What happens when you mix astrophysics, hip-hop and a social-media firestorm? As Stephen Tyson ’07 can attest, you might get a few million hits on SoundCloud.
When rapper B.o.B. unleashed a series of tweets last winter indicating the earth is flat, he received backlash from fans and critics alike—as well as some support from those who believed him. Among those who countered his argument was renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. After a series of exchanges with the scientist on Twitter, B.o.B. released a track titled “Flatline,” in which he insulted Tyson and his signature vest.
The astrophysicist had an idea. Why not call his nephew, Stephen—a hip-hop artist in his own right—and ask him to do a track in response? Over the next four hours, Steve turned the concept into a track on the audio platform, SoundCloud: “Flat to Fact.” Neil tweeted the track back to B.o.B. and the story went national; Tyson’s work received more than a million “listens” in the ensuing weeks.
“It took on a comedic life of its own,” Stephen Tyson says with a laugh.
It was just the latest moment in the spotlight for Tyson, who last spring performed at the famed Apollo Theater in Manhattan and who works regularly with rapper and producer Logic. He has also received national media attention for his work in music education through the media arts organization, JusListen Entertainment, he co-founded with fellow F&M alumnus Dave Dennis Jr. ’07. They established JusListen to encourage young people to explore hip-hop principles of peace and unity through the expression of music, film, poetry and youth workshops.
For Tyson, hip-hop isn’t just a way to communicate about life—it is life. He says it began to shape him as a child in Johnstown, Pa., where he was one of only a handful of African-American kids in town when his parents were educators at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown.
“All of us bonded over Ninja Turtles and Transformers, but we didn’t connect with what was most important to me—music,” Tyson says. “I liked learning about how much people express themselves in hip-hop, about the founding of the Zulu Nation in 1973, about its rich history and culture. This is something we live. It’s how we walk, talk and breathe.”
Tyson introduced the F&M community to his passion for hip-hop through his work as a disc jockey at WFNM. Meanwhile, he and Dennis planted the seeds for their organization during a conversation in Thomas Hall. “We were always writing rhymes and wanted to find a way to bring the beauty of hip-hop to the public,” says Tyson, who majored in anthropology at F&M. “We used to think, ‘JusListen’ to what we’re saying.”
Also at F&M, Tyson cofounded IMPACT (Intelligent Men of Color Purposefully Accomplishing College Together). He helped the organization launch a chapter in Harlem and also at Arcadia University, where he’s currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership.
Through IMPACT and his music, he enjoys provoking thought and leading the conversation about topics on his mind: our stewardship of the environment, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other issues in society.
And increasingly, he finds himself in the spotlight. The event at the Apollo Theater, where he performed “StarTalkin,’” remains the most memorable moment of his career.
“During the rehearsal, the room was empty—I could feel the spirit and energy of my idols who performed there,” he says. “Duke Ellington, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill. Everybody has graced that stage.”