The Evolution of a UCONN Professor: From ‘Radical Cat’ to the ‘Hip-Hop Revolution'
Unannounced, rap music burst onto the music scene in 1979. This new art form was unpredictable, brassy and authentic. That year, Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang was the first commercially successful rap single, peaking at #36 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The record reached #1 on the Canadian Singles Chart, #1 on the Dutch top 40 and #3 on the UK Singles Chart. It ultimately sold more than 500,000 copies.
While rap was making its debut, Jeffrey (Jeff) Anthony Green Jr. was a fourth-grader living in Los Angeles, California, learning to play the recorder, the quintessential first musical instrument taught in schools. His single mother was an aspiring actor, singer, dancer and playwright. Jeff did not possess her prodigious talent; he would have to find his own path.
The first time he heard Rapper’s Delight, it captivated his ten-year-old mind. To him, Rapper’s Delight had a “youthful feel,” unlike other music he had heard. Rap music would be the “sonic backdrop” to his first kiss, the first time he hit a triple in baseball, his prom night, good times in high school, college, and, of course, at the best parties.
Rap evolved in the hip-hop culture of the South Bronx, where Blacks (from the African diaspora) and Puerto Ricans lived, during an era of economic upheaval characterized by “deindustrialization” that decimated many cities throughout the United States. Rapping (emceeing), DJing (playing records), B-boying (break dancing) and graffiti unified to form the hip-hop culture. KRS-One, a pioneering rap artist, describes the difference between rap music and hip-hop in his song “Hiphop vs. Rap”: “Rap is something you do; hip-hop is something you live.”
Rap is something you do; hip-hop is something you live.
From Los Angeles to Connecticut
It’s sunny and 61 degrees. A spring breeze swirls the afternoon air on Saturday, April 23, 2022. Jeff greets me with a firm handshake inside Starbucks in West Hartford, Connecticut, just 4.4 miles from Hartford, the state capital.
The first thing I notice is Jeff’s blue Los Angeles Dodgers baseball hat; it looms as big as a billboard in my mind—this is Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees territory! His inviting smile breaks through the underbrush of his bushy salt-and-pepper mustache and beard. I would not have guessed him to be an accomplished professor at the University of Connecticut (UCONN), the state’s flagship public university.
He orders a Grande Pike Place coffee without any wasted energy. I fumble and ask for a “medium” Iced Peach Green Tea Lemonade, with one pump of cane syrup, light on the ice. He pays; we sit wedged in the corner, between the bathroom and the door to the patio, where an endless flow of vehicles whizzes by the glass windows.
His black shirt is a memento from the Hartford Marathon and features “Run Hartford 26.2” in neon green and white letters. (He tells me later that he is wearing a Morehouse College shirt underneath his black shirt. Morehouse will be a recurring theme throughout our discussion.) He’s 6’-0” tall and looks like he could run 5 miles today with little effort. Dark wheat khakis are paired with walnut brown leather sneakers with white soles so bright they are blinding to the eye. Peeking out from under his pants legs are a pair of festive grey dress socks with a whimsical pattern.
Jeff’s father’s side of the family migrated from Louisiana to the South Side of Chicago, and his mother Gelinda’s family came from Mississippi to the South Side. Jeffrey Sr. was an X-ray technician, and Gelinda performed secretarial work; both were born in the 1940s. Gelinda had big dreams of acting, singing and developing her talent. Her big break would come many years later when she was an extra in Rocky 2.
Jeff’s parents were raised in the 1950s and 60s and went through the Black Power movement—and other indignities faced at the time. One particular event is seared in history. Jeffrey Sr.’s 1954 class photograph included his classmate Emmitt Louis Till (Jeff has a copy of this class picture). Emmitt Till would later visit Money, Mississippi but never make it back to Chicago. Emmitt’s murder sparked outrage throughout the United States. Photographs in Jet Magazine of the open casket, which his mother insisted on, exposed his badly beaten and swollen face to the world.
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.
Jeff’s parents met circa 1966 and soon married. Their only child, Jeff, was born in 1969. When he was born, his parents wanted to give him a name that had historical significance. Each had different ideas, but they couldn’t agree and settled on Jeffrey Anthony Green Jr.
The Green family lived in Chicago until Jeff was 6. The marriage ended in divorce in the mid-70s; then Gelinda and Jeff left the Midwest for Compton, California. They moved in part so Gelinda could pursue her Hollywood ambitions. Tragically, Jeffrey Sr. passed away just two weeks before Jeff’s 13th birthday.
