Judging by the amount of fuss he caused, one would think Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson had floated the idea of abolishing child labor laws. In reality, all he had done was announce that this semester he would be teaching a course entitled “Sociology of Hip-Hop – Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z.” And it was Glastonbury all over again.
The outrage flew from all directions. A SPIN headline referred to “Georgetown’s Semi-Ridiculous Jay-Z Class”, while the main article nonchalantly mentions that tuition at the university is $40,920, attaching the price to a particularly inarticulate quote from a college sophomore. Gawker was still more ruthless in its takedown, declaring: “One notable thing about Michael Eric Dyson is that although he is very good at being an academic celebrity, he doesn’t know shit about hip-hop.”
Perhaps the most incisive and disparaging critique came from Stephen Wu, a junior at Georgetown, who, writing for the Hoya student newspaper, said, “The proposition that Jay-Z is in the same galaxy as – much less the heir to – the preeminent epic poet [Homer] of human history represents a basic misapprehension of either Jay-Z’s importance or the development of western thought and literature over 2,500 years.” Ouch.
But a controversy isn’t a controversy without at least two diverging points of view. Zack O’Malley Greenburg, author of Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office took to Forbes to defend the class that had invited him to be a guest speaker. Responding directly to Wu’s argument, Greenburg counters, “I’m not disputing Homer’s impact on western civilisation, but this sort of small-minded statement ignores the entire body of socially conscious hip-hop (yes, parts of it contributed by Jay-Z), not to mention some of the most prominent themes present throughout Homer’s works.”
Point well received. But the notion that this class needs to be defended is preposterous on its face. Jay-Z doesn’t need to be Homer. Or Shakespeare. Or Mark Twain, Beethoven or Wagner. He’s Jay-Z: arguably, the most important figure to come out of the biggest cultural movement of the past 30 years. The merits of the case – for serious intellectual course work focused on the man and his lyrics – stand on their own, without feeble comparisons to more “respectable” members of the academic canon.
In the 30 years since 20/20 aired its special report that declared “rap is likely to influence popular music for years to come … it has tremendous staying power,” hip-hop hasn’t only fulfilled that prophecy; it has surpassed it in ways not imagined at the time. It is such an integral and ubiquitous part of American culture that hip-hop is used to sell everything from light beer to digital cameras, while influencing electoral politics and agitating presidents. There is no denying the cultural legitimacy of hip-hop.
And try as some might, there is little denying Jay-Z’s position as hip-hop’s preeminent voice. Over the course of his 15-year career, Jay-Z has proven himself to be not only one of the most prolific artists that the culture has produced, but a quintessential American businessman (or business, man).
His particular genius lies in his ability to take the misunderstood worldview of a dispossessed group and make it palatable to a diverse audience. Through him, people from all different backgrounds have access to the unique and sometimes flawed philosophies of black men in the post-civil rights/black power generation. He perfectly embodies both the brilliant potential and unfortunate consequences of hip-hop’s global reach.
Jay’s life and music are fertile ground for investigating issues of poverty, criminalisation, misogyny, performances of black masculinity, capitalism, linguistics, black political identity and much more. “Hip-hop basically is simply this starting point for these broader questions about life and philosophy and worldview,” says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University. Neal visited the class earlier this year to discuss his own work on Jay-Z, and engaged the students on a range of issues, from intellectual property law to cosmopolitan identity. This goes far beyond a study of “big pimpin’” or “swag”. Courses such as these produce the type of critical thinking needed to fuel real societal change.
This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, class on hip-hop to make its way into the halls of higher education (there are over 300, in any case). It is conceivable that, one day, major universities will award major degrees in the study of hip-hop. No, it isn’t organic chemistry or engineering, but that doesn’t diminish its value.
The critics will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Everyone else will brush their shoulders off.Comments (0)