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.