In middle school, I repeatedly listened to Lupe Fiasco’s hit singles “The Show Goes On” and “Battle Scars”, so when I heard he was teaching at MIT this spring, I had to take his class.
My friend Wenjun H. ’25 had the same idea. Near the end of last semester, we got brunch together at Cafe Luna, a nearby diner. We talked about Lupe’s course and came up with various ridiculous schemes to get in, since we were sure it would be oversubscribed.
“I’ve written a few raps,” Wenjun said. “What about you?”
“Get me out of Arizona/the only one who can save me is Rona,” I riffed, referencing Wenjun’s only current internship offer in Tempe, which he desperately wanted to avoid due to summer heat.
He seemed impressed. “You came up with that on the spot? Well, you do get to rhyme things with your name.”
Throughout winter break and IAP, Wenjun texted me, asking to check if Lupe was in his office. I went to the fourth floor of building 14 a few times, but he was never in.
Yesterday, Wenjun sent me a series of texts: he’s here he’s here! I raced over and found Wenjun, Lupe, and another guy sitting in the office.
The other person introduced himself as Ajay, the TA. Apparently he produced his own songs, but when I searched him up on Apple Music, there were dozens of results. “Which one are you?” I scrolled and scrolled.
“Here, I’ve got it,” Ajay said, taking my phone.
As Ajay found his profile for me, Lupe sighed. “This is what I was telling him. Branding is important. You need to come up with a rap name.”
“My rap name is Flavius,” Wenjun offered.
“No, it’s not,” Lupe said.
“I want it to be Flavius.”
“It’s not Flavius.”
At some point during his office hours, Lupe asked us what kind of person shouldn’t take his class.
“People who don’t like to rap,” I said.
“Because . . . there’s rapping in this class.” Being flip wasn’t going to help me get in, so I decided to give a better response. “Okay, how about people who struggle with being vulnerable. A lot of writing is about sharing something true to yourself, and rap is such an explosive medium that asks for so much rawness. It’s not easy to open up, so those who are guarded and not willing to share their inner life probably shouldn’t be in this class.”
Wenjun replied to the question too, and then it was Ajay’s turn. He said, “NPCs.”
Lupe seemed mystified. “What are NPCs?”
“Non-playable characters, like in a video game,” I said. I’d seen the terminology floating around Twitter. I knew what Ajay was gesturing at.
Ajay nodded. “Like people who don’t really think outside of the box. People who are just taking this class because Lupe is famous.”
“People who just accept whatever is in front of them,” I added. I didn’t bring up any of my misgivings with the term NPC.
There are many obvious reasons why it is wrong to think of fellow humans as NPCs, but perhaps the most obvious of all is that nobody is actually an NPC.
When I was three or four years old, I realized for the first time that everybody else experienced thought like me. Everyone I saw—my parents, my neighbors, other grocery store shoppers—went about every minute of life with observations, emotions, questions just like me. My astonishment was visceral: it felt like I had eaten something unexpectedly cold, and the numbing discomfort pressed its fingers into every inch of my body.
Nobody is an NPC because everyone is playing themselves. But we could also argue that everyone else is an NPC because we can never play anyone other than ourselves, anyway.
Philosophy aside, it has always felt wrong to lean into the “NPC” terminology because it seems dehumanizing to reduce anybody to such a label.
Okay, but maybe I’m taking things too literally. Fine. Let’s use NPC as shorthand for someone who is dull, who doesn’t aspire to do anything particularly ambitious or creative, who is happy just getting a stable job and living a comfortable life.
But NPC-ness is a spectrum, not a binary, just as all the factors that contribute to one’s NPC-ness (risk tolerance, intellectual curiosity, self-awareness, etc.) exist upon a spectrum. In some intellectual, abstract discussion, the sort spun in a room full of overstuffed armchairs and yellowed books, I think everybody would agree with this. Humans are nuanced and multidimensional.
But that’s reductive, too, to claim that because we can never really know what exists inside of somebody else, that it is fruitless to judge them. Lupe needed some evaluative method to cut most students from his class, as it was vastly oversubscribed. And I certainly have been subjected to many painful conversations with people who clearly hadn’t invested much thought or awareness into the topic at hand.
Usually, I don’t frame the discerning question as, is this person an NPC? but rather as does this person care about the same things as me? What do they seek from their relationships, their career, their lives? What questions do they want to answer? What axioms do they accept? How much agency do they exert, and where are they exerting that agency?
It feels like a less morally-prescriptive framework for evaluating whether or not I may be on the same wavelength as someone else.
Lupe said he wouldn’t tell us if we’d gotten into the class or not, but he appreciated that we had visited his office. That was our cue to leave.
In the elevator, Wenjun and I dissected the meeting, speculating on their opinions of us.
“Hey, thanks for texting me,” I said. “Remember me when you become a famous rapper. Flavius Flav.”
Wenjun was a math and computer science double major. He’d told me his dad still checked his grades, even though he was a sophomore in college. He texted me about his quant interviews and took six or seven classes a semester. In high school, he participated in contest math and competitive programming. It would be so easy to dismiss him as one of those sheltered nerds with strict Asian immigrant parents. An NPC.
But he loved history, too: he had recently gone on a trip to explore Roman ruins, his MIT Kerberos was flavius, he was writing a novel about Alexander the Great. It wasn’t just that he appreciated the humanities. It was that he was curious about so much, and that made him very interesting.
If I had rushed to judge him, would I have missed out on a potential friendship? How many possible connections have I squandered due to a hasty assumption? How many people have dismissed me as an NPC or otherwise not worth knowing?
Maybe these relationships rely on curiosity. Genuine interest in learning about someone else, in updating one’s flawed beliefs. The ability to perceive truth without the conduit of ego.
Curiosity, and courage: