There’s no question hip-hop legend Nasir Jones was the headliner Thursday evening in Gaston Hall. It makes sense, then, why the audience murmured in surprise when “the greatest …” was first used to describe someone on stage other than Nasty Nas.
“It’s an amazing opportunity in my career to be here in Gaston Hall at this university,” began moderator James Braxton Patterson of Lehigh University, “and to sit between the greatest black intellectual of our time and the greatest emcee of our time.”
The former subject of Patterson’s reverence was Michael Eric Dyson, the prominent commentator and sociology professor at Georgetown. Dyson may be behind only Madeleine Albright in celebrity status among undergraduate faculty, but the title Patterson chose nonetheless raised eyebrows. I was sitting next to an active student in the black community who let out an unconvinced “really?” upon hearing Braxton’s remark. “Who would you say instead?” I asked while the audience calmed down. “Cornell West? Eugene Robinson? President Obama?” I never got a response, nor am I qualified to give one.
The stage was set for three, after all. Dyson could easily have been asking the questions, as he’s done many times before with hip-hop artists. But this was a duet, allowing each illustrious figure a share of the spotlight. From the moment Braxton made that proclamation of greatness, it was clear who in Gaston had the most to prove.
Dyson has authored and edited 18 books, including “Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic,” which offers academic perspectives on the New York City emcee’s iconic debut. A crusader for hip-hop scholarship, Dyson made national headlines in fall 2001 for introducing “Sociology of Hip-Hop — Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z” to the Hilltop. At the time, some questioned the worthiness of hip-hop in college curriculum.
As reported in today’s news article on the event: “The three discussed the state of hip-hop and Nas’ acclaimed catalog for more than an hour, but the main focus of the night was a defense of Nas, and those like him, to rightfully appear in a venue like Gaston.”
And yet, while Dyson is a gatekeeper of sorts for academia, he and Nas are banging on the door together — Nas for recognition of his work; Dyson for recognition of his work recognizing people like Nas. Their mutual admiration was voiced Thursday in unequivocal terms: Dyson routinely called Nas a genius, and Nas was demonstratively floored by Dyson’s comments throughout the night, calling him, “one of the smartest men I know.” In hip-hop, that’s quite an endorsement.
Nas was in town promoting his re-released classic, “Illmatic,” and a tour to commemorate its 20th anniversary that begins Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Dyson, cunningly, was able to utilize this expert witness to help make the case for hip-hop’s academic appeal. Dyson’s oratory allowed him to command the stage with keen insight, poignant references, personal anecdotes and a propensity to start spitting rap lyrics mid-sentence at any moment. The laidback Nas could charm the crowd with his aura alone, whereas Dyson came out swinging. Like a young, hungry emcee, Dyson was there to give a performance, but also to leave an impression.
“To me, teaching Nas — teaching Jay, Pac, Biggie, Lauryn Hill — is about excavating in the common earth of our social existence, not only relics and artifacts of their genius, but the ongoing engagement with the most serious level of literacy,” Dyson said Thursday.
There’s some irony to Braxton’s introductory comment. For an event designed to elevate the intellectual standing of hip-hop artists, was it wise, or deliberate, to differentiate “the greatest emcee” from “the greatest intellectual”? It would be something like saying, “Here we have the greatest painter and the greatest artist of our time” — clearly the former in this example, contained in a subset of the latter, is held to be inferior.
Competition is at the core of hip-hop, and fans invariably debate who outshined whom when two emcees collaborate on a record. “Eminem murdered you on your own s—,” Nas taunts Jay-Z on the 2001 diss track “Ether.” In Gaston Hall, even Nas seemed to concede that Dyson stole the show.
Many scholars have celebrated Dyson’s work in this area, and his course on Jay-Z remains one of the more popular on campus. But few are naïve enough to think that academia has fully come around on hip-hop, and the Nas appearance provided an opportunity to chip away at that conservative mindset.
For those who were not in Gaston on Thursday night, time will tell if online reverberations from the event will have a sizeable impact. But for those in attendance, Dyson didn’t just chip away at naysayers of hip-hop scholarship, he dealt them a resounding blow. Nas drew them in, Dyson blew them away.
Sami Abdisubhan, a senior in the McDonough School of Business, contributed to this commentary.