Gelinda and Jeff would move to South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood full of everyday struggles. James Baldwin once wrote a letter to his nephew, “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.” At the time, Los Angeles was segregated by racially restrictive housing covenants written into property deeds. The deeds spelled out who could buy a house and where—while illegal today, many deeds still have this verbiage.
This part of the city was historically an African American neighborhood, and over the past four decades, it has become predominantly Latino. KCET’s The History of South Central Los Angeles and Its Struggle with Gentrification illustrates what happened to the area.
Historian Steve Isoardi writes about how the term South Central came to be in his book The Dark Tree. "Lured by an expanding economy and the prospect of jobs, the relatively low cost of real estate, a mild climate, and a seemingly less-overt racism," Isoardi states, "African Americans began moving to Los Angeles in large numbers after 1900. For the next forty years their numbers doubled every decade and by 1940 represented slightly more than 4 percent of the total population."
Through the practice of “redlining,” the Federal government and banks would not lend to Blacks in certain neighborhoods throughout the country, further isolating Blacks. By 1940, “70 percent of the black population of Los Angeles was confined to the Central Avenue corridor and relied upon the Avenue to meet all of its social needs.”
Jeff lived in the Vermont-Slauson neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. This area is 1.44 square miles and today is 61 % Latino and 37 % Black, with a population of roughly 30,000 people, based on the LA Times information. With 18,577 people per square mile, it has one of the highest densities in the city and the country.
Data can predict destiny. The median household income in 2008 was $31,236. The number of people 25 and older with a four-year degree is 3.7%, which is low for the city and the country. 61.5 percent of the residents rent, and 38.5 own. 24.8 % of the households are headed by one parent, which is high for the city and country.
My gang activity was always on the periphery.
Jeff was at an age where he was easily influenced; he would take the wrong path. From ages 12 to 14, he considered himself a gang member but never went through a gang initiation process. At first, he’s reluctant to tell his story because it’s not broadly known to people outside of his inner circle. He begins, “My gang activity was always on the periphery. I never did a drive-by. I was never in a car with someone shooting somebody.”
Jeff shares his gang name: “J-Dog.” He goes on to state, “I got shot at, but I wasn’t like out there shooting people.” During this time in the 1980s, gang activity was increasing in Los Angeles and other cities throughout the country.
He’s not rueful because he didn’t really think about the violence around him. “On one level, it’s part of the environment, like there are palm trees throughout LA—this is part of the natural landscape,” he says. He smoked weed, kicked it with the “homies,” and wore the uniform: flannel shirt, kakis (Dickies brand) falling off his waist and Converse’s iconic Chuck Taylors.
Jelani Cobb, the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, author and writer, wasn’t surprised that Jeff was dealing with the pull of gang activity—they are both the same age, and their lives share similarities. Professor Cobb says, “We all had some degree of contact with that, so in the eighties, we were coming up like the guys in my school with whom I played Little League. Those guys were selling crack by the time we were in high school.”
Explaining further, he says, “it was very difficult if you were a Black kid growing up in an urban environment to stay completely outside the realm of what was going on around you.” Professor Cobb, a native New Yorker, mentions that Jeff was at a “prime age” to get involved in “much heavier things” that could have sent him on a “completely different trajectory.”
One day while Jeff and his friend, Christopher, were wearing their “uniform,” two kids riding on one bicycle passed by and asked what gang they were in. They told them Five-Tray (also known as 53AGC) Avalon Gangster Crips. The kids on the bicycle flashed a similar gang sign and replied, "Righteous. Four Tray" and continued on. “That’s how arbitrary the violence was,” says Jeff. Fortunately for them, they were not an enemy gang.
Jeff was almost thirteen years old at the time. When it happened, he didn't consider the pain and misery his death could have inflicted on his family, and the community. This was South Central LA. As Tupac once said in “Hold On Be Strong,” “God bless the child that can hold his own.” Jeff and other kids were in the middle of a war, a gang war—Trauma is rarely discussed, but it had to play a part in what they were seeing and living. Soon after the incident, he moved from 50th and San Pedro in the South Park neighborhood to 57th & Vermont in the Vermont-Slauson neighborhood.
He remembers another incident wearing the uniform, “but I’m not banging.” Two kids came riding down the street on one bicycle at night in his Slauson neighborhood, similar to the first incident. Jeff was in a group of six kids, including two girls. “Clearly, gangsters coming toward us,“ says Jeff, remembering the details vividly. “Everyone but one 18-year-old girl moves to the side to let them pass by. She yells, ‘I don’t move for no one!’”
