24 Hours at Harvard, Attending IDK’s No Label Academy

It’s early afternoon on Friday (August 25), the last day of class for students at this year’s No Label Academy (NLA) music business program. IDK, his team and I are driving to Harvard Medical School for two lectures on mental health. He maintains a calm demeanor, and is focused and pensive, as he prepares for one last session of helping his nearly two dozen students realize their personal and artistic potential.

“I felt like there was a lot of people like me who may not have the academic accolades but have the capability to be successful in music,” IDK tells Billboard in the backseat of a black Chevy Suburban. “They just needed the confidence.”

Two years ago, the Maryland rapper-producer and entrepreneur (born Jason Mills) and Boston-based non-profit No Label sought to break down the barriers to entry into the music industry by holding their first-ever No Label Academy. The nine-day seminar, held at Harvard University offers advice, resources, job opportunities and internships surrounding various topics in the music industry, and is “aimed at democratizing and improving opportunities for students from systemically disadvantaged backgrounds interested in careers in the music business,” a press release explains. The program is open to applicants ages 18 to 25, regardless of collegiate status, and also includes wellness exercises like morning workouts, meditation and daily affirmations.

This year, NLA returned for its second iteration. Due to the busy schedules of IDK and No Label’s co-founders Marcelo Hanta-Davis and Miles Weddle, the program took around a year and a half to curate. After an application process consisting of a resumé submission, interview rounds and a video essay, 23 BIPOC students were chosen to participate in the immersive music business course.

2021’s guest speakers included the late Virgil Abloh, Mike Dean and Zane Lowe. This year’s iteration follows suit with lectures from star rappers Roddy Ricch and Joey Badass, award-winning actress Issa Rae, celebrity stylist Bloody Osiris and more. And thanks to high-profile sponsors like Nike, Dior, Converse, Jordan Brand, Warner Music Group, Microsoft, Timberland and YouTube, transportation, lodging and meals are fully covered — making the program free for the students.

No Label Academy
Joey Badass lecturing No Label Academy’s 2023 student cohort at Harvard University’s Science and Engineering Complex.

“Most stuff in entertainment is driven by financial decisions – and that’s not a core component to what it is we do here,” says Weddle, who is also a Harvard alumnus. “We’ve never paid a speaking fee, so every artist who comes here is really doing it because they want to give back to the community and educate individuals. The primary driver of our ability to do this is sponsor dollars.”

Weddle and fellow Harvard alumnus Marcelo Hanta-Davis founded No Label in 2018 to “utilize hip-hop and popular culture to make education more accessible,” says Hanta-Davis. “We’ve found this niche space of bringing hip-hop and academia together.” The idea for NLA came to fruition after the co-founders invited IDK to give a lecture on criminal justice reform at the Ivy League school for No Label’s Uncut speaker series in February 2020. 

“I’m a middle-class person who went to prison, partially because I went to a bad school in a bad area,” the 31-year-old told Billboard in 2020. “Then I go back four times on the same exact charge … because I didn’t take home detention or violated this or that. Knowledge and education are important for empowerment, especially in the Black community.” 

Hanta-Davis and Weddle maintained their relationship with IDK throughout the pandemic and combined their platforms to ideate No Label Academy. “We determined that there was a need for some kind of music education, and we thought we had a platform based in terms of our relationship with Harvard as alumni,” says Weddle.

IDK made sense as a professor given both the real-life hardships he endured and the first-hand experience he has a signed musician. In the mid-2010s IDK (which stands for “Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge”) began releasing mixtapes as an independent artist. In 2019, his label Clue Records signed a joint venture with Warner Records and released his critically acclaimed breakthrough album Is He Real? the same year. Four albums followed including 2021’s USEE4YOURSELF which reached No. 164 on the Billboard 200 and this year’s F65, which reached No. 21 on the Heatseekers Albums chart and features other big names like NLE Choppa, Musiq Soulchild, Snoop Dogg and more.

