The recent media attention focused on Professor Michael Eric Dyson’s course on rapper Jay-Z, which he teaches at Georgetown University, has been both gift and curse. On the one hand, the media spotlight from The Today Show to the Washington Post provides those of us scholars who teach hip-hop a continuing platform for public engagement. On the other hand, the attacks on the Jay-Z course are part of an anti-Hip Hop Studies backlash that must be defended.
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Criticism lands within one or both of the following camps. First, it has rattled the cages of ghosts of history’s past where black culture is undermined and undervalued, a literal “Murder To Excellence” which Jay-Z and Kanye West depict on their 2011 album Watch The Throne. Second, detractors are wedded to an intellectual cannon to which, they insist, Jay-Z has no place.
Professor Dyson, as a sociologist, sees the value of Jay-Z as a towering figure of arts and letters, apropos for academic inquiry. Dyson and the scores of other professors around the country teaching and writing about hip-hop in the academy for well over a decade, take their cue from literary forebears who have come to represent the Western intellectual canon.
Scholars like Dyson recognize educational value of the canon like Homer, who writes in The Odyssey: “Among all men on the earth bards have a share of honor and reverence, because the muse has taught them songs and loves the race of bards.”
Dyson’s critics have no beef with Homer. But rather than widen the net, they criticize Jay-Z instead.
“This trendy juvenile nonsense happening at Georgetown is a very bad sign… They are manifestations of a deadly malignancy,” writes a commenter on an article entitled, “NBC Cheers College Course on Rapper Jay-Z By Left-Wing Professor Michael Eric Dyson,” written by Kyle Drennen on Lucianne.com.
In an op-ed within the Georgetown University paper, “The Hoya,” Stephen Wu concurs: “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. Our pedagogical commitments are disordered.”
It was with critics like these in mind that led to my anthology “Jay-Z: Essays on Hip-Hop’s Philosopher King” published earlier this year. One of the contributors, Nicole Hodges-Persley, sees Jay-Z through a Homeric lens in her essay “The Freestyle Remixing of an Afro-Homeric Oral Tradition.”
“I pay specific attention to three phases of Jay-Z’s artistic development which find synergy with the practices of oral epic singers as outlined by Albert Lord in A Singer of Tales, says Dr. Hodges-Persley who teaches a hip-hop course at Kansas University called “Hip-Hop in Popular Culture.”
“Jay-Z’s development as a rapper parallels that of oral epic singers as many facets of Greek oral narrative composition are recast in his Hip-hop freestyle practices,” she writes.
Opponents of Hip-Hop Studies should take a look at Jay-Z’s “Meet the Parents” while reading Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex,” as is being done by A.D. Carson at Benedictine University in Springfield, Illinois. Or take a trip to the University of Illinois-Chicago and check in with Dr. David Stoval a Policy Studies professor who teaches hip-hop there. Or meet me at Wittenberg University where we engage in Emerson, Plato, Nietzsche and Voltaire while discussing Jay-Z along with the time-rich tradition of canonized excellence.
Homer states, in “The Odyssey”: “By their own follies they perished, the fools.” Taking his lead, I could have chosen to leave the carcasses of provincialism spewed by hip hop studies’ critics to rot unburied, exposed to its obscenity so that all can see what the face of the enemy of Liberal Education and Radical Pedagogy looks like. But I couldn’t. And my response is as consistent to my academic role, as it is my human duty to bury the dead.
It is a moral duty, one in which Sophocles’ “Antigone” spoke of quite well. So does Jay-Z in his rap song “Meet the Parents”:
Let’s take a trip down memory, lane at the cemetery
Rain, grey skies, seems at the end of every
young (Critics) life is this line, “Damn – him already?
Such a good kid,” got us pourin Henn’ already
‘Til the next time I see you, on the other side
He was just some thug (of a critic) that, caught some slugs
And we loved him cause, in him we, saw some of us
He walked like us, talked like us
His (academic) back against the wall, he even fought like us – damn.
Dyson, Hodges, and Carson are building on a tradition that includes the work of Mark Anthony Neal (Duke University), Tricia Rose (Brown University), Murray Foreman (Northeastern University), Marcyliena Morgan (Harvard University) and many others who recognize that the lyrical cries and visceral tales of those who operate within Hip Hop culture are tragically and triumphantly American. More so, they are deeply human.
Julius Bailey is Professor of Philosophy at Wittenberg University and Editor of “Jay-Z: Essays on Hip Hop’s Philosopher King” (McFarland Publishing Inc, 2011). www.juliusbailey.com