Jay-Z 101: Georgetown sociology course focuses on rap star

Video: Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson's "Sociology of Hip-Hop" focuses on the life and work of superstar rapper Jay-Z.

It’s Monday morning at Georgetown University, and Michael Eric Dyson is on Page 176 of “Decoded,” the memoir of rap superstar Jay-Z.

Pacing the classroom in his boxy, Hoya-blue suit, the sociology professor pushes his glasses up his nose and dives into the rapper’s musings on race and self-image: “Jay-Z is speaking about the imagistic conception of blackness that is evoked in a white world thinking about black culture.”

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Students crammed into Dyson’s classroom jot this idea into their spiral notebooks, click-clack it into their laptops. It’s one of countless bullet points that cascade from the professor’s mind during what has become one of the most popular courses on campus — SOCI-124-01 or “Sociology of Hip-Hop — Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z.” It might be the only Georgetown course ever discussed on MTV.

The rap superstar, who escaped a hardscrabble youth in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects and rose to the forefront of American pop consciousness, is now being examined in the ivory towers of academia. These Hoyas know him as Hova. Shawn Carter. Beyonce’s husband. The 41-year-old who blurred the line between artist and entrepreneur and helped define the culture they grew up in. But Dyson is asking them to think bigger: “What’s the intellectual, theological, philosophical predicate for Jay-Z’s argument?”

Jay-Z will be at Verizon Center on Thursday for a concert with Kanye West, and so will a handful of Dyson’s students. But simply being a fan won’t translate into a passing grade.

“This is not a class meant to sit around and go, ‘Oh man, those lyrics were dope,’ ” says Dyson, a Princeton-educated author, syndicated radio host and ordained Baptist minister. “We’re dealing with everything that’s important in a sociology class: race, gender, ethnicity, class, economic inequality, social injustice. . . . His body of work has proved to be powerful, effective and influential. And it’s time to wrestle with it.”

In his lectures, Dyson wrestles with the idea of rap music’s inadvertent political gravity. “Hip-hop has globalized a conception of blackness that has had a political impact, whether or not it had a political intent,” he booms.

He draws parallels between the writings of civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois and the rhymes of the ’90s rap legend Notorious B.I.G. He examines Jay-Z’s adolescent street hustle as a late-capitalist aftershock of the dynamics sociologist Max Weber described in his 1905 work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” He explains how America’s 21st-century class struggles kindled the Occupy Wall Street protests — all against the backdrop of the rapper’s ascent from the bottom of the 99 percent to the tip-top of the 1.

It’s typical of what’s been going on in Dyson’s classroom on Monday and Wednesday mornings this semester — a lecture hall thick with ideas and bodies.

When the class reached its 80-student enrollment cap the first week of the semester, Dyson relocated to a bigger room that could seat 140 students. That’s the official head count, anyway.

“I didn’t have room in my schedule to take the class,” says senior Jackie Steves, who has been crashing lectures, with Dyson’s permission. “But I come whenever I can.”

After class, she swarms the podium alongside a dozen other students that help make up one of the most diverse gatherings at Georgetown, a university where minorities are 21 percent of the undergraduate student body.

“Just in this class existing, it shows me that there are unorthodox options in the most traditional universities and social structures in America,” says Tate Tucker, a sophomore also waiting to speak to the professor. “So, hopefully, I’ll be able to forge my own path, much like he has.”

Tucker isn’t talking about Jay-Z. He’s talking about Dyson, who has been star on campus since his arrival in 2007. “The word of mouth on Michael’s courses is huge,” says Timothy Wickham-Crowley, chairman of Georgetown’s sociology department. Wickham-Crowley argues that study of Jay-Z’s work is valuable from a sociological perspective because it resonates with a wide swath of humanity and sparks discussion. “When [Dyson] comes out of the classroom, he has students in tow and there are these animated, engaged conversations going on,” he says.

Georgetown’s Jay-Z course has also sparked conversations between students and the parents who sign their tuition checks — $40,920 for the 2011-2012 academic year. Ryan Zimmerman, a senior double-majoring in government and sociology, says his folks weren’t thrilled when he enrolled.

“Hip-hop didn’t exist when my parents were growing up with Billy Joel and Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones,” says Zimmerman. “My dad was like, ‘Excuse me? What?’ ”

Dyson understands. “I’m sure there’s a lot of push-back from some students’ parents,” he says. “But I tell them, ‘Bring your parents in here. Let them see what we’re doing. It might change their minds.’ ”

This is Dyson’s specialty — seeking out generation gaps in need of bridges. He’s an unabashed self-promoter who appears regularly on cable news, public radio and “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Part of his continuing mission has been to carry out the messy diplomacy between the hip-hop generation and its oft-dismissive elders.

“I’m a tweener, man! I couldn’t march with Dr. King and them. And I’m too old to be a hip-hopper,” the 53-year-old says during office hours. “But I’ve been granted honorary status in each generation. . . . I see my tongue as a bridge over which ideas can travel back and forth.”

Dyson offered his first university-level hip-hop course in 1995 at the University of North Carolina. Since then, he’s taught at Columbia, DePaul and the University of Pennsylvania, where he offered a course on Tupac Shakur using his 2002 book, “Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur,” as the primary textbook.

In recent years, Boston University has taught Bob Dylan and New York University has taught the Beatles, but college courses on rappers are rare. Courses on contemporary rappers are practically nonexistent.

Dyson sees his course as another step toward validating hip-hop to an older generation that often dismisses the music for its violence and misogyny. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have legitimate critiques,” Dyson says. “But the art form itself can’t be swept away.”

To steel that message at Georgetown, he’s dotted his syllabus with guest lecturers, including scholars Mark Anthony Neal and James Peterson, and Zack O’Malley Greenburg, a staff writer at Forbes whose “Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office” is also on the course’s reading list. Traditional sociology texts aren’t, but Dyson expects students to reference the theorists he cites during class in term papers and exams.

And Dyson is still trying to land a bigger classroom cameo: Jay-Z himself. He’s friendly with the rapper and has been courting him to campus, often sending him raps via text message. “I spit him some rhymes on text,” Dyson says. “How crazy am I?”

On Monday, Jay-Z texted him back: “Hearing great things about the class! Thank you and keep representing the poetry! Respect, j.” (The rapper declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“It would be an honor and a coup,” Dyson says of a potential visit. “He knows what we’re doing.”

And the students know he knows. Dyson likes to boast of his elbow-rubbing in class, referencing recent chats he’s had with the likes R&B singer Trey Songz and the Rev. Jesse Jackson— the subject of a smaller seminar course Dyson is also teaching at Georgetown this semester. (Jackson visited the class.)

The only cameo in Monday’s lecture comes from Omekongo Dibinga, Dyson’s teaching assistant, who also plays iPod DJ. He cues up “Minority Report,” a bruising 2006 dirge that Dyson describes as “one of the most poignant and powerful songs on Hurricane Katrina.”

Lamenting the helplessness of the poor and peering deep into the rapper’s own conscience, it’s one of Jay-Z’s sharpest critiques of the system — and himself.

“Sure, I ponied up a mill, but I didn’t give my time.

So in reality, I didn’t give a dime, or a damn.

I just put my monies in the hands,

of the same people that left my people stranded.”

Heads bob to the song’s sobering beat. Lips silently move along with the lyrics. Even the students sitting frozen in their seats are listening carefully, trying to learn what a black kid from the projects of Marcy can teach us about America and ourselves.

 
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