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A Week Inside of IDK’s No Label Academy at Harvard University

Zion Utsey sat poised at a chessboard in Harvard Square, 400 miles from home. Between games, he wrote music under the name EZY Truth. Inside the nearby Harvard Campus Center, EZY’s story circulated.

Two years ago, he was rejected from No Label Academy, a music business program at Harvard University led by fellow DMV hip-hop artist IDK. That year, he still decided to scrap together funds for a train ticket and his first stay at a communal hostel — in a city he’d never visited. The opportunity to soak up even some of the knowledge imparted at the week-long event that brings some of the biggest names in hip-hop to Cambridge, Massachusetts drove him to that chessboard where he had one more move.

“I was just looking to pitch myself, you know?” EZY says. “I want to learn the business so that I’m not just rapping to rap. I really want to change a lot of shit for myself, as well as for the people that are around me, through music. This is the place I can do that. So in my mind, the first thing was, ‘just go,’ and I never really felt like that.”

He wasn’t able to join the program, but he’d made an impression by trying to meet as many people coming in and out as he could. One day, someone sought him out.

“She just walked up to me. And she was just like, ‘Hey, are you Zion?’” he said, giving his best impression of a kind woman.

“I’m Frank Ocean’s mom. I just wanted to say that I love your story. I just want you to know that these are the types of things you’re going to have to do throughout your career. It’s inspiring to see someone continuing to work and continue to do things like this.”

He took Katonya Breaux Riley’s words to heart. His persistence paid off. This year EZY Truth was back in Cambridge to participate in full in the 2023 No Label Academy program as a student.

Hip-Hop Comes to Harvard University

IDK (left) walks past the Harvard Athletic Complex while leading the 2023 No Label Academy class on a tour of campus.

Photo Credit: Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Two floors deep into the Harvard Engineering School, that opportunity to bring change home assembled 23 young artists, directors, and professionals, from as far as Australia and as near as Dorchester, in a circle around IDK, black pens poised over burgundy Harvard notebooks for the next seven days. Illuminated by soft green lamp light, the classroom’s green turf center dias will brush the sneaker-bottoms of Roddy Rich and Benny the Butcher, sending pens to scribble notes on monetizing independence. The four screens on all sides will welcome the toothy smile and wispy head of Air Jordan designer Tinker Hatfield, and hands will hit the air. The lecture room down the hall will see a range of speakers from creator of Toonami Jason DeMarco to a panel of Roc Nation leaders and associates. Across campus, the Harvard Medical School will welcome Saba and Ab-Soul for a straight-to-the-point conversation about mental health in the music industry that moves more hearts than pens.

“Did you ever think making music would get you to Harvard Medical School?” IDK asked before turning over the floor to his peers.

“It’s not surprising,” Saba said. “It’s a mental movement.”

EZY Truth walks the runway after receiving his certificate of completion for No Label Academy at the NLA graduation at Harvard Art Museum on August 25, 2023.

EZY Truth walks the runway after receiving his certificate of completion for No Label Academy at the NLA graduation at Harvard Art Museum on August 25, 2023.

Photo Credit: Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

No Label began in 2018, a nonprofit founded by future Harvard grads, Miles Weddle and Marcelo Hanta-Davis, with the goal of increasing access to careers in music for underserved artists. That year, they brought Travis Scott to campus, where he spoke to 500 students about finding inspiration in your life. The next year, Bad Bunny led a seminar on making space for activism and protest in a music career. After IDK came to campus in 2020 to speak about criminal justice reform and his personal experience with the prison system at a young age, he saw the potential for the program to be something more wide-reaching.

Jason “IDK” Mills is the conductor of the No Label Academy experience. In addition to his daily contributions to lectures on topics like monetization, financial literacy and building a team, he serves as moderator for conversations between the students and the many guest speakers with whom his personal connections facilitate eager participation.

“Even knowing that I’m not technically a professor, there was the respect from other professors in what I do and how I do it, and them actually, ironically, learning from me,” IDK said. “There’s a lot of people like me, that can also give that knowledge that may not have the qualifications.”

He personally reviewed the applications of students in the final round of the acceptance process and glows at every one of the numerous opportunities for the students to shine. The first day of this year’s program, a toasty August 20 Sunday, a tour of the Harvard campus is followed by IDK’s first lecture and a student showcase at Nash Bar & Stage in downtown Boston.

