At 30, Josh Rowsey, ’09, is finally discovering his authentic voice—and empowering other young people to find theirs through the power and language of hip-hop.
An artist, businessman, educator, mentor, and cultural ambassador, Rowsey defies singular characterization. “I’ve been blowing up boxes since my days at Cary Academy. I don’t live in a world of boxes; I define myself on my own terms.”
His journey has been one of constant self-discovery, taking him from China to Mexico, New York City to Durham, North Carolina, and from the boardroom to the stage to the classroom. Throughout, he’s been driven by a passion for hip-hop, inspired not only by its power for self-expression, but also as a tool to teach, redress injustice, and heal.
ON HIS OWN TERMS
Hip-hop has always been a defining force in Rowsey’s life. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, he threw himself into campus culture, joining Ebony Readers/Onyx Theatre, the spoken word and poetry performance group of UNC’s Black Student Movement, and forming and performing in his first hip-hop collective. Later, he would spearhead and found the UNC Cypher, a hip-hop tradition in which spoken word artists, rappers, musicians, and beatboxers freestyle together, each playing off the other.
After graduating from the UNC’s Kenan Flagler business school with a degree in business and a minor in Chinese, he moved to New York City, taking a job as an insurance analyst in the entertainment division of Chubb Insurance. There, immersed in the world of Wall Street wealth and privilege, he faced the difficult reality of how predominantly white power structures and industries profit off Black culture.
“It was 2014, and Beyonce was one of our clients. She had just shocked the world with the surprise drop of her iconic self-titled album, and everyone was going crazy,” he recalls. “It was so disruptive; heads of BMI—one of the largest music distributors in the world—were freaking out, asking, ‘Is she allowed to do this?’”
“As this was happening, I’m looking around, looking at board members, and I’m realizing, once again, I’m the only Black person in the room. I’m seeing how out of touch these executives are with Black music, Black culture.”
A review of BMI’s business plan put stark financial figures to Rowsey’s dawning realization. “I saw how much they were making off hip-hop and R&B—off their urban categories, their Black music categories. The largest profit margins in the industry are generated by Black music, but those reaping the benefits aren’t people that look like me; they aren’t part of hip-hop culture.”
In that moment, Rowsey heard what he calls his “whisper,” an internal voice that told him to find success as an artist on his terms and in ways that honored and supported his voice, hometown, and heritage. “I realized that it didn’t have to be in New York or LA or Atlanta, that I could build what I wanted as an artist at home; I could create an infrastructure that benefits my community.” With little concrete plan beyond his conviction, he took the leap of faith and submitted his notice a few days later.
LIVING HIS PURPOSE
“Everything opened up for me once I made that decision,” shares Rowsey. Returning to North Carolina, he threw himself back into the local entertainment industry, renewing contacts from his undergraduate days and immersing himself in the local music scene.
He interned at a comedy theater, trading labor for free improv classes, and worked the door at local music venues, networking and developing relationships with club owners and artists. Before too long, he was booking his own shows, performing again under his hip-hop stage name, Rowdy.
Working the stage at night, he landed a marketing day job with IndyWeek, an alternative weekly newspaper serving up progressive news, culture, and music commentary for the Triangle. He made his way up the ranks to become a staff music writer, cementing his status as a go-to hip-hop expert.
At IndyWeek, he connected with Pierce Freelon, a Grammy-nominated musician, author, educator, and activist whose Afrofuturist digital maker space for youth, Blackspace, happened to be in the same building. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Freelon, who would become an influential mentor, a “big brother,” tapped him as a facilitator for Blackspace’s hip-hop writing workshops. Rowsey worked with local Black and Brown youth in after-school programming, coaxing their voices out in bars before facing off in cyphers to trade verses.
“My very first workshop was at Durham School of the Arts,” recalls Rowsey. “I found myself connecting with the kids in a way that their teachers could not, especially those kids that had been labeled as ‘hard to reach.’ With hip-hop, I could connect—right off the cuff, right off the riff, on any sort of lesson, whether it was math, social studies, whatever.”
It was a transformative experience for Rowsey, one he credits as “instrumental” in shaping his artistry. Equally important, it unearthed a new passion and purpose: working with youth.
