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A Tufts Hip-Hop Album Just Dropped

30 students, led by professional rapper Dee-1, show how to create music with a real message

When Nile Speight-Leggett, A24, took the mic on a recent Thursday night, his rap was all about the Benjamins. But while plenty of hip-hop artists sing about money and the rush of spending it on diamonds and cases of Cristal, he extoled the benefits of saving and investing.

“If the money’s gon be constantly on our minds / at least let’s make it grow for generations down the line,” he sang. “Compound interest stack up your money even while you complacent. / This the type of info that gets you out your parents’ basement.” 

Financial literacy, social media addiction, and homelessness were just a few of the subjects that the 30 students in the course Hip-Hop and Social Change chose to highlight for their final project, an album with music and lyrics they wrote themselves and performed at an April 25 record release concert on campus.

Crumbs 2 Loaves

“In case y’all don't know, our album dropped today worldwide!” the course’s creator, David “Dee-1” Augustine, announced to the cheering crowd who filled Goddard Chapel. A professional rapper and the Alan Solomont Artist/Scholar-in-Residence at Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, he advocates for social transformation through his music.

“As a hip-hop artist, for a long time I've tried to use my platform and my skillset to make social change in the world,” he said. “So to now teach my students about that process has been nothing short of life changing for me.”

For the album, the students split up into seven teams. One group put together the song “Shut It Down,” about turning off your phone and eschewing social media in favor of real-life interactions. It starts with a sample as homage: the voice of the late Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett.

“He really spoke about what our song is about: AI and about social media and how it’s consuming our entire world,” explained Felix Bhattacharya, A25, an international relations and civic studies major. 

The students who put together the track “For the Culture” celebrated their varied backgrounds, including roots in China, India, and Latin America. At the concert, the crowd went wild for Kecheng Ding, a master’s student in human factors engineering, who pulled up his hood, slipped on his sunglasses, and delivered his verse in Chinese.

“We call him the Chinese Kendrick Lamar, straight up,” Dee-1 said.

For the Culture

Other songs on the album, released by the class under the name “Young Prophets of Progress,” explored family bonds, being true to yourself, and finding your purpose.

Dee-1 is well aware that those aren’t typical themes for many hip-hop artists, and his students know it, too. But he said until the course delved into it, many in the class had not asked why that was. 

“When they see how much intentional effort goes into marketing music—to the Black community specifically—that is glorifying murder, glorifying drug dealing, glorifying the disrespect of women, glorifying sexual irresponsibility, I think that really shocked them,” he said.

In class, they talked about all the people who influence hip-hop music and culture, from the artists who create it, to the labels that promote it, to the fans who consume to it. Fans, Dee-1 said, can choose their music not “simply because the commissioners are pushing it upon them via radio and playlisting and programming” but by thinking about its message and asking, “is that message healthiest for us as a society?”

Consumers have a say, he said. “We look at case studies of what fans have done over the first 50 years of hip-hop to really bring about a shift and exercise the power that they have.”

Shut It Down

Students at Spelman College, for example, protested a campus appearance by the artist Nelly because of the way women were portrayed in his explicit music videos. DaBaby was dropped from concert lineups for homophobic remarks. And a major record label that signed its first AI-generated artist, FN Meka, dropped him within a week because of criticism that the avatar’s slur-infused lyrics were “an amalgamation of gross stereotypes.”

“When consumers come together and make their voice heard it, you know it,” Dee-1 said.

Most of the students said they took the class because they enjoy listening to hip-hop, but a few had written songs before and were looking to hone their skills with a professional like Dee-1.

Speight-Leggett said he turned to Dee-1 repeatedly as he tried to trim down three verses worth of financial advice to fit one verse of beat. 

“One of the reasons we made the song was everyone’s chasing a bag, right?” said the economics and finance major, using a current catchphrase for “wealth.” “But if you don't know how to save the bag or grow the bag or share it, then you're just going to be chasing it every day of your life. So I want to help impact that in some way.”

Could hip-hop be the way to make that impact? “We know people don't listen in class,” Speight-Leggett said, “so maybe they'll listen to a song about it.”