For a while now, hip-hop has undergone a steady acceptance as the cultural monument to black urban life and as a serious poetical art. Not only in anthologies of its key masters, biopics such as Straight Outta Compton, and in serious novels of ideas and critical appraisals — one can also look around at billboards, halftime shows at Super Bowls, and on television — Love & Hip-Hop on VH1, for instance. Hip-hop has obviously made it in a big way. But the ultimate symbol of having made it in America is receiving support from the establishment, mutable as it may be. Nothing in America represents that cynosure of the old aristocracy — and at the same time 21st century meritocracy — better than Harvard University.
Here’s where Nas comes in. Nas was recently awarded Havard’s W.E.B. DuBois Medal, an award, given to those who have made “contributions to African American culture and the life of the mind.” The award is more than apropos; it is required. No one has done more than Nas to set the intellectual parameters of hip-hop. As intellectual provocateur (“Hip-Hop Is Dead”), writer of afterwords anointing right-thinking scholars, and in his existential musings (Illmatic), Nas occupies a unique and important position. No performer exemplifies “conscious rap” more — Nas personifies the visible divisions in the hip-hop genre between the commercialization of rap and its potentialities as Art. It’s a distinction worthy of a Harvard nod.