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 like Bruce Springsteen have sprouted on college campuses in recent years. Dyson himself said he's previously taught classes on Tupac Shakur and Marvin Gaye at the University of Pennsylvania. He said 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.” The 75-minute 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 Beyonce 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.”
The chairman of Georgetown's sociology department, Timothy Wickham-Crowley, said he supports Dyson's course for trying to show how Jay-Z's music fits into American society, and Steve Stoute, an author and marketing executive who has done business with Jay-Z and has spoken to the class, said the course has practical value for students interested in business.
But others have concerns.
Kevin Powell, who writes about hip-hop and has run unsuccessfully for Congress in Brooklyn, said any discussion of Jay-Z should account for what Powell says are the rapper's derogatory lyrics toward women and his expressions of excessive materialism. Kris Marsh, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in the black middle class, said that while she appreciated Jay-Z's cultural significance, she was wary of structuring an entire course around him and using his narrative alone to reflect black America. Though hip-hop artists can focus a lens on urban life, she said, “sometimes these artists use poetic license” and blend fact and fiction to an audience that is often suburban and white.
“We're not sure if it's fiction or real life. It can be almost indistinguishable sometimes in hip-hop,” she said.
In an opinion piece published in the student newspaper, The Hoya, junior Stephen Wu dismissed as “poppycock” Dyson's belief that Jay-Z could be compared to Homer or Shakespeare.
“It speaks volumes that we engage in the beat of Carter's pseudo-music while we scrounge to find serious academic offerings on Beethoven and Liszt. We dissect the lyrics of ‘Big Pimpin’ but we don't read Spenser or Sophocles closely,” Wu wrote.
Danielle Bailey, a senior international business and marketing major who is taking the class, said she was a Jay-Z fan before enrolling but now has greater appreciation for his business acumen.
“I know a lot of people are upset, but I think the point of college is to think outside the box. I rarely have classes that allow me to look at things differently,” she said, adding, “It's not always about Mozart and Homer.”
Dyson makes no apologies, saying the course is a conduit for studying the “major themes of American life” and that hip-hop artists at their best deserve to be classified alongside literary luminaries.
Jay-Z was on tour and not available for an interview, his representative said. But Dyson, who considers himself a friend of the rapper, says Jay-Z has told him he appreciates the course. And Bailey said she heard Jay-Z give a “shout-out” to the class at a recent concert of his she attended.
“You're doing the class there,” Dyson said Jay-Z told him. “I'm doing kind of the master class while I'm in concert.”