Positioned across from a CBS news reporter, with cameras, microphones and producers scattered around his office, professor Michael Eric Dyson continues his typical day at work.
Dyson’s class, “Sociology of Hip-Hop: Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z,” has become the focus of a media circus on campus in recent weeks, drawing attention from the Associated Press and Fox News as well as BET and Perez Hilton’s celebrity blog.
Just an hour before he sat down at his desk, Dyson was pacing behind the podium of an Intercultural Center classroom and lecturing more than 140 students in what resembled spoken word poetry.
Although interest in the class has spiked recently, Dyson has been teaching “Sociology of Hip Hop” since he arrived at Georgetown in 2007.
It was not until this year, however, that he decided to focus the course on Jay-Z. Dyson said the idea to teach a class centered on the seminal rapper had been in the back of his mind for several years.
“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,” Dyson said.
This semester, Dyson decided to take the opportunity to examine societal norms through the lens of Jay-Z’s music. Because of his widespread recognition in the black community, Dyson has been able to bring many prominent guest speakers to class. Recent visitors have included Steve Stoute, marketing mogul and longtime friend of Jay-Z, and author Zack O’Malley Greenburg, who wrote the biography of Jay-Z, “Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z went from Street Corner to Corner Office,” which is one of the class’s assigned readings.
Beyond guest speakers and books, Dyson also brings his personal experiences with Jay-Z to the class. Dyson began his friendship with the rapper at a conference some years ago.
“Knowing the rapper personally doesn’t weigh the outcome of the class positively or negatively, but it definitely gives a more intimate familiarity with the class,” he said. “I will send him texts about the class, and we definitely have his full support and interest. I’m still hoping we can get the chance to Skype him in or something before the end of the semester.”
Dyson is known for his friends in high places, including Jesse Jackson, who introduced him to his wife, and recording artist Lupe Fiasco, who he brought to one of his lectures last fall.
A 53-year-old academic, author and television personality, Dyson peppers his lectures, for which he uses few notes, with lyrics by hip-hop superstars from Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. to Drake and Jay-Z.
However, Dyson said that his enthrallment with Jay-Z’s words does not stem from a simple penchant for the music. Rather, his studies focus on exploring the implications of lyrics that can be both powerful and controversial. For this reason, he expects a high level of thinking from his students.
“In class, we don’t just sit around and say, ‘Wow, that’s dope!’ We use [Jay-Z’s] lyrics, and we connect them to themes and theories within sociology that are relevant to today,” Dyson said. “We deal with every major issue that every sociology class should address: race, class, gender, the relationship between men and women, racial and sexual hierarchy.”
Though Dyson ties his lectures together with audio samples, they often wander off of the topic of hip-hop to the civil rights movement, other aspects of popular culture and class relations.
For Janine Duffy (COL ’14), a sociology major, the class has widened her perceptions of the study of sociology.
“You can definitely look at the class with a broader lens. It isn’t just about Jay-Z. A lot is what you want to get out of the class,” she said.
Since the beginning of the semester, major media outlets such as MSNBC, CBS, the Associated Press and the Washington Post have descended on the classroom. While some students said they feel the revolving door of reporters has shaped class discussion, Dyson says he is unfazed.
“We are doing what we are doing regardless of whether there are reporters there or not,” he said. “I don’t conduct myself any differently, and I don’t think my students do either.”
Tate Tucker (COL ’14), a student musician who has gained prominence in the past year and met Lupe Fiasco through Dyson, said that he thinks the national attention is a sort of validation of Dyson’s academic concentration.
“In terms of the media attention, it’s nothing new with Professor Dyson anymore, and it’s become pretty customary at this point to feel as if our class is a documentary of sorts,” he said. “Not in a bad way, but it sort of legitimizes the subject matter in a very unorthodox way.”
Along with the media attention, however, has come a critique of the occasionally vulgar nature of the lyrics Dyson has explored in the class. But the professor believes that Jay-Z’s word choice — even if offensive — is worthy of study.
“Yes, some of the songs that we study do use derogatory words for women. However, we shouldn’t obsess over the word but rather why he used the word,” he said. “Today, there are many institutions that exclude women. I don’t see that as being any different.”
It is this desire to demonstrate how hip-hop reflects American societal norms that fuels Dyson’s lectures.
“It wasn’t until the ’70s that black literature was viewed as being worthy of critical interpretation,” he said. “We really are in good company. Hopefully in 20 years, we will be looked at as pioneers.”
Although he will not be teaching any classes next semester, Dyson said he will be around campus and continue to meet with students in the spring. It is likely that he will be back to teach this specific class again in the future with some tweaking of the course material, he said.
“I think I would really like to take a closer look at the neighborhood where Jay-Z came from and really investigate to see if we can’t learn more about that story,” he said.
He added that in the future he hopes to include the perspectives of other influential artists, such as Aretha Franklin and Kanye West, into his study of the sociology of hip-hop.