By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
The folks from the suburbs and the private schools so concerned with putting warning labels on my records missed the point. They never stopped to worry about the realities in this country that spread poverty and racism and gun violence and hatred of women and drug use and unemployment. People can act like rappers spread these things, but that is not true. Our lives are not rotten or worthless just because that’s what people say about the real estate that we were raised on. In fact, our lives may be even more worthy of study because we succeeded despite the promises of failure seeping out from behind the peeling paint on the walls of every apartment in every project.
Excerpt from the introduction by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter to Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s 2007 book Know What I Mean: Reflections on Hip Hop.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson has done it again! As recently reported in Jet magazine and now splashed across the Internet, Dr. Dyson is teaching a class for undergraduate students at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C) on the subject of Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. This is not Dyson’s first attempt to lecture on the work of Jay-Z. He is quoted as saying: “I was originally supposed to give a series of lectures at Harvard back in 2008 about the influence of Jay-Z. But the night before I was supposed to speak, a certain young, Black man became president of the United States, so the lectures ended up being about him instead.”
Carter is the second rapper whose work Dyson has taught. He taught an undergraduate course on the life and work of the late Tupac Amaru Shakur and in 2001 published Holler if you hear me: searching for Tupac Shakur.
In 2002, Dyson was a professor of African-American studies at the University of Pennsylvania and taught about the life and lyrics of Shakur, examining the way Shakur’s image and presence influenced the way listeners perceived his messages. Dyson saw Shakur as “perhaps, the representative figure of his generation”, and spoke about his upbringing and lifestyle, which was similar to millions of disenfranchised African-American youth.
Dyson wrote of Shakur: “In his haunting voice can be heard the buoyant hopefulness and the desperate hopelessness that mark the outer perimeters of the hip-hop culture he eagerly embraced, as well as the lives of the millions of youth who admired and adored him.”
Dyson feels that, for some young African-Americans, hip-hop has the same place in their affections as the church and civil rights leaders had for past generations. He has written: “Where young Black Americans once turned primarily to the church – and to the civil rights leaders that the church produced – to articulate their hopes, frustrations and daily tribulations, it is fast becoming men like Jay-Z and Nas, and women like Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill, who best vocalize the struggle of growing up Black and poor in this country.”
While some think Dyson has embarked on a mission that is long overdue, others have criticized the professor’s zeal in introducing hip-hop as a worthy subject of higher learning. Those who laud Dyson’s efforts think it is high time that the culture of African-Americans be given the same consideration as that of White Americans in academia. The offerings at most post-secondary institutions are Eurocentric with a few courses about racialized people, their culture and history thrown in as a sop. If a White professor decides to throw into a lecture some mention of African-American culture, it does not engender the kind of criticism heaped on an African-American academic who brings in-depth analysis to the subject.
This ties in with the kind of disregard White people have shown to African-American culture where it is first mocked until White people claim and white-wash it. Youth from other cultures have embraced – and some have even attempted to claim – the hip-hop art form even though it is an-African-American creation. Some African-American hip-hop purists have pushed back with what they consider essentialism when there is mention of authenticity (not surprising, considering the history of jazz and the blues.)
Dyson has addressed what is seen as essentialism in hip-hop. “When Black people come up with forms of cultural expression that are narrow and rigid – essentialist – (it is) often in response to the attempt to impose vicious, or racist, or stereotypical views of Black life from outside our culture. Essentialism is often conjured by bigotry and attack. All of this stuff guarantees that hip-hop, more than any other form of (African-American) cultural and musical expression, will obsess over who can produce it and record it.”
In his 2011 book, Hip-Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhyme, Professor Ralph Basui Watkins wrote: “There are camps in hip-hop. One camp is made up of the essentialists or purists like KRS-One, who contends that much of what masquerades as hip-hop doesn’t embrace the four basic principles of hip-hop. KRS-One traced the history of hip-hop from the blues, through Jamaica via DJ Kool Herc, and then to North America, where the next evolution of African-American culture was born.”
Dyson is not the sole African-American academic who has written/taught about hip-hop. The September 29, 1997 issue of Jet magazine reported that the University of California at Berkeley was offering a course on the poetry of Shakur who had transitioned the year before on September 13, 1996. The class, The Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur, reportedly drew more than 100 students. It examined the life and death of Shakur with an emphasis on his work; making connections between Shakur and politics, society, history and the soul of an artist.
In his 2007 book, To the Break of Dawn: Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic, African-American professor, William Jelani Cobb, who has taught at Rutgers and Spelman, wrote: “Hip-hop has, in the course of three decades, become the dominant form of youth culture on earth. It has ridden a tidal wave of American hegemony to the far expanses of the globe, carrying with it the complex, incomplete and contradictory visions of those who created it as simultaneously the richest class of exploited people of the world. Hip hop is culture. Hip hop is politics. Hip hop is economics.”
Hip-hop has piqued the interest of many, whether they love or hate the art form. Many older people who lived through the civil rights movement are taken aback by some of the lyrics that describe a culture which they see as setting the race back. They see the culture of hip-hop as crime-ridden and rife with misogyny.
Cobb addresses this: “Before middle-aged pundits started lamenting hip hop’s “values”, before rappers became unpaid boosters for the booze du jour, before ice was anything but frozen water, there was this: two turntables and a microphone.”
While the commercialization of hip-hop may have caused degeneration in the lyrics and attitudes of the performers, some of the early lyrics were conscious.
Georgia Roberts, who taught the 1997 class, The Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur, at the University of California at Berkeley commented: “Much of today’s hip-hop has been colonized by corporate America but there are elements within hip-hop that are fundamental to a political agenda.”
And, in his 2005 book, Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement, professor S. Craig Watkins writes: “From its humble beginnings in the Bronx to its transformation into a multi-billion-dollar global industry, hip hop has stirred constant and contentious debate.”
Dyson’s decision to teach a class about Jay-Z has added fuel to the fire of that debate.