Jeff knows gangsters are like police officers; they can be indifferent to you, or they can make your life miserable. The boys on the bike stopped and turned. They demanded with an attitude, “What did you say?” The same girl yelled, “I don’t move for anybody!” Just like that, it was on.
God bless the child that can hold his own.
Like in a movie, the boys on the bike moved toward the crowd, and everyone “broke camp” (ran). But Jeff and the girl stayed. Finally, the fight-or-flight response kicked in. Jeff realized it was time to run. The guy on the back of the bike jumped off and pointed the barrel of a gun at Jeff from two hundred feet away. The trigger is squeezed; Jeff falls to the ground.
Jeff got up limping and knocked on his neighbor’s door, holding his side. He shouted that he had been shot at. The neighbors let him in. As fate would have it, the bullet missed him. But his side hurt from falling to the ground to dodge the bullet. No one considered calling the police to report the incident. That was it—another day in South Central Los Angeles.
From 1980 to 1990, there were 3,958 deaths due to gang-related violence, according to the Injury and Violence Prevention Program report released by the Los Angeles County Dept of Public Health on April 21, 2011. Gang homicides had grown from 19.2 percent of all homicides in the county to 37 percent during that period.
In the study Examining the “Gang Penalty” in the Juvenile Justice System: A Focal Concerns Perspective,D’Andre Walker and Gabriel T. Cesar indicate that ”self-reported data suggest the number of juvenile gang members may be as high as 1.5 million (Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015).” Gang involvement has also been associated with family, school, peer group, and community risk factors (Hill et al., 1999).
At-risk kids are everywhere. Studies have shown that familial poverty, inadequate parental supervision and attachment, disrupted family structure, lower levels of parental education, domestic criminality, sibling antisocial behavior, proviolent parental attitudes, and child maltreatment often characterize gang members’ backgrounds (Eitle et al., 2004; Hill et al., 1999; Thornberry et al., 1993; Thornberry et al., 2003).
Jeff’s gang activity peaked at 13; however, he remained active until 14. There had to be a better way, he thought. He explained. “Imagine you’re walking down a path, and there are like 15 people walking in front of you down this path, and you see this one dude fall in a hole, and the next dude falls down the hole, and the next dude falls down the hole. You’re like, I need to walk around this hole. For me, that’s what gang life was like. I kept looking at these dudes and said to myself, I need to walk down a different path.“
During the 1980s, the Black community was facing major trends, such as the rise of crack cocaine, AIDS, poverty, and over-policing that led to brutality and a general mistrust of the police—long before citizens had cellphone cameras. Public policy made things worse as the Reagan and Bush eras focused on getting tough on crime, not eliminating the factors that caused poverty.
Closing out the gang chapter of Jeff’s life, Professor Cobb says, “he was able to get onto a path that allowed him to make really outstanding contributions to his community, to his family, and the institutions that he has worked at, and so on.” Although Jeff left gang life, he still faced an uphill battle.
Jeff and I talk about many topics, from Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste, his flirtation with gang life, American status, elite schools, and family challenges, to issues plaguing the Black community and Morehouse. Flexing, his answers can come across as lectures, as if he is in front of his students or presenting at a prestigious conference. There is no denying his knowledge, interest and passion for debate—he spent thousands of hours alone, reading and writing for moments like this, and he’s not about to waste it. He’s flowing like Kendrick Lamar and faster than a jet breaking the sound barrier.
I was a very average student, and I put very little effort in high school, for the most part.
Looking back, Jeff says, “I was a very average student, and I put very little effort in high school, for the most part.” He was a “low B student.” He needed something, or someone, to help point him in the right direction.
Diane Wolf was Jeff’s teacher in his junior year at Sherman Oaks Center for Enrichment Studies, a Span-Magnet school from fourth grade to twelfth grade, located in Reseda in the Southwest San Fernando Valley, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. This school was created in 1981 in response to court-ordered busing. Ms. Wolf was a teacher in Los Angeles from 1967 to 1987. She recalls the neighborhood around the school as middle-class. But the kids who attended the school were poor, low-middle class to wealthy, from throughout the region.
The school had its share of challenges. Ms. Wolf remembers one incident when a student brought a baseball bat to school and was “swinging it all around.” A student notified her of what was going on. “I talked to him (the student with the bat). I approached him slowly, and, you know, I backed up at one point since I didn’t want my head hit.”
Continuing with her story, she says, “I got up close enough so that I could take the bat away, and somebody escorted him to the principal’s office, or whatever it was.” In general, she felt that the school didn’t present any unique dangers “since I had come from a school with many, many gang members and sort of got used to dealing with them.”
