There wasn’t actually a fireplace, but a fireside chat format worked just fine for Siena students to virtually interview one of the top Black entrepreneurs in the country.

Kareem “Biggs” Burke, co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records and Rocawear Clothing, was the April 15 keynote speaker for Siena’s 7th annual Hip Hop Week, a celebration of a quintessentially American music and culture form.

Biggs, who founded his companies with childhood friend and rap legend Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, spoke about the circumstances he overcame on the road to business success, the imprint of Roc-A-Fella on hip hop, and the decline of the label model in the recording industry and the rise of NFTs, which he says will give power back to performing artists.

When asked how he would advise up-and-coming artists, he encouraged them to be savvy about the business end of their art.

“There's so many deals that are so-called ‘industry standards’ that are terrible deals,” Biggs said. “People should learn everything they can about the music business, because you could be doing good independently, and think you need to get with a major, and when you do, you end up spending a lot on things you didn’t have to.”

Todd Snyder, Ph.D., associate professor of rhetoric and writing at Siena and organizer of Hip Hop Week, said Biggs was the first keynote speaker from the business side rather than the performing side of hip hop. 

“Biggs was the one at Roc-A-Fella in charge of the business decisions, and he turned the music into a fashion, film and lifestyle brand,” said Snyder. “He shed light on this component of the industry and talked about mentoring young rappers.” 

Several students from his Rhetoric of Hip Hop Culture class served as interviewers.  

Cassandra Cooper ’24 said it was fascinating to learn about the man who helped make the record label that produced a lot of her favorite songs and albums, and who eventually managed a promising new artist named SAINt JHN. 

“He decided to become his manager after not really focusing on music for many years, but he saw a bright future for this young man and wanted to be a part of it,” said Cooper. “It was so interesting and exciting to be able to talk to such a prominent businessman in the music and fashion industry. It was truly inspiring to hear his story and how composed he was answering all these questions from college students. It's such a crazy experience that I would have never received if I didn't go to Siena.”

“I have always been into rap music, so overall this experience was one of the most memorable moments of my college career so far.”

Christina Noeldechen ’21 got to ask Biggs about his time working with Kanye West. 

“There have been many claims about Kanye in the media the past few years, and he has always been a controversial person. However, being able to ask Biggs about one of his greatest friends and someone he enjoys working with gave us all a fresh perspective on Mr. West.”

He also gave the students the insider perspective on hip hop fashion, and what it was like creating a brand from the ground up. 

“His story is inspirational, as he was able to rise up with his friends and live his life doing something he loves,” said Noeldechen. “That in and of itself was impressive. Hip Hop Week has to be one of the coolest events I've ever participated in at Siena.”

Kiera Mitru ’21 learned about Burke’s impact and entrepreneurial spirit within the hip-hop community from her class. 

“Co-hosting this event initially made me nervous, but as our conversation continued on, I found myself being comfortable chatting with a prominent figure in hip-hop history - how cool is that? I am so grateful to Dr. Snyder for organizing this opportunity, as well as my classmates for helping to curate this event!”

DezMariah Cosgrove ’23 “loved every second” of speaking with Biggs.

“He is a huge influence in the world of hip hop, and he is such a down to earth guy. He gave some great advice for college kids looking to be successful like he is.” 

Burke granted permission to share the recording of the event with the Siena community. His keynote address was sponsored by Siena’s Diversity Action Committee.