In a recent interview with Dr. Yulin Hswen, IDK challenged norms in education, in fashion, and in what is considered a flex in pop culture. Could IDK’s subtle, but unique visions have ripples through and generate the shift in mindset we have all been waiting for? As he carefully analyzes and executes his next moves, we interview him for Health Righters to learn more about the meaning behind his lyrics, his fashion and how he is shifting the narrative for future generations.
I received an email from IDK’s manager informing me he may be running late from his other meeting. At 12:00 PST on the dot, my student Siona messages me that IDK has appeared on Zoom. We are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising musician IDK is waiting in his home patiently to be let into the Zoom conference room. I am humbled by his punctuality and bashful that I arrived after him – Dr. Y
As IDK entered the waiting room of our zoom call, I suddenly felt unprepared. After all, I couldn’t help but notice how strikingly different I was from him as individuals – in our upbringings, our hobbies, our careers. The very aspects of school that turned IDK away from the traditional education path were the ones that pulled me to it. The type of rap music that inspired IDK were not the same types of music I was exposed to. Despite these differences, his story is one that is eye opening no matter your interests. The subtle but intentional messages found within his lyrics, music, and fashion career are unexpected and inspiring. – Siona
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Dr. Y: How did you come up with the name, IDK?
IDK: In jail. I wanted a name that makes people ask questions. It’s one of those names, you see it, you hear it, you don’t forget it.
Dr. Y: Can you tell me about your venture into the music industry and what inspired you to get involved with writing and singing music?
IDK: I’ve always had this notion in my mind, I’ve always felt that I’d be different. Something that wasn’t typical to what my parents and society wanted. In my heart since I was 5 years old. My first time really falling in love with music or that I had a talent for music. My sixth-grade teacher gave us a bunch of words that rhymed or something and we kind of had to shift them into a poem and I remember doing them and when I did mine, I remember the whole class laughing because of how clever they thought it was or how funny it was. And I remember my English teacher gave me a really good grade.
Later on, I started writing music in 9th grade, but not seriously, just having fun.
It wasn’t until I was incarcerated honestly, I was in a place where I was just so bored that I decided to take my pen and paper and start writing raps, writing lyrics, singing. I used to be a tutor, I used to help people get their GDs and cut people’s hair, so everyone knew me and they would see me writing music and would say yo I didn’t know you rapped, like spit something, rap, rap and I was so shy and I didn’t think I was that good so I just brushed it off. But I decided to rap for them, and they liked what I was talking about so much and how I did it because I wasn’t talking about the typical things they were used to, I was more so talking about fashion and clothes and other things that actually mattered. I had a story about this one woman who had a lack of self-respect and I was making all these songs and people thought they were good. And a friend of mine from jail told me that when I go back you should do something; you don’t sound like everybody else. I ended up going to school when I got out, but I didn’t actually enroll for the next semester, and I ended up becoming a rapper from there.
Dr. Y: Can you talk about people who inspired you? How are your lyrics different compared to other artists and from previous generations of music?
IDK: My influences are everything from Jay Z, Eminem, Kanye West, some on the more business side of things. Some of the newer people, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole are also influences in what I do. But the difference, what differentiates me, I am finding a good way to balance things that sound fun, and sound almost sometimes meaningless, but also throw things in there that give you that knowledge whether you know it or not.
IGNORANTLY DELIVERING KNOWLEDGE
Dr. Y: I listened to your new song King Alfred. For someone not as well versed in understanding the meaning behind lyrics can you describe to me what King Alfred is about?
IDK: The idea about King Alfred, is vast and vague. It’s a bunch of things that I say that are catchy but a lot of what I have to say has intention. “When bass up, make the check hit, I buy commercial real estate, not a necklace” and it’s one line but it’s something you don’t hear people say. I listen to what younger people listen to, and people don’t wanna be bombarded with conscious music. I personally don’t. But if I can put a couple bars in there that get stuck in your memory when you sing the song, we are subconsciously planting seeds in people’s minds. That is what I like to do.