Gangs were part of her teaching reality. “I had come from an inner-city school where, you know, gangs were really, really everywhere,” says Ms. Wolf. A “lot of the gang kids” were in her class. She remembers two kids who were gang members, but “they didn’t disrupt the class.” They were respectful.
Ms. Wolf was different from other teachers. “I don’t know why; I just think I had a broader idea of what teaching involved than some other teachers.” While she taught what was required, she went beyond the minimum because she thought it was “important to teach kids things that weren’t necessarily in the curriculum.”
She continues, “I certainly wasn’t encouraged to introduce Richard Wright or James Baldwin or any other Black authors whom I encouraged the kids to read or that I taught.” When asked about Jeff, she says, “He was inquisitive. He was interested. He had… you know how when you’re a teacher you generally remember the kids who are really awful and the kids who are really special, he was one of those special kids.”
Ms. Wolf remembers “the look in his eyes” when he would talk to her. “He was curious. He was serious, and that’s how I remember him, as a good kid.”
One book would have a lasting impact on Jeff. Ms. Wolf assigned the class to read Native Son by Richard Wright. The book brought Jeff back to his Chicago roots. “I remember thinking how much I could imagine the narrative, and it really resonated with me in a particular way,” says Jeff.
In and out of school, Jeff’s world was expanding. “I was just starting to come into a racial sense of myself and looking at race in the United States. And at the same time, I was coming into this interest about a thousand issues.” Jeff doesn’t hold back his love for the book. And when he received his grade, he remembers getting the “highest grade” in the class. This got him thinking: “I was like, huh, you know, [if I] apply myself, I could actually do pretty well.”
I certainly wasn’t encouraged to introduce Richard Wright or James Baldwin or any other Black authors whom I encouraged the kids to read or that I taught.
Another assignment in Ms. Wolf’s class was to read a novel and write a book review. Jeff was excited when he selected James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Ms. Wolf told him that James Baldwin’s book contained essays and was not a novel, but characteristic of her skill as a teacher, she let Jeff use the book for the assignment. He received an “A” for the assignment, one of only four given, as he remembers.
Ms. Wolf left the teaching profession in 1987, tired of the bureaucratic school district administration. She remembers earning her master’s degree in counseling and the district increasing her pay by $10 per month. She received an extra $15 per month when she completed her law degree.
“I wanted something that was just different,” Ms. Wolf states. “I had come from a family of lawyers. I wanted something that was more intellectually stimulating.” She wishes she could have used her counseling degree because kids “have a lot of problems that go along with being an adolescent.” She opened her own law practice in Los Angeles, specializing in marriage dissolution and mediation, including premarital and post-martial agreements.
Jeff graduated from Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Los Angeles in 1987. He has fond memories of what Ms. Wolf did as a teacher. “I really, really appreciate what she offered to broaden my worldview.” In 2021, Jeff reconnected with her on Facebook.
It’s no surprise Jeff picked a historically black college, given how he viewed his place in America. Morehouse College in Atlanta would be precisely what he needed in his life.
A Beacon: Morehouse
People are working on laptops and conversating while Starbucks’s curated music pours out of the ceiling-mounted speakers. The sound of running water, baristas pounding plastic cups on the counter and machines make it hard to concentrate. But I hear “Morehouse.” Morehouse pops up out of nowhere throughout our conversations as if Jeff is a magician doing a trick on stage. It’s clear he is proud of his alma mater.
“I think that Atlanta has been called a black mecca,” says Jeff. The consummate historian, dates are always floating inside his brain. “It got that moniker around 1971.” Atlanta is his Wakanda, and Morehouse College is its nerve center, not far from downtown. The city is a capital for Black culture, whether in business, fashion, music, television, movies, sports, or social justice advocacy. Its population is over 550,000, and 54% are Black. There are 6.1 million people in the Metropolitan Statistical Area, the 8th largest in the country.
Founded in 1867, Morehouse is an all-male institution with 2,200 students —"the only four-year liberal arts institution that’s historically Black and all male.” Spelman College, the all-women’s school, is Morehouse’s sister school. Morehouse’s motto is Et Facta Est Lux, which means “and there was light.” Jeff would use the light of self-knowledge on his path of discovery.
As a history major, he was in the right place at the right time. Jeff is cognizant of the greats who attended Morehouse: Martin Luther King Jr.; Howard Thurman; Nima Warfield; Samuel L. Jackson; Spike Lee; Michael Santiago Render, better known as the rapper Killer Mike from the group Run the Jewels; Julian Bond; former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson; and U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock.