After welcoming the crowd and getting the show started with a bite-sized performance of his own, IDK left the stage and the three-piece jazz band in the hands of the students. EZY Truth took the first opportunity. He hummed a tune to the bass player, who set a tempo for the drummer, and once EZY started rapping, “working like I’m dead last / early morning breakfast / tryna catch a break with no break pads / wonder why I’m passing you,” the gaps are filled with an improvised melody by fingers on a keyboard.

IDK gets the crowd ready for a night of student performances at Nash Bar and Stage in Boston on August 20, 2023.

IDK gets the crowd ready for a night of student performances at Nash Bar and Stage in Boston on August 20, 2023.

Photo Credit: Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Second on the mic is Chicago’s Jay Wood, singing his weighty romance “SHIRLEY,” a totally different sound with the same tools. In an interview a few days before the program, Wood said that he was most looking forward to meeting the other students and that his time as a professional model and indie artist had given him some familiarity with the business side of the industry. But that night he says, “This week is gonna be life-changing.”

“IDK is 20 steps ahead,” Wood said. “You might meet someone that’s gonna give you an opportunity [here], but your whole mindset is going to be different.”

Long Days and Sharp Minds

Neemz, an artist and student of No Label Academyu2019s 2021 program, holds the mic to kei during her performance at the open mic night at Nash Bar and Stage in Boston on August 20, 2023.

Neemz, an artist and student of No Label Academy’s 2021 program, holds the mic to kei during her performance at the open mic night at Nash Bar and Stage in Boston on August 20, 2023.

Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Each day, No Label Academy starts when IDK arrives out front of the students’ hotel for a voluntary 6 a.m. workout and morning affirmation. EZY and other students said the routine was essential for keeping a focused head. “It also bonded the group,” EZY said. “It was difficult going to sleep at midnight, 1, even going to sleep at 3 AM to get up at 5:45 to get to your workout at 6 AM and then being in classes all day.”

Following the early rise, is a roughly eight-hour block of lectures and practical application, followed by a group activity like basketball or a tour of the Converse headquarters, and capped off with crowded studio night sessions at The Bridge Sound Stage.

Lectures follow a regular structure. On the second full day of classes, focused on monetization, IDK stands at the front of the lecture hall and speaks about how he secured a partnership with Adult Swim for the release of his IWASVERYBAD mixtape. He took a risk by deciding to record the album prior to the deal with a texture tailored specifically to Adult Swim’s late-night sound — a lo-fi, underground playground for artists like J Dilla, MF DOOM and Flying Lotus. Adult Swim was impressed that they wouldn’t need to put up recording costs and released the first six songs of the project with visuals that ran on the channel. That connection would eventually net him a feature from the late MF DOOM, a connection that he opened up to the students by giving the floor to DeMarco — the man responsible for curating much of the Adult Swim sound.

DeMarco explained to the artists how they can go about licensing their music for TV shows and other commercial opportunities, reiterating IDK’s point about taking chances. “I took a couple of risks with DOOM, and sometimes they paid off and sometimes they blew up in my face,” DeMarco said. “I had Danger Mouse telling me, ‘Yo, hey, that beat is a beat I made for DOOM six years ago and we never cleared it.’ I was getting that call all the time.”

As with most of the guest speakers, the significance of their presence to the students is driven home when it’s time for questions. The fastest hand in the air for DeMarco belonged to Okay Cozy, a rapper and photographer from Virginia. “Watching Toonami and Adult Swim set the foundation for the idea of how to build a world, to be consistent with everything you do,” Cozy said. Cozy himself builds worlds in his music by finding inspiration in Polaroid photos, he explained to Okayplayer, pointing to the small print on his SLR 680 that says it was built right here in Cambridge where the Polaroid camera was invented — though he’s never had the chance to visit before now.

Learning by Doing

No Label Academy students Okay Cozy (left) and Justin Lindberg (right) take a rest in Harvard Square during a tour of the Harvard campus on August 20, 2023.

No Label Academy students Okay Cozy (left) and Justin Lindberg (right) take a rest in Harvard Square during a tour of the Harvard campus on August 20, 2023.

