The Nerd

The Christian hip-hop artist talks about his campaign to empower youth: NERD.

By Billy Liggett | Photos courtesy of Ernest Owens

It’s OK to call Ernest “Applexjaxx” Owens (’04) a “nerd.” In fact, he’d prefer if you did, because to be a “nerd” means to be a lifelong learner, or one who embraces “never-ending research and development.”

That’s what Owens has set out to do, he says, and that’s what he hopes to encourage others, especially youth, to do, too.

The myriad of ways in which he’s trying to do that parallels the lifestyle brand company he founded, Fadacy. It’s built on three initiatives – music, education, and faith – each of which are outlets to “inspire others to use their gifts to be positive agents of change,” he says.

MUSIC: Owens is a Christian hip-hop artist who performs under the name “Applejaxx.” One year after graduating from Campbell University with a degree in computer information systems, he released in 2005 his first EP, “805 P.O.P.” His first full album, “Back 2 The Future,” followed in 2009 and a second album, “Organic,” in 2012. Billboard Magazine took notice, calling “Applejaxx” “one of hip-hop’s up and comers.” His third album, “Jesus High 2,” drops this year. An EP sampler he released in 2013 (“NERD Power”) is a prelude to another full-length album he’s currently working on called “NERDS.”

EDUCATION: Owens is pursuing graduate degrees in legal studies and religion at Harvard University, where he also works full time at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice. He helps organize events and promote the institute’s efforts to raise awareness about racial and social justice issues. A few years into working at Harvard, he began thinking about ways to add a youth component to the institute’s work. The result, unveiled during a talk he gave at the Harvard Law School last year, was the launching of the NERD project. Aimed to help get others comfortable with being a “nerd,” the project includes several video series, educational articles, a speaker series, and music.

FAITH: Owens and his wife, Trinidad, serve as youth pastors at the Empowerment Christian Church in Boston, Mass. In addition, even when recording and performing as “Applejaxx,” Owens considers himself a minister, not a musician, first. “I’m inspired by Jesus, and his life is my model,” he says. “The foundation of my music, and my life, is rooted in scripture.”

Owens spoke recently about his music, his NERD project, and how Campbell influenced both. The following is an edited transcript.

Where did the name “Applejaxx” come from?

People always ask me if AppleJacks is my favorite cereal. No, it isn’t. The name was inspired by scripture. Jesus said if you abide by him, you’ll bear good fruit. So that’s for the “apple.” Jaxx is like taking one thing from another. In Mark 1, Jesus called us to put the nets down and become a fisher of men. Put the two together, and you get “Applejaxx.”

How did you get interested in music?

My mom said when I was small I would pull the pots out of the cabinets and beat on the pots as if they were drums. I had a drum set when I was younger, too, and played drums in the church. In middle school, I took a keyboard class and learned how to play Mozart and a lot of classical music. But I wanted to be a basketball player. My freshman year at Campbell, I tore my ACL. I’m 5-10 and have a bad knee; I realized then there was no way I’ll be able to play in the pros.

That freshman year, around that same time, there was a talent show. A few of my friends said we should do it. I said, “I don’t have any raps.” But that’s how it began. I started free-styling around campus and performing at open mic nights and at CUW. That ACL injury led me to rapping all over campus about my life.

How did you become a recording artist?

I was interested in bringing more hip-hop to Campbell, so I was promoting concerts and bringing smaller shows to the university. One of the artists I brought in flew me out to San Diego to start recording. So a small conservation from a small concert at Campbell led to my first recording and to me actually pursuing music as an artist.

Why did you decide to pursue it?

It was the way everything came together. It had to be divine intervention. When I went out to San Diego to record, others said, “You don’t sound like anyone.” They helped me see that I have a gift. I also have this internal desire to communicate stories through music.

What do you hope listeners take-away from your music?

I hope they hear my story. That I’m a rich kid, poor kid. I’m rich in knowledge and love and rich in understanding and grace, but I come from the poorest conditions. I grew up with a landfill behind my house. I didn’t really have new clothes, new Jordans, new phones. I was just a kid trying to live the ACE life. ACE stands for All Christ Everything.

Your most recent EP is “NERD Power.” What do you mean by that phrase?