Jeff considered himself one of the “radical cats” at Morehouse when he was a first-generation college student in the late-eighties. The college was fertile ground for activism; he would be the center of a significant event. Over the years, Morehouse has been ranked high in the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings. These rankings began to greatly influence students, families, and employers.
Frustrated with the school's rankings and the reality on the ground, grumblings began to emerge. The dorms were crumbling, and the cafeteria food was beyond bad. Jeff was “too poor” to live on campus and lived a block away. To make ends meet, he worked in the cafeteria, where he could eat for free.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“One of the criteria for the rankings was student satisfaction, and we were aware of this,” says Jeff. “We had terrible conditions in the late eighties, and the cafeteria food was terrible.” During this time, maintenance-type work was being done in the cafeteria. One day a rat fell out of the cafeteria ceiling and ran across the floor. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Jeff. It was time to organize. He was one of 12 students who met in secrecy to start what would be called the “big uprising.”
Prospective students and parents were coming to visit the school on one particular weekend. The group of 12 decided to conduct a protest at Crown Forum (in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, the college’s spiritual center), where all Morehouse students are required to gather on Thursdays at noon—no classes are scheduled during this time, and students earn credits that are required for graduation. This tradition goes back to the 19th century founding of the school. Atlanta Mayor Jackson, John Lewis and many others have spoken at Crown Forum.
When it was time to go public with their strategy, they were ready. “We had leaflets that demanded ‘better conditions, lower tuition.’” They assembled in the chapel Thursday at noon, the time for Crown Forum. Their group took over the building.
“King Chapel was filled with men shouting, ‘better conditions, lower tuition,’” during prospective student week. The administration changed the route that visiting students and parents were supposed to take. Students occupied the building for the day. The president and administration officials went on the stage.
The president knew he had to calm down the ruckus before it got out of hand. The school was sensitive to rankings and recruitment, which directly impacted the school’s image and finances. In the end, the administration caved and met all 21 demands presented, even adding an African Studies program and major. The strategy had paid off. Reflecting on his experience, it “encourages you to become an activist,” Jeff says.
Academics are only one part of the Morehouse experience. Dr. Robert Franklin, the former Morehouse College President from 2007-2012 and Class of 1975 alumnus, ushered in the five “Wells”: Well-Read, Well-Spoken, Well-Traveled, Well-Dressed, and Well-Balanced. There’s a conscious effort to groom students for a life after college, which Dr. Franklin championed. Jeff became a member of the new African fraternity, KMT, which was another outlet for personal growth, and comradery and checked the “Well-Balanced” box. Today KMT is not one of the Greek Letter organizations recognized at the college. Jeff sighs—a part of his life has been erased.
Graduation at Morehouse was imminent when in March 1991, Rodney Glen King was pulled over after a high-speed chase and beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The event was captured on video and sent to a local television station. Four LAPD officers were eventually charged with excessive force, and three were acquitted. That verdict led directly to the LA riots, where 63 people were killed and over 2,300 injured in six days. Ultimately, the Marine Corps, Army and the California Army National Guard were called in to restore order.
This was the history playing out as Jeff graduated in May 1991. Looking back on his time on the Atlanta campus, “Morehouse gave you an identity, sort of a way to look at the world, a way of pursuing your ambitions and what you thought of as success,” says Jeff. “I mean your definition of a multi-hyphenate. You’re expected to do great things. You’re not expected to be mediocre.”
Morehouse brought a new self-awareness. He thought about the names his parents considered for him at birth. Like any historian, he would do his own research to learn more about his family roots. When his research was completed, Jeff was ready to change his name to celebrate his Nigerian roots on his mother’s side of the family. In 1995, he changed his name to Jeffrey Ogbonna (the "g" is silent) Green (O.G.) Ogbar. It’s fitting that O.G. is now part of his name (The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an O.G. as “someone or something that is an original or originator and especially one that is highly respected or regarded”).
His quest for knowledge led him to Indiana University in Bloomington, a city of nearly 80,000, with over 45,000 students on the main campus—and a Black population of 4.4 percent. He earned his master’s degree in 1993 and his Ph.D. in history with a minor in African studies from Indiana University in 1997. His dissertation examined the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party from the years 1955 to 1975.
Scholarship in the Woods: UCONN
Large cities have shaped Jeff's views. Storrs, on the other hand, where the University of Connecticut is located, has a population of under 15,500 people. Nevertheless, Storrs would be where he set up his academic tent. This would be where his intellectual curiosity would blossom into a national reputation as a scholar. Professor Cobb, the former associate professor of history and director of the Institute for African Studies at UCONN from 2012 to 2016, says, “I know people complain that it’s in the middle of nowhere. I never thought that way. It’s kind of a great little nook.” He adds, “Jeff was one of the people who recruited me to UCONN.”