Photo Credit: Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

No Label Academy isn’t just for artists. Los Angeles’ Jade “Mor” Whaley raps but she also works as an audio producer for Spotify. DC’s Zahir Muhammad only recently dipped into making his own music, but has been building a reputation as a talented video director. Louis Rose, a manager from Houston who represents his best friend, and Justin Lindberg, an art director for a house full of artists in Chicago, attended No Label Academy through the marketing track.

“I can come back and teach game to my artists,” Rose told Okayplayer. “I’m meeting executives like Dame Dash, these are the people I look up to and I’ve made my game plan behind. Now I get to ask them, ‘what did they do in this situation?’”

After a lecture about sync deals and the complications of publishing rights, marketing track students got their chance to shine by pitching the other students’ music live to Joe O’riordan, a freelance music supervisor who licenses music for shows like MTV’s Ridiculousness. Muhammad pitches for Keianna “kei” Richardson, a rapper from Dorchester who recently won Best New Artist at the 2022 Boston Music Awards.

“We’re painting a world here. I’m a director, so that’s what I use to paint the world of the artist,” Muhammad started the pitch. “We’re talking WWE, fun, energetic. Your favorite wrestlers, Rey Mysterio, Jay Hardy, throwing chairs… any scene with tension, conflict, shaky camera scenes.”

As the lights are lowered, heavy metal guitars blast through the classroom speakers to vigorous head nodding and screw-faced smiles. kei’s “DUMP SHIT” sounds exactly as Muhammad described it, and with his description, it’s easy to picture commercial moments propelled by the same anarchist rocket fuel that invigorated the classroom. As the 30-second snippet fades, the No Label Academy featured student attendee — platinum-selling artist Kaash Paige — prompts kei to add the song to her phone before she takes the mic to pitch for Kang and Jacob Parra Mena, who is one-tenth of Kidz At Play, a hip-hop group that recently signed a deal with Sony Music.

At the end of the week, Paige will tell the No Label camera crew, “The students showed me I need to have more courage. The other night, they got on the stage and rocked it. Sometimes you gotta move like you’re hungry again.”

No Label Academy is a Movement

Kaash Paige poses for a photo at the No Label Academy graduation ceremony at Harvard Art Museum on August 25, 2023.

Kaash Paige poses for a photo at the No Label Academy graduation ceremony at Harvard Art Museum on August 25, 2023.

Photo Credit: Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

Another classroom exercise has the students pulling up available apartments online and budgeting a year on a theoretical $200,000 from the big break. Most elect to split cheap apartments in New York or LA, budget $1,000 a month or less for food and leave a short ceiling for clothing — though the female artists in the room point out the double standard for women that pushes wardrobe costs into the business expenses column. The five-digit line items are set aside for paying off student loans, traveling to collaborate with other artists and investing in recording equipment. Groans erupt when the first student finishes their budget with $25K to spare and IDK asks, “You set that aside for bail money, for when you go to jail for tax evasion?”

While most of the students eyed apartments in New York or LA that put them in closer proximity to movers in the music industry, kei, however, says, “I’ma stay in Boston. There’s a lot more work I gotta do here.” Boston has historically underfunded its art scene in a way that has impacted genres like hip-hop and jazz most severely, exporting the city’s artists and music legacy to the aforementioned cities. But there’s a new wave of artists growing in size and popularity that feel there is something worth building here. Hosting a program like No Label, which uses Boston’s prestigious academic resources to send for the industry’s biggest players and the industry’s next-up, brings eyes to a city that’s typically glanced over.

“It’s important for me to stay in the city in order to be a part of creating that movement,” kei told Okayplayer. “ I’m personally going to take what I’ve learned here and not only apply it to myself and my success, but give back to those who don’t have opportunities to be accepted in a program like this.”

Benny the Butcher answers a question from kei during the monetization lecture at No Label Academy in the Harvard Engineering School on August 22, 2023

Benny the Butcher answers a question from kei during the monetization lecture at No Label Academy in the Harvard Engineering School on August 22, 2023

Photo Credit: Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

As guaranteed income programs for artists have observed, a cash infusion to even a handful of artists can have a serious impact on the health of a scene, because artists naturally and rapidly circulate the infusion through collaboration with other artists. No Label Academy is providing an infusion of knowledge and resources, and the students are choosing to circulate that as far as Australia.

