Harvard Enlists a Rapper to Teach Students About Music Business
(Bloomberg) -- Since early in his career, rapper and producer IDK (an acronym short for Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge) has bucked the status quo, opting instead to pave his own path in the music industry. For the Maryland-raised artist, that unconventional path included time in and out of jail, beginning at age 17, a period he says helped him rethink his life and focus on a career in music.
IDK, whose real name is Jason Aaron Mills, began independently releasing music and marketing himself on social media, resulting in millions of streams online—all without a label or a team supporting him.
The 29-year-old has continued to find success since officially partnering with Warner Bros. for his 2019 debut album, Is He Real, and now he’s preparing to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of artists of color. Later this month he’ll begin the 10-day IDK No Label Academy program with Harvard University to teach students fundamental knowledge about the music business, from financial literacy to monetization and even mental health and fame—and tuition is free. Partners include brands such as Nike, Guess, and Jordan.
Days after the release of his most recent album, USEE4YOURSELF, he spoke with Bloomberg Quicktake about his drive to help the next generation of creators rethink what a sustainable career in the arts can be. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Bloomberg Quicktake: Talk to me first about how this partnership with Harvard came to be. How did they approach you?
IDK: I actually approached them, and it started off with the conversation that we had on criminal justice reform, but I always had this idea of doing something much more with that institution. Given the history of Harvard and how long they’ve been around and the credibility, I thought there would be a lot of different ways to create a pipeline for a bunch of people who may not have the opportunity to go there.
Why is teaching these students a priority?
The idea of music being a realistic job for a lot of people seems to be in the old way of thinking prior to social media—and so it seems impossible. Social media has created a pipeline for us to make a living doing music. Because it’s so new and people are just now understanding it, I feel like it’s important to teach the newer generations and some of the older generations how this could be a real sustainable career.
IDK stands for Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge. How did you approach turning lessons you had learned while incarcerated and then after into a music career? Was that just always the plan?
For me, IDK just goes to who I am as a person. I’ve always had multiple perspectives and multiple ways of seeing things. I’ve always been the person who can argue about two different points with the same amount of passion because I could see both sides very well. So because of that I was teetering with two different aspects that typically don’t make sense together, but for some reason I figured out how to do it. Ignorance and knowledge is something that I’ve grown up knowing or looking at. Then when I got into my career, I realized that a lot of people tend to gravitate to things that are ignorant because it’s more entertaining, but a lot of the things I really care about have to do with knowledge. I took that approach in music, because it’s who I am, which is probably the best for me.
And you took an unconventional route—being independent and using social media to boost your career. Where did you pick up on that?
A lot of it is what I’ve seen. Whether it’s artists like Jay-Z doing specific things in business to, you know, just friends, mentors, a bunch of different people who helped create this ecosystem in my mind to a place where I knew I could kind of create my own rules and actually be an innovator.
Can the next generation of artists all achieve that, though?
I can’t speak for every single person, but I think that there’ll be a lot more. Even me doing what I’m doing is opening people’s minds to start to think a little bit more outside of the box. So with that being said, I think we’ll see more artists like that for sure.
The stages of evolution start to happen even faster as social media becomes better. If they figure out how to bypass Wi-Fi or charge iPhones instantly, even those things will start to speed up the evolution of us as human beings. And with that comes all of the changes with music in whatever industries we’re in. So I can’t really say, but I think that it’s very important for our next generation to have an understanding of some of the things that I’ll be teaching.
Being able to broaden the perspective of the next generation is probably the most important thing. Being able to educate them in a way that will create progression in a positive way is going to probably be key.
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