You may know the Ivy-League-educated rapper Jabari Evans best by his stage name, “Naledge.” One half of the Chicago-bred hip-hop duo Kidz in the Hall, Jabari and his group mate Double-O gave fans an inside look at the process of constructing an album in a 6-part online webseries that was sponsored by Adidas and RedBull and hosted on MTV2.com. Now, Jabari aims to impart his knowledge of the music industry and production process to youth in his South Side community through his music production endeavor, Braniac Society.
In an interview with EBONY.com, Jabari shared his vision for engaging and empowering youth through music.
EBONY: Going from high school valedictorian and Ivy League college graduate to rapper is not a typical progression. What freed you to pursue hip-hop over a more conventional career path?
JABARI “NALEDGE” EVANS: I feel like everything that I’ve done in my life can be traced back to my parents. Being raised by Black psychologists and PhD’s from the Baby Boomer generation, self-identity, self-esteem, and following your dreams and passions have always been instilled in my sister and me. And my dad is actually beyond being my dad — he’s one of my best friends. I’ve always had their support. They are just the ideal, best parents you could have. They raised me with this kind of upbeat mentality that I was special and was able to do whatever I wanted. So, when people come at me with “why did you go to an Ivy League school if you’re just going to do music?” I don’t subscribe to that. Even as a rapper, I’ve always been an intellectual.
EBONY: Is that why you are pursuing your Masters in Social Work from the University of Southern California virtually from Chicago, so you can continue to be a force in Chicago?
JE: Definitely. I don’t foresee myself being 40-plus [years old] on tour. I want to continue to work in Chicago and be a community organizer here. USC’s program is a new program they created to allow people to get this top-notch education without having to stop your life. It’s flexible and because of that, I get to continue my music, as well. My music gives me a platform to be able to reach more people. And definitely when you’re validated academically, you can get a lot more accomplished.
And what I want to accomplish through Brainiac Society is not only release my own music, but also build a music education program that centers on promoting self-esteem through the art of hip-hop, something that’s a little bit outside of the box. The goal is to teach kids to make decisions with intelligence and choose the right path and that it’s cool to be smart.
Hip-hop is something (the) youth are interested in and in order to engage them, we have to use tools that they’re interested in. Let them get hands-on experience and training in music production and working in a studio so they can be a part of something. There are kids who want to be involved just for the fun of it and kids who are really serious and talented and want to do this as a career. Either way, music production can build life skills as well as team-building skills, and also provide them a much-needed and safe outlet.
EBONY: With the suicide of football player and sports icon Junior Seau recently, we’re starting to see a lot more attention being put on mental illness in the African American community. As someone who was raised by two Black psychologists and who’s also working with kids and trying to find creative ways to engage them, what are some ways we can start breaking down the stigma of mental illness in the Black community?
JE: It’s interesting you brought up Junior Seau. I’ve been an athlete my whole life and he was such a strong figure in sports, so [his suicide] really has brought a lot of attention to mental illness in the Black community. It’s a real sickness and it takes professional help. Talking to your friend or spouse is not going to help you get to the bottom of the issue. Too often we look at getting treatment for mental illness as a weakness when really getting help is a strength. It’s courageous. It’s just smart to take care of yourself. But we have to be educated about the warning signs of mental illness and more supportive of people struggling with it.
I don’t think there’s a shortage of resources, but there’s probably a shortage of information about how to access those resources. There are so many programs out there to help people and you just have to match the program with the person. If you’re a religious person, there are a lot of church resources and counseling you can get through your church. Braniac Society works through music. We just have to try and reach as many people as many different ways as we can.
EBONY: You have a new solo mixtape coming out in the fall. How has your sound changed from Kidz in the Hall and what can we expect lyrically from this new project?
My solo mixtape is coming out October 2nd and is a little bit more introspective than the last Kidz in the Hall album. I’ve got a lot more to talk about. The more life you’ve led, the more you have to talk about. I’m very transparent with my music and the Chicago influence is going to come out. I won’t say I’m talking about “overcoming” on this mixtape because I haven’t done that much struggling, honestly. But I am facing more adult issues. I’m a father now, so I’m talking about that, I’m talking about relationship issues, having homies pass away, watching parents get older and having to comfort them when grandparents pass away. It’s just real adult issues. There’s a lot of thoughtful, thought-provoking, fun, cool tracks to be digested on this mixtape.
EBONY: What do you hope to accomplish through your music and your work with Braniac Society?
JE: I want to be seen as somebody who really helped others and is committed to my community. I hope to continue to come up with creative ways to help young people express themselves and find positive outlets, whether it be me physically being there for young people and new artists or emotionally being there and mentoring artists and connecting them with the right people.
You can check out Naledge live in Chicago on July 12 and follow him on Twitter @GoNaledgeGo.
Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @DCDistrictDiva.