We’re getting used to having LL Cool J at Harvard. In 2014, he was honored by the Harvard Foundation as “Artist of the Year” as part of the annual Cultural Rhythms Festival, in recognition of both his preeminence as an artist and his dedication as a philanthropist. In 2016, he was one of the “star” pupils in Professor Anita Elberse’s Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports class in Harvard Business School’s Executive Education program. Both times, he left a written record that shows us very much what he’s about and who he is. At HBS, he tweeted a photo of himself, sitting at a desk, hand raised high, with the caption, “You’re never too cool to learn!”. In the Marshal’s Office during the Cultural Rhythms Festival, signing Harvard’s historic guest book, he wrote a list above his signature: “Dream—Faith—Determination—Creativity—Will Power—Focus—Hard Work—Joy—Adventure—Execution.”
This list of words reads like an index of what hiphop is, and for more than 30 years, LL Cool J has been at the top. His creativity and talent recognize no limitations: rapper, actor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, he excels in all. He lives by an adage from his grandmother (yes, the same grandmother who inspired “Mama Said Knock You Out”): “If a task is once begun, never leave it til it’s done. Be thy labor great or small, do it well or not at all.”
Arguably rap’s first major solo star, LL Cool J was born James Todd Smith in St. Albans, Queens. From the beginning, he aimed high: “There hasn’t been a rap star yet, just rappers,” he said when he was already on the rise, at age 19. He was the first rap artist to accumulate 10 consecutive platinum-plus-selling albums, and is a two-time Grammy Award winner and two-time NAACP Image Award winner. Additionally, he has hosted the Grammys three times. With that hosting gig, his starring role on NCIS: Los Angeles, and hosting Spike TV’s Lip Sync Battle, and most recently, his being the first hiphop artist to be recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors, LL Cool J occupies a rare position in hiphop: he has become a popular figure in the American mainstream who nevertheless retains his credibility.
That credibility stems not only from his rhyming prowess but also from his commitment to “giving back”: he has never forgotten where he came from. His Jump & Ball Tournament in Queens just celebrated its 13th anniversary. Founded in 2005, LL developed this program as an opportunity for kids in the community of Southeast Queens not only to learn basketball skills but also to develop the team-building and leadership skills that are essential off the court. He is also active with the organization Jumpstart, which sponsors early education programs in low-income and under-resourced neighborhoods with the goal of increasing school readiness and reducing the achievement gap.
LL Cool J’s career spans the rise of hiphop as the vernacular of youth the world over. At the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute, we are committed to documenting both the rise and the vitality of hiphop not only as an art form but also as a tool for education. With that in mind, I would like to announce that LL Cool J is the latest inductee into the Classic Crates project at the Hiphop Archive.
The Hutchins Center recognizes LL Cool J for the pioneering work he has done in hiphop, and for his commitment to giving back to the community that made him who he is today. It is my great honor to present the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal to LL Cool J.
By Professor Marcyliena Morgan, Founding Director of the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute
Watch the recorded stream of Professor Morgan's introduction of LL Cool J here.