“I’ve always felt like I had to create my own space to truly express myself. It is a gift and a superpower to find your voice, to unlock your true self. I have the privilege of helping students do that,” offers Rowsey.
“Every kid has a story, regardless of race, sexual orientation—whatever—but a lot don’t feel like they have the tools or the space to express their truths. If I can go into a classroom and provide that space, those tools, then I am living in my purpose.”
ON THE RISE
With Rowsey’s visibility as both artist and educator on the rise, his passions aligned, and things took off.
While continuing his work with Blackspace, he also dropped his debut solo album, The Return of Black Wall Street, in 2017. Titled with a nod to the history of Black entrepreneurship in Durham, the album reflected on his experience growing up Black in Southern white suburbia.
A regular on hip-hop stages, he found himself increasingly tapped to emcee live events for the local PBS and NPR affiliate station, WUNC. These opportunities would later open doors to other radio and TV appearances, including a performance on BET’s revamped Freestyle Friday and a collaboration with PBS Kids. In “Classroom Connections,” Rowsey embodies the hip-hop persona Mr. R, “the teacher he always wanted but never had,” one who looks like him and sounds like him, to deliver STEM lessons for kids in kindergarten to third grade.
In 2018, Rowsey was appointed as Hip-Hop Ambassador to Mexico as part of the Next Level initiative, the U.S. Department of State’s cross-cultural exchange program. As Ambassador, he travels to Mexico, performing and collaborating with local artists and holding hip-hop workshops focused on conflict resolution through artistry and self-expression.
He was also tapped by Dr. Ben Frey of the University of North Carolina’s American Studies and Linguistics Department as an artist in residence at the New Kitawah Academy, a cultural and Cherokee language campus serving the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Over the year, he conducted on-site workshops with students, many of whom had never written complete sentences in Cherokee, to explore their language and identity.
“We are trying to revitalize the Cherokee language by utilizing hip-hop pedagogy and getting students more interested in using their Cherokee through hip-hop verses,” explains Rowsey.
A success, the program was presented as a case study at Western Carolina University’s annual Cherokee Symposium, putting Rowsey on the radar of leadership at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s School of Education and earning him an invitation to apply.
In his Master of Arts in Teaching program, Rowsey explored how to leverage hip-hop pedagogy in the ESL classroom, practices that he uses in his teaching today.
“My master’s program changed my life,” shares Rowsey. “I saw the light. I saw how hip-hop—how the skill set of being an emcee—was applicable to teaching.”
In many ways, Rowsey’s career represents a long journey of cathartic self-discovery that stems partly from Cary Academy roots. Rowsey’s CA experience was rich, but not without complications—at turns empowering and disenfranchising. “Cary Academy prepared me for a world that did not look like me or care to look like me,” he shares.
He’s quick to underscore the many positives of his sixth- through 12th-grade experience, singing the praises of the faculty who saw something in him and pushed him to succeed. He is keenly aware of the doors that CA swung open for him and how stepping through them shaped his outlook for the better, broadening the horizon of possibilities for his life.
A record-breaking swimmer and captain of the swim team, Rowsey cherishes memories of training with Coach Eric Moore and Mr. Pete, both important adults in his life with whom he remains in close contact. He credits the Middle School arts minor program as setting him on an essential path of creative discovery and his major—orchestra with Mr. Qiao—as developing and encouraging his musical talent. An AP Chinese student, he’s thankful for the two summers he traveled to China—the first time through a Cary Academy partnership with the Confucius Institute at NC State, the second as his world language exchange—for expanding his view of the world. He’s grateful for the mentorship of college counselor Laura Sellers who encouraged him to aim for UNC, believing in him when he did not believe in himself.
“Undoubtedly, CA prepared me for my future, and not just academically,” Rowsey reflects. “I would never have had my diversity of interests if not for CA. It showed me what was possible, that I didn’t just have to be one thing.”
“At CA, I learned to go out and crush my goals. And because of my experiences there, I knew how to navigate different rooms, how to operate in different environments that might have been initially uncomfortable for other men of color.”