As Black men, Professor Cobb and Jeff’s lives share many parallels. They are the same age, both earned a Ph.D. in history and received their undergraduate degrees from top HBCUs, had children later in life, wrote books about hip-hop, and have called the two largest cities in America home: New York City and Los Angeles.
Jeff’s favorite living historian is Robin Davis Gibran Kelley. Kelley is an American historian and recipient of the Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at UCLA. Jeff is impressed with the diversity of his work, including writing seven books, editing others, and many scholarly articles. He is currently working on three book projects.
I know people complain that it’s in the middle of nowhere.
Another person he admires is Gerald Horne, a fellow historian at the University of Houston. “His breadth is wider than Robin Kelley’s, and he’s someone I thoroughly admire. Those are the two big giants I would say that I just really admire and look up to.” Professor Horne holds the Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies. The author of more than 30 books and 100 scholarly articles, Dr. Horne is working on two book projects.
Professor Cobb mentions they (Professors Robert Kelly and Gerald Horne) were senior to him and Jeff. He states that they are “dynamic figures in the historical world who were interested in these questions about race, history and the struggles for freedom and equality.” Continuing, he says, “they were people who really helped us younger scholars to see the landscape of scholarship in a way that made it tangible to us about what work could really be done.”
Professor Horne says, “Both Jeffrey and I are of African descent, and both of us are progressive. He is younger than me, as least as far I can tell. And so, you feel an obligation to help someone up the ladder in life as we climb.”
When Professor Kelley learns that he is Jeff’s favorite living historian, he says, “that’s funny because he’s one of my favorite historians. He’s someone who, in my opinion, is actually underappreciated.” The first book Jeff wrote was Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity, published in 2004. Professor Kelley can’t stop applauding the book. He says, “Jeff’s book was ‘pioneering.’ Even the title in many ways understates what the book is about. It is a history of the Black freedom movement and its impact on all kinds of opposition movements coming out of ethnic nationalism.”
“He ends up writing about the impact Black power had on Asian Americans, indigenous and the Chicano movements,” says Professor Kelley. “He ends up extending beyond Black power to talk about the limits and possibilities of civil rights, armed self-defense in the South, things that you know really give you a sense of the broader political landscape in the sixties and seventies.” It’s a book that Professor Kelley tries to teach as often as possible. “It’s beautifully written; the prose is clear. He understands his audience to be beyond the academy itself.”
While completing his Ph.D. at Indiana University, Jeff found himself in a writing fellowship at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He gave a talk in class that he “modeled” on a lecture from his freshman year at Morehouse. The professor at Morehouse played samples of music and said, “The best way to understand a work of art in music is to understand the historical moment that gave rise to that art.” He talked about Miles Davis, the Last Poets, Pharoah Sanders, and “all these people I had never heard of before.” Jeff says, “I loved that lecture!”
A female student liked the lecture Jeff gave and asked him to give it publicly. He agreed. This time, he emphasized hip-hip. A professor heard the talk and asked Jeff if he would consider publishing an article on that topic. He agreed and submitted the article to the Journal of Black Studies. Published in 1999, “Slouching Toward Bork: The Culture Wars and Self-Criticism in Hip-Hop Music” became a “one-hit-wonder.” The University Press of Kansas asked him to write a book based on the article. Jeff spent seven years writing the book.
The completed book, The Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap, would make him a sought-after speaker and star. Jeff says, “Writing academic books is super hard.” In fact, there were times when he was “over it.” He wouldn’t describe the book as a labor of love. But he is proud of the completed book. He says, “I didn’t know what to expect, and it ended up being my best-selling book by far. It has taken me all around the world, and it’s been great.”
Professor Horne says the book resonated “because obviously, people listen to hip-hop, people are into hip-hop. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry that’s taking the country and the world by storm.” He adds, “I think that was a wise intellectual and material choice on Jeff’s part.”
Professor Kelley states, “It is a very important book in that, at the very moment when very few scholars, with the exception of Tricia Rose and others, were willing to be critical of hip-hop, he comes out with this kind of loving critique of hip-hop music. I say loving because he embraces it, he understands it, he defends it but also, he’s not afraid to raise important questions about its commodification and the consequences.”
I didn’t know what to expect, and it ended up being my best-selling book by far.
Jeff has taught in the history department at UCONN since 1997 and held several positions at the university: Director of the Africana Studies Institute, Associate Dean for the Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University Vice Provost for Diversity, and he is a founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Music.
