Melvin Villaver, IRT ’18: Right Here Right Now

It is Tuesday, January 31, 2023, and as I begin to write this piece, it is 8:12 PM. I am currently at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the Delta A terminal awaiting my flight back to my home near Indianapolis, Indiana. The specificity of my location and the timing of all of this is important because ten years ago, I could have never imagined being right here right now. 

On this date in 2013, I was in my junior year at the University of Southern California (USC). As a native Angeleno, attending USC was always my dream, but truthfully it wasn’t always promised to me. I grew up on Normandie Avenue, one of the longest streets in the city. People from my neighborhood have to be tough. If you have ever met me in person, I am very transparent about the fact that I grew up in Black and Brown, working-class Los Angeles. Drugs, violence, and crime-plagued my neighborhood, by no fault of our own, but rather the political, socioeconomic, and racial institutional inequities that robbed us of a fair chance. My parents are Filipino immigrants, and I grew up a latchkey kid, as they often clocked in extra hours at work to provide for my siblings and me. While we may have lacked financial flexibility, equity, and assets, my parents made sure to provide an overabundance of love in our home. 

Melvin Villaver, IRT ’18

I attended Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools for my K-12 years, the same LAUSD that the famed education documentary, Waiting for Superman called a “dropout factory.” By age 15, I was on the fast track to adding my name to that dropout list. As a teenager, I began making Hip Hop music and started running with the local rap crews. While I was in high school, I was notorious for playing hooky. Rather than sit in the drop-out factory for eight hours a day, I often opted to hang out at Underground Studios in Inglewood, California until four or five in the morning, perfecting my craft of producing beats and writing, performing, and recording my lyrics. I didn’t see the need to be an exemplary student because I knew the educational system was failing me.

The state curriculum was largely Eurocentric, and quite frankly the morale of the LAUSD student body was particularly low because we were more focused on the financial situations of our families than on school. We weren’t afforded the privileges of time, resources, and support to focus on being good students. 

I narrowly graduated from Nathaniel Narbonne High School in 2010, with a 1.7 unweighted GPA. I was only able to make my transcript satisfactory for culmination by bribing the Dean of Students with a $100 Starbucks gift card to waive my truancies, and by taking summer and evening college courses at a local community college during my senior year, where those units counted towards my high school diploma. Even then, I didn’t take my education seriously. It was in the summer after I graduated from high school when my mother lovingly asked me what I was doing with my life, that an epiphany occurred. She asked me if I planned to enroll in college. I told her that school was not needed to become a rich and famous Hip Hop artist and that that was where my ambitions lay. She scoffed at the idea that I was not going to continue my education. I still remember her saying, “Melvin, your father, and I did not immigrate to the United States to not have our children earn a college degree.” At that moment, after hearing the cadence of her voice, I understood that my education was bigger than me. She told me that she would continue to support my music career and allow me to continue living at home, only if I promised to enroll in college. She said, “Baby, you can do both.” And even though I was still resisting the idea that I needed to go to school, I heard her. 

Luckily, those courses that I took at Los Angeles Southwest Community College (LASC) in my last-ditch effort to graduate from high school proved to be favorable for me. I had amassed twenty transferable college credits in this process. Since I had already been enrolled in junior college and had experience taking college classes, I didn’t need to re-enroll or get accustomed to a new campus. Shortly after the conversation with my mother, I registered for a full course load for the Fall 2010 semester at LASC. That semester, I thrived. I was still immersing myself in the Los Angeles music scene, while simultaneously immersing myself in my studies. I finished that semester with straight A’s, for no other reasons than my own grit, will, and determination to honor my parents’ sacrifices of leaving the Philippines for a better life for us. During that 
first semester, I made the Dean’s Honor Roll, and in this process, I began thinking seriously about transferring to university. I set my intentions on USC, my dream school, and feverishly finished the next three semesters at LASC at the top of my class. 

At USC, I continued to thrive. I still made music in L.A., this time graduating to Hollywood studios owned by major record labels before eventually building my own home studio. I leveraged my practical musicianship to earn acceptance into USC’s Thornton School of Music where I would go on to earn a minor in Music Industry. I majored in American Studies, studying music from a humanities and historical perspective, thinking about the ways in which music soundtracks our everyday life and preserves our culture and history. At USC, I learned that my mother was right. I could do both, and at the highest levels. While in undergrad, I fell in love with the grind of the academic year and even began to consider graduate school. I was the beneficiary of excellent mentorship, and the faculty with whom I worked closely encouraged me to participate in undergraduate research that married my theoretical and practical understanding of music. I was eventually encouraged to apply for the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers, and the rest is history. 

Presently, I am a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana where I study the intersections of music, race, history, politics, disability, and culture. I have never stopped making music and have even found ways to integrate my practice into my scholarship. My dissertation committee is truly amazing, as they have supported my petition to submit a creative work – a rap album as my dissertation. My dissertation album tackles themes of Filipino racialization and identity politics in America from a sonic perspective. I utilize my time in the archive mining the field of Filipino American studies to inform the music and lyrics of each song that I am crafting for submission. This brings me to today. 

Yesterday, on Monday, January 30th, I participated in an in-person interview for a newly created tenure-track assistant professor position at a tier-one research institution. This position is a joint appointment in the Global Black Studies program and the department of Performing Arts, where the new hire is being asked to teach courses on Black Music and Urban Music Production. As I write this, I will not know if I have been offered the position for a few more weeks as the committee vets the candidates. However, I have never seen a professor posting more perfect for me. I sit here with extreme confidence that I gave them my absolute best effort during their marathon itinerary. During the interview day, I sat through many meetings with faculty, students, and administrators, conducted a research presentation, and a teaching demonstration where they asked me to exemplify my knowledge of audio technology and music production.

If you would have told me in 2013, that I’d be applying and interviewing to become a tenure track professor of Black Music (Blues Epistemology), both theoretical and practical, I would have scoffed at you in the way my mother previously scoffed at me during the summer of 2010. I didn’t know that positions like this existed back then, let alone that I would be embarking on an academic career where the focus on my work has been actively continuing my practice of music while simultaneously honing my research, writing, teaching, mentoring, and oration skills. The truth is, I don’t think they did exist, as this position has been newly created at this specific institution to service a need made apparent at the request of its students. However, my commitment to my musicianship has proved fruitful in my academic career as I have spent the last two years learning how to “do both,” as mama said.  

I’m so grateful to be a candidate for this job, and my new aim is to infiltrate the inner walls of the academy as faculty to make these institutions more accessible, equitable, and welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds like mine. During my time as a university student, both undergraduate and graduate, I’ve concluded that I am a gate opener, not a gatekeeper. I possess the skillsets and experience to dismantle systems of inequity from within. Through all of this, I still haven’t forgotten my roots. I’m still that kid that was raised off Normandie Avenue who loves rap music and loves Black and Brown culture. I vow to never lose sight of where I come from. I recognize that a lot of kids from my neighborhood didn’t make it to see the age of twenty-five, let alone attend and graduate from college. I labor with my community in mind every day, and these degrees and projects are my way of honoring my Normandie Avenue origins. 

I leave you with this: follow your passions and purpose, and make sure that any opportunity that you say yes to is aligned with your entire being. It is possible to pursue academia on your terms. I’m discovering that I am living proof of that. I wish everyone reading this the best of luck in their pursuits. Stay integral and committed to who you are. You never know where you’ll be in ten years. 

UPDATE: Clemson University offered me the position to be their first-ever tenure track Assistant Professor of Global Black Studies and Music/Performing Arts. Although there is a pending negotiation phase currently going on between us, I ultimately plan to accept their offer.
We did it IRT!

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