming presidency of Drew Gilpin Faust, Morgan was offered tenure and a prominent place within the Du Bois Institute. She accepted.

The Hiphop Archive has awarded fellowships to the scholars Christopher Emdin and Mark Anthony Neal, the record producer known as 9th Wonder, and others. But the funding of the Nas fellowship will ensure the health of the program for years to come, said Morgan.

Taking hip-hop seriously at Harvard — the archive’s slogan is “Build. Respect. Represent” — has had a trickle-down effect in the academic world, she said. “Other schools are asking, ‘If Harvard has a hip-hop class, why don’t we have one?’”

She knows her etymological scrutiny of the music’s lyrics and messages can sail over the heads of her students, who would sometimes prefer to just bob their heads.

“My class will ask me, ‘What do you think about Kendrick Lamar?,’ and I’ll say, ‘I’m a linguistic anthropologist. I look at it in a way that’s technical — you’ll have no appreciation for it.’”

To which her students, she joked, shake their heads and mutter, “I thought she was cool!”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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