The year 2019 is an era where Hip-Hop has since graduated from a microphone for the marginalized and has transformed into a cornerstone of popular culture, swaying social trends, dominating charts, and creating a Pulitzer Prize winner in the process.
Equally, hip-hop has begun to seep into academia, with institutions broadening the scope of their curricula, developing genre-oriented coursework, inviting hip-hop figures into their hallways. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a collective at Harvard University is on a mission to make such instances last beyond just a trend, and turn it into the norm. Founded by rising seniors Marcelo Hanta-Davis and Miles Weddle, both 21, No Label has been responsible for a number of high-profile industry masterclasses hosted at one of the world’s most renowned schools. To date, their track record includes invitees such as Dre London, Love Renaissance, J.I.D and SinceThe80s, Terrace Martin and Travis Scott, a list that includes a mix of college dropouts and those who haven’t gone to college at all.
“Hip-hop has become pop culture at this point,” says Weddle, a sociology student. “To not have it on a campus like Harvard’s would be a glaring deficiency in everyone’s education.”
The project is the result of a friendship and partnership that first took root within the microcosm of Harvard’s famed Annenberg dining hall. The idea was to find a way to provide a platform for the likes of London and LVRN to outline their own personal and professional journeys while providing insight for young hopefuls curious about the entertainment industry. Bringing together a common love at the intersection of the arts and business, the duo, along with a dedicated team of peers, have built out a ble organization working to amplify the narrative of the arts. In a conversation earlier this year, we discussed how No Label came to be, the impact of hip-hop on Harvard’s campus, the college admissions scandal and how New England’s music scene is shifting.
HotNewHipHop: What was the conversation that you guys were having when the inspiration for No Label came about?
Marcelo: We were sitting in a dining hall last year and I was just telling Miles about ideas that I had. I said I really want to start a record label and Miles had this smirk like, “I’m about it.” We realized that we didn’t want to do a label, but we wanted to do more events and that kind of stuff because that allows us to reach more people.
Miles: Marcelo plays the sax and I play the piano. We both are instrumentalists ourselves and a lot of our friends are instrumentalists. No Label is fundamentally about connecting people and we resolved to find a solution that would connect us with what our friends were doing while maintaining this ethos of really working and connecting artists to new and interesting audiences.
Marcelo, you had a hand in creating what’s called the first hip-hop cypher at Harvard—
Marcelo: How’d you find out about that?
I have to do my research
[Laughs from both]
Was hip-hop always the focal point for you guys?
Marcelo: When I got to Harvard, I really wanted to become a professional jazz musician. I started getting involved with the hip-hop archive at Harvard and that’s where my love for hip-hop really began. I realized that there are artists on campus who are also interested in the same things that I am, but nobody came together to perform or share their music. What better way to bring everyone together than to do a cypher, and have everyone perform their music but come together at the end? It was going back to that idea of jazz— improvisation, and people coming together and building community. Ever since the success of that event, I realized there is something we can actually be doing to build a hip-hop community at Harvard and in the Boston area in general. That’s where all these different ideas came about with No Label.
Miles: Yeah, both of us have a love for hip-hop. We both work at the hip-hop archives, but the idea of No Label is that we really should be looking at things beyond this genre, beyond race, beyond sexuality. We want to do events that go beyond hip-hop, whether it be jazz, whether it be classical, and the events we’ve done this year are just the beginning of what we’re trying to do in regards to bridging boundaries.
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With working at the Archives and creating No Label, what you’re essentially taking part of is bringing a medium traditionally reserved for marginalized voices and infiltrating a space attributed to privilege. How does that dynamic fuel you?
Miles: You hit the nail on the head right there. No Label, again, is about bridging boundaries. Marcelo and I are both very multicultural. I was born in South Africa and lived there for eight years before moving to the United States. I’m ¾ black and ¼ Indian. I’m an instrumentalist but at the same time, I love the business side of things. I don’t really sit into one box. But, coming here to Harvard, we see there is a stratification of the population here. But, what we’re trying to highlight is that there is something to be learned from everyone’s story. Bringing people like Travis, J.I.D, or Dre London is the idea of highlighting how these narratives are just as important as they are outside of Harvard. The great things about these events is that they are not exclusive to Harvard students. They’re open to the entire population of Boston. So, being able to get people into a room full of Harvard students as well as non-Harvard students to give a raw and authentic story that could potentially change their lives is something that we’re very interested in doing.
Marcelo: The whole idea of what we’re doing is trying to defy conventions and defy labels that have been placed on us. People would try and box me into different categories racially. My dad is from the Bahamas and my mom is from Austria. People would tell me what I am and I felt constrained by that. There was also an idea of empowering artists to defy conventions. It was also to empower artists who are not signed to labels yet or don’t want to by giving them educational resources at our talks, the shows, our platforms. Often times in society we like to distinguish between low art and high arts. This causes social division. It causes different cultural divisions and we really just want to say that people’s arts and stories matter. We want to use institutions like Harvard to flip that dynamic so people like Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar can be associated with artists like Mozart and Beethoven.
