The hip-hop artist known as IDK describes his life as something of a paradox. Born Jason Mills, the rapper-producer grew up in Prince George's County, Maryland, where home and school reflected two different realities: His parents were middle-class, college-educated, but his learning environment lacked support and many of the students were underserved. "I grew up knowing both sides," Mills says in an interview with NPR's A Martínez.
His stage name, short for Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge, embodies the two sides of his upbringing, and is a contradiction in and of itself. "It's basically part of the key principles of what makes me who I am," he says. "Ignorance and knowledge contrast, two things that don't go together, something you want and something you need, and putting all of that together in one person ... that's basically what it stems from."
Mills came up with the moniker as an incarcerated teenager, serving time in prison on robbery and weapons charges. During that time, he did a lot of introspecting and planning. And afterwards, he delved deep into music. Now, at 28, he has released two successful albums, produced for other musicians and made moves into fashion and business. The artist's recently released sophomore album, USEE4YOURSELF, deals heavily with his early life and family history, particularly his difficult relationship with his mother, who passed away in 2016. The album also touches on his struggles with vulnerability as a Black man.
On July 9, Mills tweeted that he "needed to make this album to become a better person." And now that he's accomplished his goal, he's set out to help other young creatives do the same. Mills has launched a program called No Label Academy, designed to teach students the ins and outs of the music industry and give them the tools to launch their own careers. The course, although unaffiliated with Harvard University, will take place on the renowned campus in Cambridge, Mass. for 10 days in August. According to its website, the tuition-free, all expenses paid program is open to "all BIPOC individuals interested in music business."
Mills says, "What you get out of it is the ability to visualize the things you want and manifest them by using logic. ... You don't just say you want it and then you hope that you get it. You say you want it, you figure out what logistically you need to actually make it happen and then you execute. That's the basis of what this class is in general. This is how it even came about — idea, logistics, execution. And here we are today... "
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
At 17 years old, Jason Aaron Mills was facing serious jail time. He says it was a reality check for him, so he turned his incarceration into an opportunity. He taught himself how to make music, and he started his career as the rapper IDK.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY IN CHURCH")
IDK: (Rapping) Don't ask if I need a tissue. I don't need no [expletive] tissue. These ain't tears. It's just something in my eye, so please don't press the issue. Please don't press no buttons. One of these things for self-destruction. Forgot which one - I ain't read the instructions. That right there is the key to my suffering. Mama ain't home, 5 years old. "Blue's Clues" raised me. Cheerios saved me. Porno stepfather hid is what changed me. He ain't do a good job. He was too lazy. While y'all was in day care, I was in Jay care. No lace front - this truth, no fake hair.
MARTINEZ: Now 29 years old, IDK recently released his second studio album, titled "USEE4YOURSELF." And later this week, he's leading a music business seminar on the campus of Harvard designed to help people of color follow in his footsteps. Now, more on that in just a moment because first I asked him how he landed on the name IDK, which stands for Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge.
IDK: I chose that name at a time when I was incarcerated. It's basically part of the key principles of what makes me who I am. Ignorance and knowledge contrast - two things that don't go together, something you want and something you need - and putting all of that together in one person.
MARTINEZ: And you mentioned that you came up with a name in prison. Seventeen years old is when you went in, and you said it's the best thing that's ever happened to you. Why is that?
IDK: It simply put me in a place where I was forced to be grounded, forced to learn patience and forced to plan. Planning is everything, and I learned how to do that, basically, being locked up.
MARTINEZ: But you could have gone a different direction. I mean, I've had family members that have been in prison, and they didn't do what you did, IDK, and plan things out. I mean, what grounded you? What made you decide, OK, I need to plan for later?
IDK: I think the biggest thing is I've always had perspective in my life. My life's been a big paradox, if you would say. I grew up middle class in a decent home. Parents went to college, had an education, had decent jobs. But I went to a school that was the opposite of my environment, where students, some of them didn't have their parents in the house at all. So I grew up knowing both sides.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1995")
IDK: (Rapping) Seventeen years of mama coming home - no hug, no love, no kiss, not even a hello. Just, did you wash the dishes? Did you fold my clothes? Oh, no. Let me hurry up. Mama on the road. What's love? I say IDK. That mean I don't know. In this case...
MARTINEZ: In this album - in this new album, you talk a lot about your upbringing, specifically your relationship with your mom. What was your relationship with her like growing up?
IDK: She didn't really show me the love I felt like I wanted. You know, a lot of the times, it felt like she was angry at me. And I tried my best to, I guess, live through that and fight through that and create happiness.
MARTINEZ: In the final track of the album, you leave your mom a voicemail saying that you're not mad at her and you love her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSURE")
IDK: I wish you would put the same amount of emphasis that you put in religion and learning that and following God with the love you gave me, you know? I think with that, maybe I would have treated women a little bit better. Maybe I would have had a little bit more trust for other people. Maybe I wouldn't feel the need to use my success as armor.
MARTINEZ: How did you finally reach that closure?
IDK: Well, closure comes from acceptance. Finding closure comes from first accepting that I may not ever learn certain things. I never got to speak to my mom before she passed. I have to live with the fact that I don't know when I'll ever get to speak to her again, if I do. I think gratitude also plays a big role. Gratitude is extremely important. I think it's a cheat code to life because when you can show gratitude for the smallest things that you have, no matter what you don't have, there's going to be something you have that someone else doesn't. Showing gratitude for everything and every step of the way is a very big factor in being able to have closure.
MARTINEZ: Now, on Instagram, you posted a letter describing what the new album was going to be about, mentioning how growing up, you know, with a lack of love in your household leads to toxic masculinity. What do you think women can get out of your album by listening to it?
IDK: I think the most important thing is the understanding of what makes part of the makeup of the average Black man in America and their struggle with vulnerability. It's a struggle because we're taught to not be that way. If you cry, that's wrong. If you show signs of weakness, you'll never have a woman. And then it leads to us being a certain way that, you know, maybe women don't understand. So hopefully from this album, there's a little more understanding. I can't change the world with this album, but I can definitely change the thought process of millions of people.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY IN CHURCH")
IDK: (Singing) I'm my only lover. I'm my only friend. Working on my flaws - I think I'm clocking in. I'm my only weakness. I hope I'm off on the weekends.
MARTINEZ: Now, in addition to your album, you've been developing a course aimed at teaching the ins and outs of the music industry. What's the course about?
IDK: It's about music business, but social media is the biggest part. Social media is a constant evolution that we're living in. And now we have an ability to get directly to our fans and create a world in which we can monetize. I think that music is the easiest intellectual property with residual income, literally meaning you can cut this thing up and put it online and put a beat behind it. Someone will listen. Even if it's just one person, you still made money. And that's - literally, you can do this in 24 hours. I think that because of social media and because of how new things are, no one understands truly how to make these things happen. No one fully understands that because no one is teaching it. No one's old enough, articulate enough and passionate enough to do this. So what I'm trying to do is add to the conversation of I want my son or daughter to be a doctor, lawyer or get into IT. I want our jobs in the arts to be a part of that conversation.
MARTINEZ: That's IDK. His new album is called USEE4YOURSELF. IDK, thanks for giving us the time.
IDK: Thank you. Appreciation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUERTO RICO")
IDK: (Singing) Girl, you're just like Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.