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.”