The U.S. Department of Education published a letter on Sept. 22 threatening to revoke funding for the Duke University and University of North Carolina (UNC) Consortium for Middle East Studies. The letter criticized the program for sponsoring an outdoor concert by rapper Marco Pav, described as a Millennial Muslim from Memphis who conducts hip-hop and social justice workshops. The Department of Education leveled the charge that by hiring Pav, the Duke-UNC program had failed to use their funding to ensure the security, stability and economic vitality of the United States.
Now, Pav, born Tauheed Rahim II, is Georgetowns first hip-hop artist-in-residence. Since his inaugural Sept. 6 discussion in McNeir Hall, Pav has worked with the departments of Performing Arts and African American Studies to organize Critical Frequencies: Live from the Southern Hip-Hop Stage, a series of discussions designed to explore hip-hops influence on entrepreneurship, culture, fashion, politics, social justice, and the music industry. Some Critical Frequencies events include an Oct. 4 discussion on sneaker art and its ability to critique societal injustices, as well as an upcoming Nov. 15 panel exploring African American entrepreneurship within the art industry.
Being an artist-in-residence allows Pav to focus on producing new music from his office in New North while receiving financial backing from the university. Im just free to learn and explore all types of musical capabilities that I have, that I havent tapped into, he said. During his residency, Pav hopes to work directly with students on their music and have them engage with the rich history and legacy of hip-hop.
Im planning and building a ton of events on campus that really explore hip-hop culture and really explore critical things that people can dive into and put their teeth into and understand more about this country, but through a hip-hop lens, Pav said. When asked what he hopes students will learn from Critical Frequencies, Pav said, I want people to understand where [hip-hop] comes from and not only be consumers, but be students of it.
For Pav, hip-hop has played an essential role in the creation of modern American life. He believes hip-hop has moved beyond simply being a music genre and into the realm of a cultural force. Without hip-hop, everybodys lives would be boring, he explained. The way we dress, the way we talk, the way we communicate with our friends is all through hip-hop. Because of this, Pav not only aims to produce music for people to enjoy, but also to learn from.
Issues of equality and identity are prominent themes in Pavs work. He expresses his background as an African American, Muslim, and millenial through his music, which he views as a platform to discuss social justice and empower young people to share stories about their own lives. Prior to becoming artist-in-residence, Pav worked as a Memphis Music Initiative teaching fellow to educate middle and high school students about hip-hop music, culture, and activism. He has released several singles, a 2015 EP called Perception, and a 2017 album titled Welcome to Grc Lnd (pronounced Graceland).
Pavs path to Georgetown did not come without obstacles. He admitted that the consequences of speaking up for social justice, especially as a Muslim, can be daunting. But despite being scrutinized by the Department of Education, Pav has not been deterred from his mission. It makes you be fearful of what the repercussions can be for just speaking out, but thats all we can do, he said of the executive letter. My life is basically to always show people that we have to push back.
Long before he was performing at universities or drawing the ire of the Trump administration, however, Pav discovered hip-hop during his childhood in Tennessee. He described how, in the sixth and seventh grade, he would listen to artists like Lil Wayne and Missy Elliot, wanting to follow in their footsteps and learn from their musical styles.
Pav frequently cites his upbringing in Memphis as a major influence on his approach to music and perspective on society. His early life shaped a major theme of his work: transforming a negative situation into a positive outcome. Growing up in Memphis was definitely one of the most difficult things Ive done because I didnt want to go the traditional route of gang culture, he said. I had already done that by 15 years old. For me, I was trying to get away from that.
He described how escaping the cycle of violence and focusing on his music career was especially challenging for him. If youre trying to branch out and do something completely different without any support systems, then its going to be totally difficult, Pav explained. The way I built my platform as an artist basically was to challenge the system.
In addition to his own personal history, Pav uses music to explore Memphis public history. If you look at people of color in any city, most likely theyll have a similar story, but Memphis definitely has its own specific style of racism, he said.
He recounted the citys historical associations with slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, Memphis, according to Pav, is a city founded on the profits of companies that sold cotton and transported slaves downriver to plantations in the Deep South. After the Civil War, the city was subject to a century of Jim Crow laws and the oppression of African Americans. In 1968, just three years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in the city, dashing many Americans hopes of racial progress and societal reform.
Through his work, Pav contextualizes Memphiss place in the history of the struggle for racial justice, discussing how the citys past connects with the experiences of Americans today. Thats the shadow we live in, and thats the reality we live in, because 50 years after MLK, not a lot has changed, Pav said.
The music video for Black Tux, the lead single from Perception, epitomizes his focus on using his lifes experiences to create socially conscious hip-hop. In the video, Pav delivers his rhymes inside a crumbling factory in Memphis, symbolizing the structural inequities people of color face in the post-Jim Crow South. The video is interspersed with black-and-white flashbacks that show some of the difficult decisions Pav had to make on the way to fulfill his dream of becoming a hip-hop artist, including forgoing job opportunities in order to focus on making music. Dressed in the titular black tuxedo, Pav stands in stark contrast to the decay around him, representing how he has sought to escape the challenging circumstances of his childhood and build his own legacy.
Through his music, Pav says he wants to give a voice to young people across the country who seek to challenge and overcome issues of systemic inequality and injustice, all while trying to stay afloat and pursue their dreams. Thats the point of the music. Its to show people that miracles can happen, show people that the impossible can happen if you just put your mind to doing something thats outside of what your circumstances are.
Despite the initial obstacles, Pav is grateful for what he has been able to accomplish in his career as a hip-hop artist. I come from a very negative situation from the socioeconomic standpoint, but also from the interpersonal family standpoint, from abuse, he said. And Im sitting here at Georgetown University as an artist-in-residence today.
Image Credits: Marco Pav
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