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:
Now please, domino, domino
Only spot a few blacks the higher I go
What’s up to Will? Shout out to O
That ain’t enough—we gonna need a million more…
So while credit goes to Will Smith and the big Os, presumably Obama or Oprah, the list is way too short for Jay-Z. That line is clearly “a political statement,” Dyson says, with Jay declaring that if he “can name them by name,” there are not enough black moguls.
A close reading suggests other subtleties in the lyrics. The “domino” repetition is probably not merely a rhyming device. Variations of the game, like Chickenfoot Dominos, award the highest score to the player with the fewest black dots, known as “pips.” So in Jay’s parallel, the higher one goes in elite society, the fewer blacks one sees. (Again: “Domino, domino / Only spot a few blacks the higher I go.”)
The point may not be immediately apparent to listeners, but that’s why we have hip-hop class.
While Dyson is zeroing in on America’s favorite rapper, broader hip-hop studies have been spreading across many campuses. Over 300 hip-hop classes cropped up around the country, NYU launched a Hip Hop and Pedagogy Initiative in 2007, and the McNally Smith College of Music now offers the only accredited hip-hop diploma in the United States.
So, what would Jay-Z make of all this?
For starters, the subject respects the instructor.
“Dyson could have been someone’s older brother on my block,” Jay-Z once wrote, “when I was coming up in the Marcy projects in Bed-Stuy.” That street credentialing is from Jay’s introduction to Know What I Mean?, the professor’s 2007 book on hip hop. It continues:
How many folk out there can talk about pimping in terms laid out by Hegel? Or use Kant to explain the way that prison fashion moved from the cellblock to the city block?
Pretty special props from a rapper who boasts about going from abject poverty to a $450 million fortune without much training. (“Teacher said I was a lost cause / cause I used to roam them halls,” he rapped in 1999, “Still I spit knowledge / dropped out of high school, skipped college / Who woulda thought I’d make it ‘Big’ like Ms. Wallace?”) Jay found a way to excel without higher education—a source of bragging rights—yet he also values erudition. That’s undeniably part of his work and, increasingly, part of his ambition beyond music.
Dyson said he has texted Jay about the class, including an open invite for a visit. The two men also talked about the curriculum last month, when they connected at a New York fundraiser for the Shawn Carter Foundation.
“He was pretty amazed that students were taking this class seriously,” Dyson recalled. The fundraiser, a freewheeling carnival on the Hudson River, was a big hit. It raised about a million dollars for Jay’s charity, which awards college scholarships to disadvantaged youth.
Photo of Jay-Z performing at a Philadelphia rally for Barack Obama on November 3, 2008. Credit: Bbsrock