How does one go from rapper to aspiring professor? Jabari “Naledge” Evans grew up on the South Side of Chicago and matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania. He formed the hip-hop duo Kidz in the Hall with Michael “Double-O” Aguilar while at Penn during the early 2000s. In recent years, Evans returned to Chicago, enrolling at Northwestern University as a full-time graduate student in the department of communication studies while overseeing the growth of his non-profit organization The Brainiac Project, which provides South Side youth free access to recording studios and mentorship. I sat down with Evans, currently in his second year as a graduate student, to discuss his studies and non-profit work as well as his thoughts on hip-hop, youth and the music industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed
The Pulpit: What brought you to Northwestern, and what are you studying?
Jabari Evans: To sum it up, I study children and media, and how youth make use of media in their everyday lives. I’m very interested in looking at how hip-hop’s technological creativity can be placed into formal spaces, specifically how it can be used to bolster the academic performance of African-American youth and urban youth in general. I’m also looking at how technological creativity and the DIY aspect of hip-hop allows youth to empower themselves. To keep it real, research for me is “me-search.” I use myself and my path from the South Side of Chicago to the University of Pennsylvania to the music industry. Music gave me an identity, it gave me self-esteem, it gave me entrepreneurial values, work ethic and things that apply whether you become a star or not. I think we need to reverse-engineer education in certain ways that fit modern times.
One reason I came to NU was the reputation of the school as elite. I wanted a degree that stood out among other Ph.D. candidates. The smartest people in the world are here, so why not be here? Location was also key; I’m from Chicago, didn’t really want to leave home and have a son here. Being here is grounding for me.
When and why did the shift occur from the music industry to graduate school and community-oriented work?
You don’t leave the music industry; the music industry leaves you. We had a strained relationship with our record label around 2012; we toured Europe and Canada as an opening act. Having a son was very influential in me starting to soul-search and think about what I wanted my end game to be. Do I want to be touring in my 40s? You’re not thinking about that fresh out of college, but you start to think about it in your 30s. I’ve been blessed to have a pretty stable career, but it’s always something you can get back to.
The opportunity to transition or reinvent was always in my mind prior to entering the music industry. I don’t even like saying “entering” the music industry; I’ve always been hip-hop. I’m always going to be hip-hop, I’m never not going to be Naledge, I’m never not going to be a rapper. If somebody asked me to do a show tomorrow, I’d do it. Long term, I had to start figuring out what I can lean on when I don’t feel like touring or making a project.
It’s a young person’s game and a young person’s culture. There are many 40-year-old artists right now parading around like they aren’t forty. Music can get stale, and I think you need a transition. JAY-Z has Roc Nation, which is a legitimate business he transitioned into. He raps and does shows, but we think of him as a businessman and a mogul now more than ever. I have the ability and background to be an academic, and those who know me know that’s who I am. It’s a seamless transition.
So is a university job then the goal once you finish your studies at Northwestern, or are you undecided?
I would say it’s like 80-20. I would prefer a tenure-track position at a research university of this caliber. At the same time, I could see myself within a start-up or examining the potential of hip-hop and how music affects and changes lives. There are many things I could do; however, I think being in a university setting allows me to have my hands in a lot of things.
What does the future hold for you as a musician?
Hip-hop will be 40 next year. We couldn’t see where rappers go when they get older, but now we have a solid cohort. It took 20 years for people to see hip-hop as more than a fad, and now that we have hip-hop millionaires and soon-to-be billionaires we are seeing what spheres rap artists venture into. I feel like I can be a part of this movement that leads hip-hop in an academic direction. I’d venture to say I’m one of the few people to go on a national tour, sell over 100,000 records, then enter a top Ph.D. program and hopefully become a professor. I’m not tooting my horn, but I think I’ll be a unicorn and a trailblazer in that space.
Once hip-hop becomes looked at as a more credible art form, it will be better for the experience on campuses that talk ad-nauseam about diversity and inclusion. Hip-hop is a part of global youth culture, so why have someone that’s never participated in it talking about it and teaching about it? When you watch ESPN, the analysts usually played or coached to the point where they are credible; why wouldn’t it be the same in this space? I’ve seen it happen with jazz musicians where they become professors and still do music on the side.
Could you give a quick summary of The Brainiac Project and talk about goals both in general and for the near future?
In 2011, I was involved with a project called Little Black Pearl on the South Side in the Kenwood area. We put together an arts-entrepreneurship program through the school, and part of that was the student-run record label. They wanted industry people to make it a formal activity, and while doing that mentoring, I began a Kickstarter fund. That was The Brainiac Project, and we raised about $5,000. I wanted to extend those opportunities, so I had a studio set up and we opened it up to kids for free 3 hours a day. Word traveled fast on social media, and we went from three or four kids to 75 or 80 coming through the studio. We try to increase pathways for youth in the Chicagoland area to pursue music and launch careers by giving them studio time and mentorship they might not otherwise be exposed to.
We’ve been going for 3 years officially, but right now it’s hard for me to be anything other than be a PhD student. I will be done with coursework soon, but right now it’s hard for me to fully focus on the organization other than the facets I can include in my research. I’m still scratching the itch of being around youth and music, but my focus is fully on getting this Ph.D.
Through your entire journey from the South Side to the Ivy League to touring and grad school, the one constant seems to be Chicago. What have you learned by being from the city or interacting with the city’s people and culture?
That’s part of what will be hashed out in my dissertation; how location effects how hip-hop is perceived and created. How does a scene happen? When you look at the character of Chicago, it’s always been about the culture and music. We’ve had house, jazz, blues, R&B, but there was never any major label infrastructure here. There’s always been talent, but you either had to move away or give it up.
I think Chicago artists have a different work ethic because they’ve had to do everything for themselves. If you look at the people that are breaking through right now, they all have this DIY work ethic. The internet has been a gift to kids from Chicago because they were already outworking their competition, but having that as a global base means they’re still outworking their competition while getting more eyeballs on it. There are so many creatives here; well before Kanye West, there was a talented, rich, robust scene in Chicago. When African Americans moved from the South after Reformation and took the train up to the big city, that city for most people was Chicago.
We have a Southern aesthetic, a laid-back California vibe, a gang culture, but also a New York vibe of commerce and finance and corporations. We are a cultural gumbo here in Chicago; growing up in that is a unique dynamic. It’s probably one of the most racially diverse cities in the world, and only now are people starting to see that diversity.