“If there’s no resistance, then chances are you aren’t fighting the right fight,” Dee-1 tells The Harvard Crimson.
David Augustine, better known by his stage name Dee-1, is the 2022-2023 Nasir Jones Hip-hop Fellow at Harvard’s Hiphop Archive & Research Institute housed within the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The award, first given in 2013, is named after the rapper Nas, who just happens to be Dee-1’s favorite rapper.
Top 10 Billboard charting, Emmy nominated, and NAACP award-winning rapper, Dee-1 is also the first artist to be appointed by the governor of Louisiana to the Executive Council, where he serves on the Louisiana Executive Council for the success of Black men and boys. All of these accolades and accomplishments, just to name a few, embody what it means to be the Nasir Jones Hip-hop Fellow.
The fellowship, according to the Hutchins Center’s website, “fund[s] scholars and artists who demonstrate exceptional scholarship and creativity in the arts in connection with hip-hop.” Fellows’ projects may include manuscript projects, performance pieces, album work, among many other possibilities. “I'm doing my research on the role that hip hop plays as a teaching tool inside the black community,” Dee-1 said of his own project in an interview with The Harvard Crimson.
Dee-1 has been on both sides of his research as both an educator and a hip-hop artist. Born and raised in New Orleans, he attended Louisiana State University and began rapping while in college. When he graduated, he became a middle school teacher in Baton Rouge for a couple of years until he resigned to focus exclusively on his rap career. Throughout his life, he has seen firsthand how gun violence affected his community. He has had best friends get murdered because, he said, they were trying to live the lifestyle that was being rapped about in the popular hip-hop songs.
Dee-1 told The Crimson that this influence that hip-hop has isn’t like that of other music genres. He said that hip-hop is not only a genre of music but a culturally defining way of life. “You've never had a genre of music before that has been used to define a whole generation,” the rapper said. “So they don't say, ‘Oh, this is the R&B generation.’ Yes, the Gospel generation, this the country generation, but they call this the hip-hop generation. [...] It's more than just music [ ...] and we can't divorce ourselves from the lyrics and the lifestyle that's associated with the lyrics.”
According to the artist, the history of Black music has always been the history of using music as an expressive force to articulate the structural conditions and oppression that Black people have to live with. Music is also a vehicle to cope with the anti-Blackness that one faces.
“Hip-hop was birthed out of rebellion. It was birthed out of a sense of social activism and just wanting to have a soundtrack to a movement, Dee-1 said. “This is civil rights. You know, Martin Luther King just got killed years prior. Malcolm X just got killed. You definitely got people that are making music at that time for the sake of starting a movement, a positive movement.”
Hip-hop’s shift from the music of rebellion to an easily-commodified genre may be due to its growth in popularity. At one point, Dee-1 believes it became more about the money than the message. “People’s priorities changed,” Dee-1 said, and because of that, the listener’s mindsets shifted too. “We can make some real good money in this genre,” Dee-1 added.
Still, there is arguably a spectacle of enjoyment in seeing and hearing about the violence perpetually done to Black bodies, a fact that Dee-1 said is at the root of the problems with the current music industry. He says that artists and the music industry alike have a role in what music gets pushed out to the masses, but now fans have developed a taste and enjoyment for a certain type of music and that isn’t healthy for society.
To fight against the enjoyment that people get from listening to music that aggrandizes anti-Black terror is Dee-1’s goal. He also told The Crimson that it’s a method for coping with the perpetual death and tragedy that surrounds him. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, he says he prioritizes “making a dent in the rap game and being able to do shows all around the country and travel and tour and now do speaking engagements. That's how I cope with it.”
Dee-1 most recently hosted a talk at Hutchin’s Center about the direction rap is going and whether it is leading society to the killing fields or the dance floor. He also currently has an album out titled “Finding Balance,” and has another one in the works. If Dee-1 would leave a person with a word of advice, he would tell them, following one of his songs titled “3s Up,” “Be real, be righteous and be relevant.”