Miles: Especially when they’re in the number-one-selling genre. That’s the craziest thing to us sometimes. Hip-hop has become pop culture at this point or at least is defining much of what is taking place in sports, fashion, etcetera. As students looking to learn something and to not have it on a campus like Harvard’s would be a glaring deficiency in everyone’s education.
What is the culture like on campus? Has it fostered your project or are you at the receiving end of any pushback when Travis Scott walks onto campus and essentially teaches a class?
Marcelo: We wouldn’t be able to do the stuff we’re doing without the support of administrators at Harvard. In any institution as large as Harvard, there’s going to be some level of pushback when you do something new. For the most part, Harvard has been supportive. Even having something like the Archives has furthered our education and made us feel comfortable and knowledgable enough about hip-hop to pursue something like this. Harvard’s been supportive from that perspective. But with any bureaucracy, there are instances of pushback and for us, we’ll show you and you’ll get on board. As far as the culture at Harvard, I’ve heard so many students at Harvard who are so talented say they’re going into finance and consulting and there’s nothing wrong with those jobs. But there are creative students who hate going into those jobs because they feel like it’s their only option at Harvard. They don’t see the other possibilities of jobs in the music industry or film industry. They haven’t been exposed to what a marketing executive, agent, or A&R does. The great thing about No Label is about exposing those students to other avenues that they could pursue. If they want to be creative, they can and they can have a really successful and enjoyable lifestyle.
Miles: That goes for all of Boston. One of the many reasons a student chooses to attend a school like Harvard is because it’s right next door to Boston and the resources that are in the city and the resources of other schools like Boston University and Berklee. Marcelo is 100% right. The idea is to be able to show that being an A&R is attainable for someone and then to hear the stories is something that we’re trying to showcase.
What are you working on right now to expand the No Label experience and expand your impact?
Miles: We did our first event at Yale last week with J.I.D. This is something we hope to take beyond Harvard. We want to be doing events at Berklee. We want to be doing events at NYU, at USC, really allowing this content to exist beyond Harvard. The real long term visions is for people to live by the lifestyle of what No Label means.
Marcelo: What we’re starting to do is put more of a conscious effort into our events. We creatively use space to design a way that people will interact with each other. One thing we do is use Yondr, which is basically this company that magnetically locks up phones in a pouch so you can’t be on your phone during the vent. Artists love that because they feel comfortable. Even J.I.D. said, “I can actually say this once nobody is recording it.”
So far, everyone you guys have brought out has come outside of Boston. Do you think that the New England music scene is now fostering an environment where a future No Label masterclass would be hosted by an artist or label from the Boston area?
Marcelo: When someone asked what they could do to build a music business team in Boston, one of the LVRN co-founders, Justice, told them to look at models like what Drake did in Toronto to build music and culture in your city. What I’ve seen over the past two years is that people are really starting to do that in Boston and make an effort to put Boston and New England on the map whether it be with some of the festivals, or building an infrastructure from the ground up.
Miles: We want to show it’s possible. We’re obviously students here for four years. This isn’t my city. All we’re trying to do is create a space that everyone is accepted in and can benefit from the story of a Travis Scott, LVRN, J.I.D or Dre London so they can be inspired and build something of their own. Justice is right. You create the culture in your city and all we’re trying to do is say it’s possible. The city wants this. I think it’s a matter of inspiring people to make a name for themselves. By no means are we the only people doing stuff around music in the city. As much as we want to inspire other creatives, they’re also inspiring us to continue to do these events.
News recently broke of the college admissions scandal with celebrities paying their children’s way into schools like Harvard, how has that affected you considering your place as minorities and being so heavily influenced by a culture built by minorities?
Miles: That’s a very good question. In my own circle of friends, we all emphasize this idea of you don’t really know someone until you know someone. That’s an ethos we’re trying to thread through No Label. Even with this affirmative action lawsuit, we want to remove the noise and support the idea of looking at people as people. There’s a real question and conversation to be had around what is currently happening at our university and other universities.
Marcelo: I think a lot of things about it. It’s hypocritical for some people to only go after affirmative action but when cases like this come up where people are buying their way, they don’t necessarily criticize those people. Affirmative action helps students who don’t have traditional resources to get into Harvard.
Pretty much everyone you guys have brought has either never gone to college or went to college and dropped out, what’s the dynamic presented when you juxtapose that against a background like Harvard’s?
Marcelo: At some point in our life, people are like, “How do you get in Harvard?” The reality is that you can come and speak here without the idea that you have to have certain qualities. We just want to create a space where people can have an open dialogue.
Miles: If you’re honest with yourself as a student here. The reality is there are four other students like me who had the same SAT score, had the same grades and did very similar things like me, and we’re both so privileged to be students here. It’s not something either one of us want to take for granted. Travis not having graduated college or J.I.D not having graduated college, look at what they’re doing. It’s amazing that we’re here at Harvard but what they’re doing is absolutely incredible and anyone would be foolish not see that. A degree is not needed to speak about any life experience. Travis comes to speak about something he knows very personally. Someone’s personal narrative is not something you need a degree for. The stories we’re trying to share do not require a degree. For us, it’s about helping people see beyond the traditional boundaries that exist in our society.