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Harvard Rappers Showcase Skills in OUTWIT

By Tiffany Chi, Crimson Staff Writer

Though Harvard boasts any number of poets, novelists, and actors among its alumni, it curiously (or perhaps not so curiously) lacks on the list of illustrious elite in one group of artists: rappers. The hustling thug-life portrayed by popular rappers may seem incongruous with Harvard’s academic atmosphere, but for the participants of OUTWIT 2009, the combination of Harvard and hip-hop could allow audiences to overcome any preconceived notions of the two. OUTWIT, a freestyle rap competition that also features spoken word, beatbox, and song, is an annual event held by Tuesday Magazine—taking place this year on April 26 in Ticknor Lounge—that offers an opportunity for students to exercise their lyrical prowess and creativity.

Tuesday, a self-proclaimed general interest magazine, seeks to publish works from a broad spectrum of genres that might not have other venues for expression. OUTWIT is a manifestation of this mission. “We try to find the undiscovered talent at Harvard, the weird little quirky niches that no one gets to see, and OUTWIT is another way to showcase that,” says May M. Zhang ’10, Tuesday Magazine’s Co-President. In its third year, OUTWIT mainly showcases rappers, who tease each other with rhythm and rhyme in order to win the favor of judges and crowd. “OUTWIT shows the other side of Harvard that competes with our image as a stuffy, upper-class, pretentious, white collar institution,” Zhang says, “Instead, this side of Harvard is spontaneous, fun, and clever.”

While spoken word maintains a presence at Harvard with organizations such as the Spoken Word Society, rap still hasn’t found a formal way to enter the Harvard culture. OUTWIT is the sole public forum for freestyle rap battles on campus, but the continued interests that students have expressed towards the competition suggest that an underground force for the art form exists. Most of the competitors began rapping before high school; after coming to college, they have found few opportunities to practice their skills.

For OUTWIT veteran Lev A. Shaket ’10, rap battles were a part of his high school culture in Atlanta. At Harvard, he tries to keep sharp by informally rapping to friends. “You have to rap a lot to yourself and that’s the only way you get better,” Shaket says. Though he isn’t aware of any substantial rap scene at Harvard, he notes that one exists in the greater Boston area; Shaket often competes off-campus in Allston, Boston, and East Cambridge. He claims that knowledge of upcoming rap battles is often spread via word-of-mouth by individuals who are already involved in the scene. “It depends on the people you know and who can hook you up,” Shaket says.

For Shaket, one of these people is Daniel J. Thorn ’11, a DJ and music director of TDS (The Darker Side), WHRB’s hip-hop department. In the past, Thorn has arranged for Shaket to battle with local and traveling rappers who have contacted the station in search of competition. Though there is no official organization for rappers at Harvard, TDS is an informal arena where those who are interested in hip-hop culture can congregate. “A bunch of the people at The Darker Side are interested in rap and hip-hop culture,” Thorn says. “It’s a part of our department that we have our own freestyle battles sometimes. When new members join our station we usually make them freestyle. We have to test out their rhyming skills.”

Outside of the community that TDS has created for the art form, knowledge and support for rap remains obscure in Harvard culture. OUTWIT competitor Jarell L. Lee ’10 feels that this lack of presence stems from the tendency for rap to be misunderstood. “I don’t think people at Harvard appreciate it enough,” Lee says. “They don’t understand that you listen to it exactly like you listen to poetry—for similes, metaphors and alliteration... Even songs that seem to be ‘about nothing’ have a real poetic element to them, and it’s wasted on people who don’t take the time to think about them.”

Lee, who began rapping in seventh grade and continued in high school as a gospel rapper, emphasizes that rap can be a highly constructive force. “I think rap has a really powerful influence, and it’s unfortunate that more rap lyrics are not about positive things, because one can really feel uplifted and empowered through music,” Lee says; personally, he prefers to craft songs, rather than battle. “It’s much easier to rap about negative things than positive things.”

According to Shaket, however, freestyling is more about impressing listeners with clever wordplay than it is about disparaging an opponent. “One component is punch lines. It’s good to be funny—audiences love funny punch lines,” he says. “Also there has to be a tight flow, in the way you string things together and how you have to mold the words to accentuate the beat. The master is able to weave all these things together.”

For Shaket and the other participants of OUTWIT, winning will mean measuring up to the event’s namesake. “We call it a battle of the wits,” Zhang says. “It’s a battle. And it’s competitive.”

—Staff writer Tiffany Chi can be reached at tchi@fas.harvard.edu.

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