He's part of a rare group of teachers and scholars who have spent time in administrative leadership positions. During his administration days, he was often seen in well-fitting suits and ties. Now, he’s not as likely to wear a suit. But he is always neat and ready to engage students intellectually. The default is what he learned at Morehouse: Well-Dressed.
This semester he is a union representative, so his teaching load has been reduced to one class: African American History Since 1865. The administrative roles were important for recruiting top talent to the university. Jeff played a role in the following searches: University president, director of African American Studies, director of the Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, and Indigenous Studies faculty.
Jeff was one of two UCONN professors awarded the 2021 Provost’s Outstanding Service Award. The other was Carol Atkinson-Palombo, a faculty member at UCONN since 2007. The award honors “faculty whose volunteer service is exemplary in enhancing the University’s mission in teaching, research, service, or engagement.” Carl Lejuez, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, said, in UCONN Today, “I am so pleased to recognize these two stellar members of our UConn community.”
Praise from Academic Giants
Referring to Professors Horne and Kelley, Jeff says, “They are historians. I deeply admire and appreciate—and professionally they have affected my life, you know, my scholarship.”
When I comment that Professor Horne and Jeff are progressives, Professor Kelley says, “I would even say progressive is an understatement. They’re revolutionary because I put myself in that category. “Gerald Horne has had a huge influence on me,” says Professor Kelley. He reached out to Gerald when he was working on his dissertation in 1986 at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Gerald had published his book on W. E. B. Du Bois that year. “He took me under his wing; he said, ‘come meet with me.’ He sat me down and helped me think about some things. And I was a lowly graduate student.”
“When I first met Jeff, my job, of course, all of our jobs, was to do what Gerald did.” When a young person, especially a young Black scholar, asks for some guidance, a good word, encouragement, you give it right away. I think that the connection is both a shared political desire for liberation and a shared political desire for Black liberation, but not separate from the liberation of all people. And that‘s reflected in Gerald’s scholarship, it's reflected in Jeff’s scholarship, and is reflected in mine and many others. A commitment to really supporting each generation of young scholars coming up. We have to do that because it’s not as if the academy is designed to give us any support. We have to support each other.”
When asked what it means to be a Morehouse man, Professor Kelley pauses to collect his thoughts. He did not graduate from Morehouse but has come across many graduates over the years. Professor Kelley says, “I can’t answer that question exactly because what a Morehouse man is changes over time. All I know is a couple of things. Of course, we can make a long list of great people who came out of Morehouse and Spelman. And I have to say that in my career, some of the best graduate students and scholars I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with came out of Morehouse.”
Professor Kelly says that Jeff’s scholarship has had an impact (at UCONN), “but he also had an impact as an educator, as a teacher, and as an administrator. And I think he deserves credit for that because he could just sit back and just write more books. But instead, he’s taking a leadership role at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. That leadership role is very important in terms of trying to diversify the student body and the faculty, trying to make the next things better than the previous.”
When asked the question, “Who is Jeff Ogbar?” Professor Cobb states, “Well, I think, first and foremost, he is a very significant scholar of the African American experience and likely a quintessential Morehouse man as well. If you’re trying to understand him, the influence of Morehouse is key to any of that.” Concluding, Professor Cobb says that Jeff is a “deeply valued resource” to peers and young scholars who are coming after us.
The Hip-Hop G.O.A.T.
Jeff doesn’t have any musical talent, nor does he “spit bars,” but he did pen a rap about former President George H.W. Bush, who was in office from 1989 to 1993. He doesn’t want to share his rhymes now—maybe it's stage fright at Starbucks.
I give talks, and people always ask me my top five [rappers].
Identifying the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.) is a constant question in hip-hop music. Jeff has to know the question is coming. I ask, “Is there someone that you consider your hip-hip God?”
“I give talks, and people always ask me my top five [rappers],” says Jeff. He doesn’t know where to start. “I always waver and stammer and start itching and scratching, doing what I’m doing right now.” He laughs. Like a professor, he reaches for a rubric in his mind. And acknowledges the criteria could be any of the following: clever rhymes, complex literary forms, the discursive nature of the music, or they could be just a really gifted MC. He has different criteria for rappers.
He likes Pharoahe Monch because of his “clever rhymes” and “complex literary” forms. He thinks of him as a “brilliant MC.” But he acknowledges a major shortcoming is that Pharoahe doesn’t release albums often, similar to another artist he likes, Childish Gambino. J. Cole is someone he likes; he believes Big Sean is underrated.