He continues, “There is saying that Black people have to do twice as much to get half as far. We are always going to be questioned and have to prove ourselves. Heading into college, I kind of understood that mentality; I knew what I needed to do. I knew my abilities would sometimes be in question—like, why was I there? Why was I in the room? Did I have the grades? Was I smart enough to be there? But, because of CA, I knew how to see my goals and objectives, and I had enough of an understanding of who I was in the world that I could persevere and push through.”
At the same time, in the early 20-aughts, when the terms “white privilege,” “microaggression,” “cultural appropriation, and “gaslighting” were not part of the regular cultural vernacular, there was an institutional lack of awareness and accountability for how race necessarily shaped Rowsey’s CA experience. The assimilation and codeswitching required to fit in and succeed were challenging to his sense of identity. Without anyone to share his perspective and the unique challenges he faced as the only Black male student, there was little support for his authentic self or what he was going through. At times, it was exceedingly difficult.
“I had this truth that no one believed or acknowledged until recently,” shares Rowsey. It is a fracture that both Rowsey and CA are working hard toward healing.
Over the last couple of years, Cary Academy’s anti-racist work, an effort that has included engaging in honest and, at times, difficult conversations with alums of color about their experiences, has created a space for an honest reckoning in which Rowsey has found validation. It has opened the door to transformative institutional dialogue that has yielded meaningful positive change on campus. For Rowsey, it has presented an opportunity for collaboration that has hastened his healing by ensuring the next generation of CA scholars of color has a more inclusive experience.
For the last two years, Rowsey has returned to CA as an artist in residence, working with the 7th-grade language arts team. Conducting his signature hip-hop workshops, he mentors students as they develop original works they perform in the now-annual Poetry and HipHop Showcase. Last year, he also participated in an Ubuntu virtual panel, presenting on the role of identity and voice in social justice efforts.
The experiences have been cathartic for Rowsey, who has witnessed first-hand the essential efforts that CA has undertaken since his graduation in 2009. He’s appreciative not only of CA’s improved diversity, but also for the crucial work of equity and inclusion that demands support for and celebration of different identities and cultures, not merely representation.
Reflecting on his most recent workshop, Rowsey is emotional. “I’m thankful for how CA is developing. I’ve never seen so many Black and brown students on campus. To see them not only in the classroom but outside at lunch with their own friend group, to see faculty of color, to have the privilege to teach a class in hip-hop and poetry, something that has been so important to my sense of self—I wish I had that when I was at CA.
“To be able to make an impact on those students of color, to help give them what I didn’t have, to connect with them around their experiences, our experiences—it feels like I am making an impact. To play even a small role in their future, it means a whole lot.”
He continues, “Whatever negative experiences I might have gone through, they’ve been turned into a positive light that I can share with today’s students. And it’s been a metamorphosis for me. As much as I’m trying to teach this curriculum to them, they are also teaching me, helping me unlock myself.”
THE FUTURE AHEAD
Today, Rowsey is at a crossroads. Opportunity after opportunity unfolds before him, validating that whisper he heard in New York all those years ago.
Currently employed as an ESL teacher with Guilford County Schools, he’s hesitant to leave the classroom. His most recent teaching data demonstrating a 77% increase in his students’ test scores is a point of pride, a testament not only to his skill as an educator, but also his commitment to his students.
His work with Blackspace continues to be gratifying and, in the waning pandemic, has expanded (he is now Program Director and sits on the board). In 2021, he worked with fellow Blackspace facilitator Reginald “rem” Morin to spin off a record label. OnlyUs LLC, which released Freelon’s Grammy-nominated album Black to the Future as its first album. He’s excited to work with several up-and-coming artists, graduates of Blackspace’s after-school talent incubator. And he has been laying the foundations for some exciting community partnerships that are in the early stages and for which the next year will be crucial.
Most recently, he has been accepted into UNC-Greensboro’s Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations PhD program, where he may further explore how the intersections of hip-hop and education, both in performance and pedagogy, can be used in the K-12 classroom.
It is a pivotal moment for Rowsey, who carefully weighs his options. “Everything seems to be right in front of me. Right now, I’m living in my truth, finding my authentic voice. That can be scary, but it is a beautiful thing—to just be in the moment, figuring
He’s living the advice he shares with his students: “There is no deadline in figuring out who you are.”