Communication Major Alumnus Q&A: Jabari Evans (C'04), Recording Artist and Doctoral Student

Evans discusses his music career, publishing a book as a teenager, and his doctoral studies.

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Communication major at Penn, each Monday this semester we're running a series of Q&As with notable alumni. The series kicked off with the Washington Post's Ashley Parker (C'05) and Teach for America's Mika Rao (C'96). We continue today with Jabari Evans (C'04).

Jabari Evans graduated from Penn in 2004. He is a recording artist (known by the stage name Naledge), a nonprofit founder and director, a graduate of the University of Southern California's School of Social Work, and a current doctoral student at Northwestern University.

According to Wikipedia, you published a book as a teenager. That’s not something many people do. How did that happen? And what was the book about?
It was a book of essays and poems. I have always been interested in being some form of writer or journalist since age 7 and this was just my decision to publish what I was writing in my personal journals. The funny thing about that is during my Freshman year at Penn, most people were feeling each other out and trying to figure out that "thing" that made us different within the Penn community. I would casually mention that I self-published a book and people were so amazed. I never thought it was such a big deal, though. Since my parents were academics and had published things before, I was heavily exposed to people who were helping Chicago youth to explore their creativity in that way. It really was with their (my parents) guidance that I was able to pull it off. It's my outdated views but you can still buy it on my site, if interested... Ha!

How did you get into the music business and what has your experience been like?
Around the age of 15, my love for writing transformed into a love for performing and rhyming. I explored that talent the minute I got to Philadelphia and was blessed to meet a number of like-minded individuals who encouraged me to keep going. My managers at the time (Givenchy Martin C'01 and Dan Solomito C'02) are both Penn grads, my producer/DJ (Mike Aguilar C'01) was a Penn grad, and several other music people I interned for during my time in Philadelphia (particularly Angela Nissel C'98) were Penn grads. It was a roller coaster ride that took me to Los Angeles to live after graduation to record demos, halfheartedly work corporate jobs, perform nightly in smoke filled bars, and drive all over the country in a van until I got a record deal. I signed to Sony in 2006. I did it very hard for 8 years until I decided to go back to graduate school. The experience was great and it has taken me all over the world. I've met and collaborated with most of my heroes, and it was that time that has given me the leverage and access to do the work that I primarily do now.

You started a nonprofit called The Brainiac Project a few years ago. Can you talk about what the organization does and why you’re passionate about it?
The Brainiac Project is an organization that allows me to leverage my experience as a touring hip-hop musician to be a social agent promoting change in music pedagogy and the benefits to personal creativity brought about by beat-making and songwriting. My mission is to promote recording arts careers to at-risk youth and young adults in Chicago via workshops, mentorship opportunities, educational support, and providing access to recording studio experience. I believe that by encouraging youth to explore their music dreams they can gain social competence, self-confidence, and positive connection to peers, mentors, and community. Much the way I did when I found hip-hop.

As a current Ph.D. student, what are your academic interests and goals?
As a doctoral student in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern, I strive to evaluate programming that could possibly address the digital divide, achievement and attendance gaps for Black youth that have continually been documented in empirical research. I came to Northwestern to explore the anecdotal experiences I had related to how youth in low income communities of color are using digital media to create content on the Internet. In planning for my second year project, I have spent the last six months leading an exploratory ethnographic study within Chicago Public Schools. This study evaluates the program outcomes of Foundation of Music’s school based hip-hop songwriting and digital music production program (SWP) in seven Chicago elementary schools. In the next 5 years, my goal is to grow my non-profit in unison with my research, consult others on cultural competency, and garner a tenure-track position somewhere.

How has your undergraduate Communication degree impacted or influenced your career?
Besides launching my music career, Penn was the place that impacted my recent decision to pursue doctoral work. My first foray into academic research came during my junior year at Penn when I was given the opportunity to be a undergraduate assistant to Dr. Amy Jordan while she had a grant to study childhood obesity and television viewing. I recruited and conducted focus groups with several families in the Philadelphia area to talk about the relationship of their media usage to their food intake. Though I didn’t know it at that time, this experience with Dr. Jordan served as the catalyst for peaking my interest in investigating issues that affect the everyday lives of urban youth, particularly as related to media usage. I used my time at ASC and Penn to investigate these interests by taking classes with people like Eilhu Katz and Joseph Turow, as well as leading African American scholars like Guthrie Ramsey, James B. Peterson, and Howard C. Stevenson. Many of my former classmates are already professors, and I ask for their advice all the time. I graduated 13 years ago, and I am always drawing from this time in my life. It has been an invaluable network. I haven't been back since I performed at Spring Fling in 2010, but I hope to visit campus again soon!