But as much success as he’s had as an artist, he’s finding even more satisfaction in his new role as a professor — to the point where he may consider teaching above making music in the future. “I’ve seen a few people cry a few times. I see people really trust the way that I think and the way that I look at things — their willingness to listen and learn,” he says. “There was a Harvard professor [who] is making synthetic hearts… he said he was inspired by what I do and wants to change the way he teaches his course after coming to my class two times. For me, to come from not really graduating high school properly, it means a lot.”

When asked if Harvard has remained cooperative while hosting NLA, he answers vaguely but alludes to the recent reversal of affirmative action in college admissions proving this year’s planning process to be difficult — even though NLA is merely using the institution’s facilities. (Back in June, the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action in college admissions, “declaring race cannot be a factor and forcing institutions of higher education to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies,” according to AP.)

“I can’t really speak on the affirmative action thing, honestly,” he says. “It’s still an ongoing thing that we are working to make sure we’re doing right in representing Harvard in a way that they felt was good and also we felt was accurate.” 

No Label Academy

Once we arrive at Harvard Medical School, IDK meets up with LaShyra “Lash” Nolen, who walks us inside. Nolen is in her last year at the school, and is the first Black woman to be named Harvard Medical School’s class president. She is an advisor to NLA (along with Brian Price, clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School) and the next speaker for the day.

The last day of class at this year’s No Label Academy is almost identical to the previous four days of the week. Students start the day with 6:00 a.m. workouts, followed by breakfast, meditations, then lectures running from 9:00 a.m. to around 5:00 p.m., with breaks and lunch in between. Each day has a theme – like monetization, financial literacy or mental health — along with surprise guest lecturers.

“My own experience is probably the most important factor to this course,” says IDK. “When you go to school, oftentimes the people who are teaching, especially in music, aren’t currently practicing. And even if they are, they may not have the time to practice full-time. Every guest speaker, at least 99% of them, are personal friends, or people that I’ve met along my journey, and I just reach out to them. I personally believe they add value to what we are trying to do and our mission.”

Following Nolen, Chicago artist Saba and TDE rapper Ab-Soul join Friday’s class to discuss their personal bouts with mental health. The latter opens up about his suicide attempt, what he prefers to call his “near-death experience,” fighting addiction and moving forward. Saba primarily touches on grief (the lyricist lost a handful of his family and friends to violence in a short amount of time) and the pressures of fame and being a provider.

“I think grief is one of the most informative experiences,” Saba says to the class. “Grief can be so many different versions of pain. It’s inevitable and shows you yourself. Grief taught me that everybody going through some s–t.”

Whereas the past few weeks concluded with studio time, Friday evening is more celebratory, with a joint graduation ceremony/fashion show dinner ceremony held at Harvard Art Museum. The students walk a rose-lined runway to accept their certificates of completion while modeling their custom Dior uniforms, designed by IDK and Kim Jones, the fashion house’s men’s artistic director. Rapper and Massachusetts native Bia also stops by to perform at the students’ after party.

NLA 2023 graduate Zahir Muhammad, a 21-year-old rising film/music video director and senior at LSU, says the entire experience has been incredible for him. “I love learning [and] it’s been great having no limit on how much I can learn from everybody here,” he shares. 

“The first day of class, the theme was vulnerability,” Muhammad continues. “IDK said, ‘If you all can make it through this day, then you can make it through anything the entire week.’ None of us knew why he said that, but that whole day was [us] sharing the things we hated about [ourselves]. Everybody was crying but supporting each other. He basically broke us all the way down and built us all the way back up by the end of the week.”

In the future, as funding and time permit, IDK, Weddle and Hanta-Davis plan to expand NLA to colleges and universities nationwide.

“Sometimes we don’t acknowledge the knowledge that we have, because we may have not accomplished some of the things that society deems makes [us] valuable,” says IDK. “This program is a demonstration of perseverance, belief and the ability to never take ‘no’ for an answer — and showing how far that can take you if you have an actual plan that makes sense.”

IDK, No Label Academy
IDK and No Label Academy’s 2023 student cohort.

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