Over the years, Jeff has listened to a lot of Ice Cube, especially his second, third and fourth albums: Death Certificate, Predator and Lethal Injection. He says the rest of Ice Cube’s albums didn’t resonate with him after Lethal Injection—he has 10 studio albums. It’s not surprising he likes the California rapper, given where he grew up.
He’s off to the next rapper. If his one criterion was whom he has listened to most over the last few years, he says, “Kendrick Lamar is probably my favorite right now.” Supporting his selection, he says, “Kendrick in every way has great riffs, especially his last album Damn. “It’s just brilliant, top to bottom.” He admires the lyrical analysis, subject matter, “the topical discursive nature of it all. He goes to so many different places, he is a gifted lyrist, and the production is good,” according to Jeff.
Jeff has a hard time choosing a G.O.A.T. He refers to himself as an “old head” but doesn’t want to reach back to the Golden Age of hip hop to select his number one rapper. Many people have Biggie (also known as The Notorious B.I.G.) as one of the best of all time. He doesn’t take the bait. “I really love Kendrick Lamar.”
He likes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, calling it Kanye’s “most sophisticated, lush, complex and beautiful album that he has ever done.” He calls it “a high watermark of artistic expression in so many different phases.” He likes Graduation/ 808s & Heartbreaks. Proving more background, Jeff states he has listened to more Kanye West music than any other rapper. He can’t stop saying good things about Kanye. And it doesn’t hurt that Kanye is from Chicago.
On November 12, 2015, Billboard published The Ten Best Rappers of All Time, according to its staff. Their top ten were: 10. Lil Wayne, 9. Kendrick Lamar, 8. Ghostface Killah, 7. Lauren Hill, 6. Andre 3000, 5. Nas, 4. Rakim, 3. Eminem, 2. Jay-Z, 1. The Notorious B.I.G. This list was based on MC skills, not artistry, which is why Tupac, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Kanye West and many others were left off the list. The staff stated, “Unlike everyone else on this list, Biggie never dropped a single bad song or a single errant bar.”
Going a step further, in June 2017, Rolling Stone Magazine published “100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time.” They assembled 33 “artists and experts,” including Chuck D., Mike D., Big Boi and Rick Rubin, to pick their favorite hip-hop songs. Rolling Stone Magazine took a different path by selecting the top 100 best rap songs of all time.
The top ten on their list were: 10. Eric B. and Rakim, "Paid in Full," 9. N.W.A, "Straight Outta Compton," 8. The Notorious B.I.G., "Juicy," 7. Public Enemy, "Fight the Power." 6. Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg, "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," 5. Geto Boys, "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," 4. Run-DMC, "Sucker M.C.'s," 3. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, "Planet Rock," 2. Sugarhill Gang, "Rapper's Delight," 1. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message."
This is not the end of the battle. There will be other lists with different rubrics. As a historian, Jeff knows nothing is permanent.
A New Title: Father
Depending on where you met him on his journey, you may know him by one of these names: Jeffrey, Jeff, Ogbonna, Anthony, Green, Junior, Professor Ogbar, Doctor, J-Dog, JJ (His mother still calls him this) or Speed (used during his graffiti tagging days). There’s one title that he’s waited for a long time: Father.
Fatherhood seems to have been the only thing Jeff couldn’t manage on his terms, like his stellar academic career. He says, “I became a father in my late forties. The joy of parenting and family has always been important for me.” He married Jeanna in 2015; they are the proud parents of a boy and a girl: Jeffrey Asa, 4 and HazelAnn, 2.
Jeff lives in Hartford, on a tree-lined street of mansions. He knows he’s a long way from South Central Los Angeles. But one thing you learn about Jeff is that he will always represent the places that made him: Chicago, Los Angeles, Morehouse in Atlanta—and now Storrs and Hartford, Connecticut.
There’s still much work left to do for the “radical cat.” Jeff recently completed his next book manuscript, “Whistling Dixie: The Shadow of the Confederacy in Shaping Atlanta” under contract to be published by Basic Books. He hopes to tell his story one day in his memoir. He says, “I love my alma mater. I love what I do professionally. I love my family, and I love to talk.” And in the deep recesses of his mind, he’s already formulating a plan to get his son and daughter to consider Morehouse and Spelman—don’t underestimate him to make it happen.
We head to the parking lot nearly two hours and twenty minutes later. I catch a glimpse of Jeff’s Black BMW in the sprawling parking lot; I’m careful not to stare. There’s a baby seat in the car.
I leave thinking about the road Jeff took and hearing Meek Mill’s 1942 Flows in my head:
“Dream chasin', catchin' all my goals….”
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise & inspiring stories for people who are curious about the world.