“What am I not going to take back? That’s the question,” said Price “Pricey” Johnson, a Nigerian-born artist from Melbourne, Australia. “I pray that one day I’ll get the opportunity to pay it forward. IDK, Professor Mills, has transformed the curriculum I grew up understanding.”

Throwing Caps

Just before the graduation ceremony, students gathered at Harvard Medical School for two lectures on mental health. First, a presentation grounded in science and empathy delivered by LaShyra Nolen, the first Black woman to be class president of the Harvard Medical School. Then, a conversation with Ab-Soul, who testified about a recent near-death experience that resulted from struggles with addiction, and Saba, who spoke about the effect of creating art from the grief he lives with.

“I spent a lot of time trying to understand grief. There’s grief attached to all my work,” Saba said. “It’s been bullshit all the way. I’m still expected to go out there and perform… My friends got killed and we talking about streaming numbers?”

The discussion is frank and unfiltered, an exchange of artist-to-artist truths that hang heavy in the classroom air. It’s somber but also affirming. “I got goosebumps man, chills,” EZY said of when Saba detailed how him and IDK first met. Saba had taken a chance early in his career, traveling to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX looking to land a performance with no guarantees. After arriving and finding out that his group’s Air B&B had fallen through, the rest of Pivot Gang and their crew were left with nowhere to sleep. By chance encounter with IDK, Saba and four friends were able to crash at his spot and Saba managed to secure some performance time at the film and arts festival.

“It resonated like crazy with me because that’s literally what I did. I just went out there, spent all the money I had and stayed in an uncomfortable situation,” EZY said of his 2021 trip to No Label. His initiative paid off again, as jumping on stage at the open mic night earned him a spot opening for Rich the Kid and IDK at the program’s Saturday night finale.

The night before the performance at Big Night Live that served as the grand finale, the No Label Academy graduation ceremony was held at the Harvard Art Museum. The elegant marble foyer was decorated with a rose-laden runway for graduates to parade dressed head-to-toe in Dior sweatshirts, chino pants and skirts in the Harvard colors of burgundy, navy blue and cream, adorned with a No Label Academy patch and the pièce de résistance, custom Dior mocassins. The presentation of diplomas was followed by a dinner of chardonnay, champagne and rosé, a seed and cranberry salad with a citrus finish, and a bone-in blackened chicken thigh. After the ceremony, students, lecturers and No Label’s many volunteers followed IDK to an exclusive after-party at Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club for a private performance from Boston’s BIA.

Jade u201cMoru201d Whaley recieves her certificate of completion of the No Label Academy program at the graduation ceremony at Harvard Art Museum on August 25, 2023.

Jade “Mor” Whaley recieves her certificate of completion of the No Label Academy program at the graduation ceremony at Harvard Art Museum on August 25, 2023.

Photo Credit: Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.

During her performance, given not from the small stage but from within the crowd, BIA pauses to tell the students, “Everything you see us do, you can do.” Sure enough, the next night, EZY Truth and BIA’s Boston peer kei, rocked the stage at Big Night Live in the heart of downtown Boston, a rare and treasured moment for a local Boston rapper to hit a major stage in their own city, and a full circle moment for the kid who bought a train ticket on a whim two years ago.

“I thought I was gonna be nervous, and I was nervous when I was first about to walk on, but when I walked on everything went away. We here. We did this. Nobody can tell us anything else at this point,” EZY said.

“I believed in myself. I took a leap of faith. I took risk. I went broke whatever, I spent my last, I made it happen with my art because I believed in myself. So believe. That’s the one thing that I can take away from this. Even IDK’s story, all of his tribulations, his difficulties, his rough times. You know, all of this came from believing in yourself.”

Brandon Hill is a reporter and photographer based in Boston, who studied journalism at the University of Missouri and Emerson College. Find more work at his newsletter site, Okayplayer, CentralSauce, Vinyl Me, Please, The Columbia Missourian and the Boston Globe.

kei (left) and EZY Truth (right) pose for a photo after opening for IDKu2019s show at Big Night Live in Boston on August 26, 2023.

kei (left) and EZY Truth (right) pose for a photo after opening for IDK’s show at Big Night Live in Boston on August 26, 2023.

Photo by Brandon Hill for Okayplayer.



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