NERD Power is the power to be in your flow. Flow is your style, your gifts, and the way you dress, the way you act, what you post on Twitter, what you like on Facebook. NERD Power is the power to do those things. It’s the strength to be different and to endure being an outsider in a world that wants you to conform. It’s what you need to be a “NERD.”

What do you mean by “NERD”?

“NERD” stands for never-ending research and development. That means we’re always learning and growing and we’re always students. I want people to have a new perspective on the word and on education. In schools, nerds are the kids who are outsiders or the outcasts. Where I come from, you mostly see drug dealers or people doing illegal activity. I want to encourage kids to pursue other opportunities instead of a gang life or a drug life. I want others to see that nerds are the cool kids, and they are the world-changers.

Where did your idea for this “NERD” concept come from?

I work at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at the Harvard Law School. Our job is to essentially bring awareness to race and justice issues and host events and deliver resources so people can have the tools to combat racism and bring justice to all. I wanted to start something at the organization to empower youth. I’m a youth pastor, and I work with youth every week. I have met a vast number of kids who have no direction on education and their future. My desire is to inspire them to want to be great and to pursue their dreams and to make a difference. They just have to have the right education.

So I was sitting down and thinking about ways we could add a youth component to our work, and I was thinking of things that some kids don’t think is cool. One of those things is a nerd. I stuck with that and decided on the acronym. Last year I was able to deliver a speech at Harvard Law School to launch the whole NERD movement.

What does the NERD project entail?

The music is the promotion of the whole brand, but the project is multi-faceted. It also entails educational articles, events, speaker series, and video series. There are videos of “Five Things I Never Learned in High School,” for example, in which I talk about everything from student loans to life skills. There is also a video series on the “Confessions of a NERD” in which I make different confessions, like I don’t smoke, I’m not a gangster, I’ve never sold drugs, I love going to the library, I drink Starbucks coffee.

This fall and spring, at the Harvard Law School, we’re bringing in our first speakers as part of a NERD speaker series. Potential speakers are J Cole, a rapper associated with Jay-Z who graduated magnum cum laude from St. John’s University, and Johnny Cupcakes, a local brand in Boston who is world-renowned and also has shops in California and the UK. We’re looking to bring in successful folks from different arenas to encourage others and to reinforce that being a nerd is cool and that we’re all geniuses. Every person is a genius; you just have to figure out what you’re a genius in.

What led you to want to help others find what they’re a genius in?

Middle school was a genesis moment for me. I was the class president; and during that time, I realized that if you’re an athlete or a class president, you can inspire people to do things, good or bad. I wanted to inspire others to do good. Since that time, I’ve always wanted to help others work through their faults and their struggles to be what they want to be. Also, I had a nice community of folks who mentored me and helped me see that life is more than just what you can get; it’s about how much you can give.

Who has inspired you?

Inspirations came from a lot of people including my mother and father and my pastors. There was a teacher, too, Ms. Zelenski, who was very instrumental in who I am today. My family moved from North Carolina to Connecticut when I was in middle school. At first, I was kind of a rough kid, and Ms. Zelenski took me in and said, “No, no, you’re not going to do this.” She mentored me and helped me to see that I could be more than just a statistic.

And, there’s the story of Jesus, from his birth to living to being rejected to his legacy. He offers the most inspiring, amazing story.

Has your work at Harvard Law School influenced your music?

Definitely. The cool thing about it is that I’m able to work by day and do music by night. In addition, I’m able to take classes and pursue a master’s degree. I’ve been able to take a lot of diverse classes, from topics on world poverty to intellectual property to social media and marketing; and I’ve been able to connect with a variety of people who can help with my music career. But more than that, being at Harvard has allowed me to organize my life so I can focus on achieving my goals instead of just talking about them.

What are your goals?

One, I want to finish the master’s degree I started at Harvard. Second, I have a company known as Fadacy. It’s a lifestyle brand built on three initiatives: faith, education, and music. All Christ Everything is the faith portion, NERD power is the education portion, and the music is the music, of course. All three initiatives are focused on inspiring people to action. I want to grow this Fadacy brand. On the music side, I want to build on what we’re doing and get to the point where I’m able to tour and deliver music that people can dance to.

What’s keeping you motivated to achieve those goals?

