And I argue that even though he’s world-famous and globally acclaimed, he’s really underrated for the kind of sophisticated nuanced deployment of homophones, metonymy, simile, metaphor, braggadocio, allusion. That stuff is just dripping throughout his lyrics. Plus, he’s putting that poetry to music. He’s rapping to a beat. It’s pretty remarkable that he does this without writing a single word down. It’s like Homer, you know, in terms of an oral tradition. He’s able to say what he has to say and record how he thinks and feels with such accuracy and poignancy. And to command a wide range of reference to culture and pop culture and intellectual culture. So, it was a delicious treat to be able to share some of that stuff in the book, stuff I’ve been discovering over the years in teaching a class on him.
In talking about Jay-Z and what he means to America, you talk about hustle and how that’s such a distinctly American trait or tradition.
Exactly. Conservative historian Walter McDougall [argues] that the central motif of American history is hustling. It defines us in terms of ambition, desire — whether [for] people on the make, on the take or trying to make something of their lives. And I wanted to connect it to what Jay-Z is doing and what these young men and women are doing in many of these communities that are not regarded very highly. And yet, what they are about is quintessentially American. The impulse, the energy, the desire to do something, make something out of nothing. Jay-Z is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, emblem of that hustling ethic at the heart of American culture because the energy, the power, the imagination garnered on those cutthroat corners, are then subsequently transformed into successful behavior in the aboveground economy in legitimate spheres of work that allow them to apply what they learned on the streets in the broader arenas of American enterprise.
Do you remember the first time you heard a Jay-Z song?
Yeah: “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” When I heard the entire album, I was, like, “Wow.” I mean, he’s giving us the Mafioso story, the narrative crafted about the gangster — but it was the remorse, the regret, the grief, the horror, the suffering. The album has a song called “Regrets.” In order to be successful in that hustling life, you got to learn to live with regrets. You know, the existential anxiety of the hustling life. A figure on the underside of the American society, the other side of the law, the underground, but who’s thinking about the moral and ethical implications of what he’s doing. And trying to grapple with that and piece together his worldview from the fragments of his broken life.
Did any of that resonate with your own growing up?
I could definitely identify with it. I could understand where it came from, what forces drove it and what the consequences would be to an uncritical embrace and celebration of some of the ways of life that were being amplified in that music.
I grew up in Detroit, and it was a very violent place. [I was] part of a gang at a certain period — but got a chance to escape that. I was identified by my teachers as a relatively gifted student. So I got a scholarship to go to a private secondary school — a very elite one — Cranbrook. It was the first time I had gone to school with white kids. And it was too much. You know: No white kids you go to school with [until] you’re 16, 17 and then you’re going with very rich white kids. It was a real trauma, in a certain way, for me. That was my first sustained exposure to explicit racism. This was the time “Roots” came out. And somebody had taken a caricature from the newspaper, a rendering of some of the “Roots” characters and put on my dorm door: “N----- go home.” It was an eye-opening experience. I made some bad choices. Got kicked out of school. Went back to the ’hood, you know: golden boy tarnished. Got a GED and [became] a teen father.
You have a history of taking popular, talented, African American men and looking critically at them, but there’s not a lot of criticism in this book. Jay-Z’s a beloved figure, but there are lyrics that are problematic to a lot of people. And it comes off that you’re sort of giving him a pass on [the language] — and on his recent controversial NFL deal.
I acknowledge the unfortunate use of tropes and metaphors that are connected to misogyny. And I've written extensively about lyrics, not just his, but what hip-hop has done in general with women and so on. From my first book on. So I've covered that territory. But what I wanted to do in this book is to really meditate upon the kind of solemnity and dignity of an evolved figure who's come to grips with his own intellectual and aesthetic expression and his own commitments. And whether we agree with them or not, to understand them in the context of a broad sweep and appreciation for what he was up against and what he made out of what was presented to him. I do an extensive analysis of his music, his lyrics, the poetic devices, to show just what we're missing when we have a narrow one-dimensional interpretation of a figure like that.
I've acknowledged the genius of [Bill] Cosby but criticized him. Marvin Gaye, Martin Luther King Jr. and so on. So, in this book, I hope I've earned that right to be able — not to give him a pass because I happen actually to think that it's not either/or. It's not either Colin Kaepernick and kneeling or Jay-Z and dealing and wheeling. We need both. And I do make that argument. The either/or-ism, I think, is problematic. I think we have to have a far longer historical overview and an appreciation for both the flaws and tremendous features of a human being or a life.
How do you negotiate that political correctness, on campus in order to maintain critical discourse?
I'm for more rather than less speech. I'm for free speech. I'm for people even expressing difficult and complicated and horrible ideas in an environment where their language will not reinforce the vulnerability of others, however. I think that has to be held in check, and we have to protect people. Because if your exercise of free speech undercuts my ability to exist, then we're not talking about free speech. We're talking about reins of terror that are rooted in a fascist narcissism that needs to be checked. On the other hand, if some right-wing conservative is saying something you don't want to hear, then you got to listen. This is the world in which we live. Let's engage people. Let's talk to them. Let's challenge them. Let's know enough to disagree with them and go up against what they're talking about.
I mean, I lecture mostly in places and spaces that are not necessarily organically empathic to my viewpoint. Every week, when I leave out of here, and I go lecture at some school — some predominantly white institution where folk might be a little bit more disturbed by my willingness to kind of be open and honest about what I believe. And I tell the white folks, just stick around. You think I'm tough on you? I'm tough on everybody. But you only hear your issue. You don't hear me when I challenge the black church about homophobia. Or misogyny. Or sexism. You're just seeing it through your prism, and you're getting upset. Ironically, these are the very people talking about P.C. who can't stand the articulation of an unapologetic black voice that doesn't kowtow or cower to them. That doesn't treat whiteness as normative or neutral or desirable inherently but as one among many other fictions that we have to talk about and to engage.
As a frequent commentator, you often debate people from very different points of view. Do you have moments you feel like it’s a productive exchange of ideas, not just: Who says it better, and then we go home.
A guy like Bill Maher says stuff that pisses off everybody: women, communities of color, Muslims, black people and so on. But he’s an honest guy who will tell you what he believes, and that’s what you want. Even if you strongly disagree. He’s willing to engage in an argument, willing to hear why you might think he’s wrong. When I go to college campuses and talk to people, they say, “Hey, you’re not like on TV.” I said: “I got five minutes on TV, bruh, I’m throwing bombs. I got a bazooka.” I’m trying to kill everything walking, rhetorically, right? That’s the performative aspect. It’s horrible at a certain level. But it’s also trying to make a point. They’re used to white guys doing that. White guys can be angry and enraged. I do it: “What are you so angry for, black man?” So I understand that. But I’m coming at you. And I’m going to do it with high intelligence and words.
What’s your advice to live by?
Take what you do with deadly seriousness, but don't take yourself seriously at all. Nobody's indispensable. Right? All of us are part of a broader drama. Play your part. Understand what your role is and do that well. I think I've pretty much defined what my role is. I accept it. I'm not a ballplayer. I'm not a rapper. I'm not an entertainer or an artist. But I try to use words in a poetically powerful fashion that have political consequence, that speak to people in crisis to help lift the veil of hardship and horror as they confront their existence to reinforce the good, to call out the bad and to figure out a way to make peace with our imperfections so that we can achieve the world and country, as James Baldwin said, that we aim for.
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This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” was released this fall.