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Make way for Nas and Girl Talk, Regina

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

August 29, 2008

“I just got an invite for Nas in concert sponsored by Student Events in September. And it also says that Girl Talk will be at school in November. Not bad.”

When I first read the aforementioned comment on my facebook wall—written by my friend and fellow Brandeis sophomore, Giselle Casillas—I was skeptical. Why would Student Events, the organization that brought such lily-white, Jew-friendly musical artists as Regina Spektor and Third Eye Blind to Brandeis last year, choose the notorious hip hop rabble-rouser whose latest album was almost released under the title ‘Nigger’? After I established the veracity of her claim, I realized that this choice represented a profound shift.

It’s a shame that the most recent development in Nas’s career has come to define his public image, because he also happens to be an extraordinarily gifted, influential rapper. (Although the album was ultimately released as Untitled, it did little to minimize the public relations nightmare.) This is the man whose 1994 album, Illmatic influenced an entire generation of hip hop artists, including the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Nas remains a contentious personality to this day, constantly pushing boundaries and buttons. While recognition for his complex blend of soul-searching rhymes and social commentary has fluctuated in ensuing years, Nas has enjoyed spurts of media attention for such incidents as his rivalry with fellow New York rapper, Jay-Z, and the titling of his 2006 album, Hip Hop is Dead.

It’s hard to ignore the questions that this choice raises when Nas seems to demand that we ask them. Is Student Events’ decision a blunt attempt to tilt the cultural balance away from the dominant white, middle class, Jewish stereotype? Is it a symbolic gesture that seeks to further the university’s diversity goals? Or was Nas chosen simply because he is a popular musician who appeals to a wide cross section of the Brandeis community just as Regina Spektor and Third Eye Blind allegedly did?

I decided to bring up some of these concerns with my friends to gauge their feelings about the choice. Overall, the reception for Nas and Girl Talk was overwhelmingly positive. “Everybody is stoked for Nas equally,” explained Justin Pierre-Louis ’10, an African American English & American Studies major. “I think the Caucasian audience is underestimated. A lot of white people know more about socially conscious hip hop than I do.”

Justin might have a good point, but most of the white people with whom I spoke knew little to nothing about Nas. Most were much more enthusiastic about Girl Talk (aka DJ Greg Gillis) whose genre-bending mash-ups of hip hop, rock, and pop tunes have been popping up at suburban white house parties for the past few years. Nevertheless, students of all racial backgrounds who were familiar with Nas’s work seemed excited with the prospect, especially after lukewarm responses to last year’s offerings.

Some students pointed out that artists such as the Flobots, a socially conscious hip hop ensemble that played for the Student Peace Alliance conference last fall, and Jedi Mind Tricks, an outspoken Muslim rap group that played for Springfest the following semester, have already challenged the Brandeis paradigm. Yet others retorted that the school continues to seek out such artists as Hadag Nahash, an Israeli hip hop funk ensemble, that perfectly fit the mold. Both sides of this debate are true enough, but when we consider the sheer magnitude of this concert compared with the aforementioned performances, one can’t help but ponder the social and cultural implications of this choice.

Ultimately, however, the positive responses I received indicated that most students seem ready for the change. “I think [the artist choice] is good, because we’re supposed to be a non-exclusive school,” claimed Emily Sedbrook ’11, a white student whose major is undecided. “We should be labeled as an accepting university, not a Jewish one.”

In the end, a couple of hip hop concerts is unlikely to change the image of our entire school. Yet hopefully they will spark the kind of debate that we must continue to have if we hope to transform our campus culture.

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