Georgetown University course studies Jay-Z’s lyrics Rap-ology 101
By ERIC TUCKER
Michael Eric Dyson parses Jay-Z’s lyrics as if analyzing fine literature. The rapper’s riffs on luxury cars and tailored clothes and boasts of being the “Mike Jordan of recording” may make for catchy rhymes, but to Dyson, they also reflect incisive social commentary.
Dyson, a professor, author, radio host and television personality, has offered at Georgetown University this semester a popular — if unusual — class dedicated to Jay-Z and his career. The course, “Sociology of Hip-Hop: Jay-Z,” may seem an unlikely offering at a Jesuit, majority-white school that counts former President Bill Clinton among its alumni. But Dyson insists that his class confronts topics present in any sociology course: racial and gender identity, sexuality, capitalism and economic inequality.
“It just happens to have an interesting object of engagement in Jay-Z — and what better way to meet people where they are?” Dyson said. “It’s like Jesus talking to the woman at the well. You ask for a drink of water, then you get into some theological discussions.”
Classes centered on pop culture superstars such as Bruce Springsteen have sprouted on college campuses in recent years; Dyson himself says he’s previously taught classes on Tupac Shakur and Marvin Gaye at the University of Pennsylvania. He says Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, is a worthy subject because of his diversity of business interests — a clothing entrepreneur, he’s also a part owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets (soon to move to his native New York borough of Brooklyn) — as well as his immense cross-cultural appeal and “lyrical prowess” in articulating contemporary black culture and his place in it.
“I think he’s an icon of American excellence,” Dyson said.
Though hardly as rigorous as organic chemistry, the course does have midterm and final examinations and required readings, including from Jay-Z’s book, “Decoded.” Classes — the final one is Wednesday — focus more on African-American culture and business than on the particulars of the rapper’s biography, which include millions in record sales, Grammy Awards, a marriage to Beyonc with a baby on the way and tours with Kanye West and Eminem.
One recent lecture centered on how popular black artists reflect their culture and race to the public at large, with Dyson name-dropping LL Cool J, Diahann Carroll and Bill Cosby. The professor and one student went back and forth on whether the rapper’s lyrical depictions of his extravagant lifestyle — “Used to rock a throwback, balling on the corner/Now I rock a Teller suit, looking like an owner” is one of many examples — amounted to bragging and rubbing his taste for fine living in the faces of his listeners.
The student took the position that Jay-Z appears overly boastful, but Dyson countered that the rapper, who grew up in a Brooklyn housing project but has since become a multimillionaire, has never lost his ability to relate to the struggles of everyday people and has continued giving voice to their concerns. Though Jay-Z raps about Saint-Tropez and expensive cigars, he also talks about being nurtured by Brooklyn. And in one song, “99 Problems,” he attacks racial profiling with a stark depiction of a racially motivated traffic stop: “Son, do you know why I’m stopping you for?” the officer asks. Jay-Z replies: “‘Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low.”