Dr. Y: Can you describe to me the lyric “What’s your rate? I’d rather do the flight than wear a cape?
IDK: I try not to point things out. I like to let people pick it up and learn what they learn from it. It is a typical line but it is more clever. It is a play on words. You know what my name means then you know how I put these same things together in the same song. Bring Obama back, tell ’em bring Obama back (back, back) Got the Uzi and a cannon, where the drama at? (rat, rat) This is ignorantly delivering knowledge – the balance at its finest.
Dr. Y: How do you get your ideas for your videos?
IDK: This video [King Alfred] is inspired by pop culture. Triller. Triller is where you make your own home-made music videos. A bunch of different scenes that cut back and forth. It keeps your attention but it is still simple. But gets the point across in a way that is digestible because people are used to seeing things that way. There is art in it and quality in it which makes it IDK. But there is nothing too deep in the meaning of this video. I know some that are crazy. For this video, it is just about having fun.
Dr. Y:Tell me about these pearls you are wearing?
IDK: I am a very masculine man; I am confident in myself. There’s a stigma. Toxic masculinity is a real thing. You couldn’t do anything cuz that wasn’t cool, it was too feminine. You could barely even wear pink. I like walking the line of being obviously masculine but doing things that show a certain level of femininity. And showing people that it is ok to be that way. I have my own way of doing it, it’s very small. That’s the idea behind the pearls. I’m showing people, at least where I am from, that it’s okay to have that level of femininity. Even the necklace that I made is a Nefertiti, a woman. My neck is tattooed with a Nefertiti. Nowadays I wear a rap cap, which is a woman’s cap to keep their hair together. It is basically showing people where I am from that it is ok to have that level of femininity. It is not a big deal and you can still be very much a man and do these things. Having that also brings features out in people. There is a reason why women know how to put things together and enhance their look. They understand these things. Learning from women and taking some of these concepts that apply to me and putting them into my sense of style is important to me.
Dr. Y: When did you start venturing into this type of feminine mindset?
IDK: People love the pearls. I have been made fun of a little bit by my friends. In all honesty, women really appreciate it and this is who it is for. It is not to impress guys. But it is to show guys it is ok to do this.
Dr. Y: Why was the previous generation scared of dabbling into aspects of their femininity?
IDK: I think it started in the era where men started getting braids. The guys with the braids got the most attention from women. From an early age I noticed this. As I got older, it was really the attention that women were giving. It was never trying to get a guy’s attention. You have to deal with a guy saying things. It is a gift and a curse. A give and a take.
I remember when I was the first one in middle school to wear skinny jeans. They were my mom’s Levi’s. And everyone loved them.
Dr. Y: I think you were ahead of your time.
SHIFTING THE NARRATIVE
Dr. Y: You posted your credit score recently? Tell me about why?
IDK: I want to shift the narrative of what bragging in rap is. We brag about having women, we brag about having money even if we have no real assets, we brag about spending all this money. We brag about spending 1000 bucks on a haircut. To be completely honest with you, in order for the future of our people to really shift, we need to learn how to change what we brag about. This whole thing with the Birkin bag, this Birkin bag craze. Imagine if instead of Birkin bags, people were buying lands and assets and investment properties. Our next 100 years would look so crazy. If that is what we were bagging about doing and if that’s the flex. And I think it is starting to shift. When I posted the land that I bought in California, I started seeing a lot of rappers buying land. The headline for me was IDK buys land before he buys a chain. So, if we can replace the Birkin bags and chains with land and assets, our future would look bright if that is what we put our energy in. In order to get land and assets, we need to have good credit. We replace the cash with credit. I am just creating the narrative with the platform that I have to start shifting people’s mindsets.
Dr. Y: Do you think that this type of mentality ends up influencing your fans?