My fuel is the passion to be successful so I can help others be successful. There are things I never knew growing up. I wished I had known more about student loans, for example. So I want to be able to deliver this information to an audience that was like me. They may know certain things about how to be successful, but maybe they need a little more guidance. People say follow your dreams, but following your dreams is too abstract if you don’t know what that looks like. So I not only want to inspire others; I want people to see what they can do and could be doing.

When people hear the name “Applejaxx,” what do you hope they would think of?

That it’s a brand good for the soul. That it’s 100 percent organic with no fats or added sugar. That it’s good music, good encouragement, and good things that encourage others to pursue their dreams.

The nerd movement, from Chicago to Buies Creek

Like Christian hip-hop artist Ernest “Applejaxx” Owens (’04), Campbell University pharmacy student Alexander Flowers (’14 MSCR) wants to change people’s perceptions of “nerds.”

That’s why he and his sister, Latoya, are making a documentary entitled “Nerds” that profiles four African American men who have embraced the label.

“‘Nerd’ usually has a derogatory meaning behind it,” Flowers said. When he was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, being called a “nerd was another way of telling someone, you are trying to act white, proper and better than everyone else,” he added. “We want to change that perception, particularly for African American young men. We can do that by showing other minority young men that it’s OK to be original and to embrace being themselves.”

Among the four men to be featured in “Nerds” are Timothy Jackson, a B.A.M (Becoming A Man) youth program counselor in Chicago; Angelo Townsend, a barber who mentored Flowers in Chicago; and Owens, whose third album, “Jesus High 2,” drops this year and who launched the youth empowerment campaign NERD last year. “They may not be names you hear every day, but they are individuals giving back to the African American community,” said Flowers, a fan of Owens’ music who reached out to the hip-hop artist when he learned of their connection to Campbell. “They are men who are comfortable with whom God created them to be.”

The fourth person to be profiled in “Nerds”? Flowers.

He has always been interested in the sciences, but he doubted whether he was smart enough to pursue a science career, largely because he struggled with standardized tests. “Where I am from, African American boys are geared more toward sports and music careers and not necessarily STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, except kids who realize their ability and have mentors cultivating their potential,” Flowers said. “You have to have the right support system and their willingness to show you that you are capable of being successful in STEM courses.”

He had that, he said. His father often took him to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and bought him his first chemistry set. His mother worked in a hospital and helped him prepare for science fair competitions. And an elementary school teacher once said to him: “Don’t you want to be a doctor like Dr. Huxtable on The Cosby Show?”

All of that was encouraged, he said. When he was a biology and chemistry major at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, he completed summer research programs at Northwestern University, Nebraska and the University of Tennessee at Memphis. His hope was to show graduate programs he was capableof advanced STEM studies despite his standarized test scores.

After graduating from Saint Xavier in 2004, he served as a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, University of Chicago, and Environmental Protection Agency. He later completed a master’s in biotechnology and chemical science from Roosevelt University before enrolling at Campbell in 2011 to pursue a Master of Science in Clinical Research and a Doctor of Pharmacy.

At Campbell, he’s working with Emily Bloom, the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences’ director of science outreach, and Ronnie Chapman, director of CPHS’ Retention and Recruitment Committee, to develop a summer program called BrainSTEM that introduces minority students in middle and high school to STEM careers through hip-hop music.

He’s also starting a chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS). He co-founded other NSCS chapters at Saint Xavier and Roosevelt, where, through one of the organization’s programs, PACE, he mentored elementary and high school students. “Mentoring is needed to get more African Americans into higher education and STEM fields,” said Flowers, who’s interested in a career in clinical pharmacogenomics research, and who spent this past summer in Philadelphia working in the research lab of Dr. Carl June, director of translational medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center. “I want to play a role in showing kids there are other fascinating career opportunities possible for them to achieve too.”

All the while, Flowers has continued to work with his sister on “Nerds.” They interviewed Jackson, the youth program counselor, earlier this year for a short segment for the Storyhunters POV/PBS “American Promise” series that aired during Black Achievement Week last February. Since then, they have filmed segments of Townsend’s story in Chicago and plan to film Owens’ story. Owens was also in Buies Creek this past August to shoot segments for “Nerds,” which will open with his song “NERD Power” when completed.

“We want to show everyone has special talents and unique God-given gifts; you just don’t always recognize it,” Flowers said. “But when you do, that’s when you realize you are a nerd, too.”