Jay-Z never went to college, but that won’t stop him from entering the canon.
This fall, Georgetown University launched its first-ever class devoted to the popular rapper, “Sociology of Hip Hop: Jay-Z,” with a syllabus promising units on “Hustling Hermeneutics” and the “Monster of the Double Entendre.” The course is taught by Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist with eighteen books under his belt, ranging from historical assessments of Martin Luther King to ruminations on the impact of Tupac.
“We wanted to take up a serious investigation of [Jay-Z’s] art and craft,” Dyson explained in an interview with The Nation. “Behind the billionaire sexiness of a pop cultural icon,” he says, it is worth considering “what the rhetorical and literary fuss is about.”
So far, students are lining up for the fuss.
Despite a 9:30 am start time, the class has 140 people enrolled—three times the size of a typical seminar. Assigned reading includes Decoded, Jay-Z’s guide to the backstories and references of his dense lyrics, and nonfiction by Adam Bradley, an English professor, and Zack O’Malley Greenburg, a Forbes reporter. Unlike most majors, however, these Georgetown students begin with a deep knowledge of the source material.
“They’re intimately familiar with the terrain,” Dyson says, “and they laugh at an old man like me—52 years old—[being] so intimately into the culture.” Millennials are uniquely attuned to the the music’s societal critique. “They understand that as a black man, [Jay-Z’s] humanity has been questioning from the beginning,” recounts Dyson. “Many are white kids—they bring a level of criticism about the culture they have emerged from,” he adds, “because they’ve seen that culture through Jay-Z’s eyes.”
Growing up on hip hop also impacted this generation’s views far beyond music. According to Dyson, this cohort was primed for the Obama coalition a long time ago.
The first black role models that millennials encountered were in hip hop, he says, which showed “these kids the legitimate cultural and intellectual authority that a black person might have, and to accept it as authoritative. [That] helped Barack Obama become president.”
In 2008, demography was definitely destiny. While many accounts of the election underplayed the age gap, a majority of American voters over 50 actually backed McCain. Obama won voters under 30, however, by a whopping thirty-six-point margin (66 percent to McCain’s 32 percent).
The ascendance of a handful of black Americans does not resolve all of America’s racial challenges, however, a point that both Obama and Jay-Z have made, in their own ways. On Jay’s latest album, Watch The Throne, his boasts of personal success are pinned squarely to the concern that very few black Americans have broken into the super-elite. “Success never smelled so sweet,” he raps, “I stink of success, the new black elite.” But who is that, exactly? The song continues: