The hip-hop artist and educator discussed rap as a force for education, community, and change during a recent talk at Tisch College
On April 13, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot in Missouri by Andrew Daniel Lester after accidentally ringing Lester’s doorbell. Tragically, Yarl’s shooting wasn’t the only incident of gun violence to occur that week.
In upstate New York, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis was fatally shot after driving into a wrong driveway. And in Texas, 18-year-old Payton Washington was wounded by gunfire in a supermarket parking lot after accidentally getting into the wrong car.
It was in the wake of these tragic events that award-winning rap and hip-hop artist Dee-1 addressed a packed house at the Asean Auditorium on April 19 as part of Tisch College’s Solomont Speaker Series.
“It’s been a bad week for Black boys and Black mothers,” Dean Dayna Cunningham somberly stated in her introduction. But Dee-1’s impassioned talk brought much-needed inspiration and uplift to the engaged and enthusiastic audience.
Through his music, Dee-1 (born David Augustine, Jr.) documents how some of the nation's problems–from senseless violence to the glorification of selling drugs–have come to define not only American culture, but also the rap and hip-hop genres.
The New Orleans native also advocates for mental health awareness and pushing through hard times with hope, faith, and resilience. He is both a student and leader of conscious rap, a movement that harks back to hip-hop’s earliest hits, which provided social commentary on topics such as abject poverty and politics.
As a former middle school math teacher and current Nasir Jones Fellow at Harvard University’s Hip-Hop Archive & Research Institute, Dee-1 is a renowned speaker and educator. He discussed why he’s compelled to bring activism back to hip-hop, and reminded listeners that the genre was designed to be a healing space for community engagement.
A hip-hop outlook can be helpful, he argued, if creators—and consumers—look beyond superficial or destructive material. Below are four takeaways from his talk.
The purpose of rap is to teach
A persistent message throughout Dee-1’s work is that rap and hip-hop’s true purpose is to teach.
“When people think about why they listen to hip-hop music, they might disagree,” Dee-1 acknowledged. “They may say, ‘No, rap’s primarily revolved around entertaining people first and foremost.’” But entertainment, he argued, only comes about when you add other layers: “When you add a beat, or an industry that incentivizes you to rap about certain topics… But the essential function of rap is to teach.”
Dee-1 recalled how his former students remembered rap lyrics more seamlessly than they did steps to long division. Witnessing rap’s impact on a whole generation, he began to ponder its moral compass.
“A lot of rappers, unfortunately, do not view themselves as teachers,” he said. “But rap, inherently teaches. You have to ask yourself, just like in the classroom, what are they teaching and what are they choosing to teach?”
As an example, he repeated the lite jingle, “6 times 6 is 43! You wish you could be like me!” His point? Through catchy, memorable lyrics, listeners could be taught inaccuracies, skills, and opinions that do more harm than good. “You might say, ‘Well, this is my truth.’ [But] is it healthy that you’re teaching this? I had to be the change I wanted to see,” he said.
Realizing the educational power of rap, Augustine left the classroom to teach outside of it. “As Dee-1, I wanted to have the heart of a teacher but the platform of a rapper. Because with that platform, I’d have the ability to speak truth to power in a way that would have people listen.”
“I learned so much from the rap music I listened to growing up,” Dee-1 recalled. “Did [these artists] not know just how influential they were?”
He shared how his 2009 track “Jay, 50 & Weezy” called out three giants in the industry. “I felt like these three artists knew the power they had with their platform and chose to perpetuate ignorance and [put] a negative message out there.”
After putting the song and video out, he admitted, “I had never been so scared in my life. But I had to remember my why: I’m only in this game and industry to be a teacher.”
The decision to stay the course of promoting mindfulness through rap and hip-hop is a responsibility Dee-1 takes seriously. Keeping his own moral compass in check, he’s collaborated with organizations like the American Heart Association and ESPN’s Undefeated campaign.
“I’ve been a part of receiving messages from hip-hop and being taught how to do things like sell dope,” he said, referencing the 1997 track “Ghetto D” by Master P. In contrast, Dee-1 has chosen to use the medium to spread educational, even life-saving, messages. “Making music that’s teaching people how to look out for the warning signs of a stroke or how to appreciate some of our forefathers that paved the way for us in sports—this is something that I’ve dedicated my life to. Choosing, intentionally, to use hip-hop in order to teach.”
Know the power of being a commissioner, creator, and consumer
“I’m a consumer of hip-hop myself,” Dee-1 said. “As a consumer, we have to know and understand the power our consumption has in this whole ecosystem of what gets created and commissioned. You have to ask yourself, ‘Once I know that 6x6 is not 43–no matter how catchy it sounds–do I want to continue consuming stuff that I know is factually incorrect or unhealthy?’ That’s a hard decision to make as a consumer.”
His track “People Don’t Want That Real” reflects on this universal dichotomy. Dee-1 implores listeners to be mindful of what they take in artistically and aware of both the power and distinction of the “three C’s.”
Discover your slingshot
The biblical story of David and Goliath (also the title of his 2009 album) has been a huge source of inspiration for Dee-1 as it represents triumph over hardship and the importance of doing inner work. He refers to the talent, skill, or tool an individual uses to overcome these challenges as their slingshot.
“[I came to understand that] I was David. The difference was that my Goliath didn’t look like a big, nine-foot giant. My Goliaths were in poverty; depression I’ve dealt with; suicidal thoughts I had while being in the music industry; discrimination, being a black man in America,” Dee-1 said. “My Goliaths may look different than the next person, but because I can identify my own, I can identify my slingshot.”
His slingshot was becoming a rapper. Expressing himself and supporting causes through his rhymes is how Dee-1 continues to combat the peaks and valleys of his internal and external worlds.
“When you understand what your gift is, what your passion truly lies in, and how you can use that and battle Goliaths in your life, that’s how, at the end of your tenure here on earth, you can feel you’ve lived a driven life. You don’t do it just by chasing the bag.”
“Rapping has changed my life,” he concluded. “More importantly, it’s helped me to change the [lives] of others.”