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Beat Dreams

By Alex Stoller

Jason Nichols

Photo Illustration by Jeanette J. Nelson/Portrait by John T. Consoli

Photo Illustration by Jeanette J. Nelson/Portrait by John T. Consoli

When Jason Nichols ’00, Ph.D. ’12 isn’t lecturing in the African American studies department, he’s going by the name Haysoos as half of the D.C.-based rap duo Wade Waters. He combines those passions at Words, Beats & Life, a nonprofit he and Mazi Mutafa ’06 co-founded in the city to teach at-risk kids hip-hop and life skills. He edits a scholarly journal of the same name, focused on international hip-hop culture. Terp gets to the bottom of what an academic journal and an after-school program have in common.

TERP: How did you discover rapping and MCing?

Nichols: There was a song called “My Philosophy” by Boogie Down Productions. When I heard the song, it felt like something I could identify with. When I was in high school, my neighbor would record me. We started making tapes and playing them in the car. I remember being so proud.

TERP: Where did it all start?

Nichols: Mazi and I were really close friends. He was Black Student Union president for a little while, and he put together a hip-hop conference. It was unbelievable. You went to all of these great lectures. Everybody was there—Tricia Rose, Saul Williams. I actually performed at the end and opened for Phife Dawg and A Tribe Called Quest. Mazi said, “We’ve got to keep this momentum going.” He wanted to form an organization, and he wanted the organization to have a publication to go along with it. He talked to me about being a part of that.

TERP: How did Words, Beats & Life come to life?

Nichols: It’s an organization that does afterschool programs where they teach MCing and DJing and B-boying. It gives them a skill that they can actually use to sustain themselves. There’s one kid who’s helping himself partially through college DJing.

TERP: What kind of research is in a hip-hop journal?

Nichols: We are the first peer-reviewed journal on hip-hop. We have poetry, art and commentary. We want to put scholarship in conversation with art. We have articles written in [different languages] and translated into English. Hip-hop is global.

TERP: What do you teach your students in your course, “Black Culture: Black Masculinities in Art, Music and Dance”?

Nichols: I was looking at a YouTube clip of my own performance, and I said, “Wow. I didn’t even know I was doing this with my body. What am I trying to say with that movement?” I started thinking about masculinity and art. The class starts looking at some of the artists who have expressed masculinities in their art. Then you start to look at your own masculinities that you express every day. It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female; you have some expression of masculinity. That’s the beauty of cultural studies—you can really delve into things that affect your own life.

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