IDK: I posted my credit score, and a bunch of people responded. This one kid responds saying he really wants this car; he’s working on ways to build my credit. I was wondering if you had any advice for me? People want to know how I got my shoes and clothes. But if I start other things, about how I obtain the things I have [like land], that’s another type of influence.
Dr. Y: But you own luxury goods too. So how do you balance purchasing these luxury goods and buying property?
IDK: I think that all of us need to start thinking that there are so many more important things. We should simplify the way we are living; we don’t really need all this space. We were taught that we have money, we need to buy this really big house. I want to start downsizing. I want things to be simple, minimalistic. I want to make everything simple in my room, so when I wake up, I have a clear space in my mind.
I want more land, less living space. More in touch with nature. I want to simplify our lives. Beautiful but not complex. After a while you get an understanding.
Dr. Y: Where did you buy land?
IDK: I bought a few acres in California and I’m building a recording facility, a home studio.
Dr. Y: What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?
IDK: Of course, they wanted me to be a doctor, they didn’t even want me to be a lawyer, it was too competitive. Or get into IT (internet technology), cuz that was the new thing. My mother was a paralegal, she was working for the government, stable job, went to university in MD and my stepdad was also college educated, worked in IT, worked for the World Bank and ended up working for the government. They had stable jobs and had a pretty standard perspective of what I should do with my future.
Dr. Y: What were some aspects of the education system that you felt you benefited from?
IDK: There was encouragement here and there, but I was constantly being compared to others who were doing really well in school as a whole. That one English class that I did well in made me realize I had a gift for writing but other than that it was just constant comparison and it honestly made me not like education and not go to class, and not wanna learn and not see a future in something that had to do with going to school.
Dr. Y: What experiences in school did you not enjoy?
IDK: I thought I had ADD, I thought I couldn’t pay attention. The reward seemed like more education and then more education and then more education and then a job. It was less about the writing music portion and more about the putting together a music career portion. I was doing a lot of studying on marketing and that’s the foundation of what my career is today. I know the basics of every aspect and I can hold people accountable. My ability to retain this kind of information surpassed my ability to retain what we learned in school. The understanding I have in music because it is something I love and am passionate about it just comes naturally.
Even the course that I’m teaching at Harvard, I don’t want it to have studying and I don’t want it to have homework and quizzes. I want it to have exercises that you remember for the rest of your life. And that’s the way to educate people. The other way, you alienate people who don’t have that style of learning. There will be kinds of students who are really good at paying attention and studying, but there are a lot of people who learn better another way.
I think other Harvard professors will see the way I work and start shifting. Really playing towards the way we naturally lock things in our memory naturally. Memories that come from music. You can listen to a certain song and it puts you back in a place that you can’t really access without the music. I want to play into that.
His newest venture is the creation of a course that is targeted towards Black, indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) to help them learn how to build their career in the music industry. At the end of this “No Label Academy” course, students will be provided with internships, mentorship, jobs and a select few will be asked to sign with his joint record label with Warner, CLUE.
We look forward to learning from IDK at Harvard in the Summer of 2021.
Dr. Yulin Hswen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Bakar Computational Health Institute at the University of California San Francisco. She holds an Adjunct Faculty Position in the Computational Epidemiology Lab at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Hswen graduated with a doctoral degree in social and computational epidemiology at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, where she focused on leveraging online big data to uncover social patterns of disease and to inform the development of interventions to improve the health and well-being of the most marginalized subgroups of the population.
Dr. Hswen is in the pursuit of detecting uncomfortable truths; her current research seeks to identify authentic attitudes, feelings, and beliefs that influence population behavior and health. Through the collection of unconventional and underground online social networks, Dr. Hswen captures unfiltered conversations to further understand the connections between social experiences and health.
This blog originally appeared on HPHRxHealth Righters.org, an online collaboration of the Harvard Public Health Review, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Health Righters.
Health Righters is a multidisciplinary publication exploring the intersection of healthcare and human rights, led in part by Harvard College.