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Rapper and legendary jazz and blues artist teach life lessons

By Jabez Shakur

When eight students walked into the Brawley Hall band room, they were met by a set of unlikely visitors: reporters and photographers from various media outlets.

Melvin Jones, their instructor and director of the jazz and marching bands, told the surprised students they were being observed by the College’s Office of Communications. With instruments out and ready to begin their normal warm-up routine in HMUS 241, better known as Jazz Improvisation, the students listened as Jones said that special guests would be teaching the class.

When platinum rapper Nas and his father, renowned jazz and blues musician Olu Dara, strode into the room, the amazed students were star struck. “I can’t believe it” and “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me,” some of them managed.

The surprise substitution took place on Monday, January 24, and was the next segment of of MTVU’s “Stand In,” a series where celebrity guests surprise students and teach the class. Nas, née Nasir Jones, and Dara, stood in for Melvin Jones.

Nas, wearing dark shades, an Atlanta Braves baseball cap and baggy jeans, connected with the class, talking not only about the music his dad instilled in him, but also about the music he makes: hip hop.

As a child, Nas was introduced to the sounds of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and his dad’s influence has stuck with him. Nas lauds The Neptunes and Dr.Dre as some of the best producers in hip hop because they use live instruments to create songs that reach across genres.

Dara told the class that the main focus in music, whether you’re a musician, an entertainer or an artist, is to stay creative and to strive to understand music, its composition and the technical elements. He also gave a short history lesson on how many blacks compose music.

He told the class that blacks didn’t play western instruments until after the Civil War. They weren’t allowed to play music as slaves. After the Civil War ended, Dara said the slaves found many of the instruments they were banned from playing on the ground of the battlefields where they fought for their freedom.

History lesson aside, Dara instructed students in the principles of learning to play music. He walked over to sophomore Keng Davi and asked to borrow his guitar. Davi handed Dara the instrument and the jazz legend began to tighten the strings. As Dara began to play, it was as if he had made the instrument perfect. The melody he strummed was something from way back—something bluesy and funky. Dara played with passion; the room and the people seemed not to exist.After about a minute, he abruptly stopped and looked at the students.

“You want to learn to play the old way before you learn the new way,” said Dara. He then stressed the necessity of the harmonica in any one’s instrument arsenal. “Every musician should own a harmonica because when life fails, when you’re broke and don’t have any money, it’s one of the best friends to have. You and [your woman] can play it when you’re both upset with each other. It’s a good way to bring her back to you,” he laughed. “Ask Nas, he’s got one!” His son married pop singer Kelis last month.

The “Stand In” experience was also a jam session. To illustrate the importance of old and new, Dara played a note, then told Davi to play the same note on the guitar. He complied. Dara nodded and he went from student to student--the trumpet and the saxophone--and merged the eight into one sound.

As the students played, Dara grabbed the mic and began crooning the blues: hard times and struggling; trying to make it with no money and nobody.

Meanwhile, Nas began to freestyle over the music and in between the sound of his dad’s voice; he flowed about Morehouse.

The tune was a familiar one to the students: it was the music from Nas’ hit single, “Bridging the Gap,” which features his father. The collaboration was a first for father and son.

Dara told another student to sing the blues. When the student finished, Dara just smiled. “That’s a wrap,” he said.

Jabez Shakur is a sophmore business/marketing major from Dallas, Texas.

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