Decoding Jay-Z at Georgetown University


If I had “99 Problems,” this sure wouldn’t be one. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s “Sociology of Hip Hop: Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z” course this semester at Georgetown University has given me a new appreciation for Jay-Z. As an avid fan of both Hip-Hop music and Hov, I admit that this has been my favorite class. I mean, “What more can I say?”

But to truly express why this class attracts and fascinates 134 Georgetown students each semester, along with the vast media attention it has received, requires an understanding of Hip-Hop’s notoriety and Jay-Z’s societal significance. Jay-Z is many things (a former hustler from the ‘hood, a rapper poet, a multimillionaire, and a business tycoon), and it is his seeming contradictions that provide for great academic inquiry.

What does it mean for a Black man from the projects to join the class of noveau riche elites in America–from “Murder to Excellence?” How do the moral dispositions and prejudices of Hip-Hop’s critics affect the legitimacy of it as an art form? How can Hip-Hop’s audience reconcile the misogyny and materialism, prevalent in Hip-Hop lyrics, with the significance of its aspirational messages–a genre dedicated to highlighting the struggles of the human condition? Why is Hip-Hop unworthy of academic study and what does this assertion have to do with the assumption of intellectual inferiority regarding race?

These questions constitute just a few of Dr. Dyson’s class lectures which usually tangent into a multitude of topics ranging from the prison industrial complex to “Big Pimpin.” Jay-Z provides the class with a fresh and contemporary way to understand the societal constructs that comprise dominating motifs in America. Dyson sees the relevance of Jay-Z and translates this to the class through skilled professorship. Anyone would be fortunate just to hear this bona fide scholar speak.

Professor Dyson exemplifies oratorical dexterity and mastery of the subject of Hip-Hop, its implications, and the life of music mogul Jay-Z. Listening to this rhetorician is never a bore–my classmates are wide-awake during a 9:30AM course, an astounding anomaly at Georgetown (or any college or university for that matter). Of course, Dyson’s wit and adjunct humor add to the more entertaining aspects of this class. Watching Dyson spit a Jigga verse or an NWA rap beckons the professor’s talent for memorization and proficient flow. Shout out to Dyson*– perhaps a record in the future from Detroit’s finest?

To add to the hard-knock experience, Dyson enriches the course by bringing relevant guest speakers to class. We had Zack O’Malley Greenburg, author of our required reading, Empire State of Mind, come to class and describe his journey writing Jay-Z’s biography, an elusive matter at times. Marketing entrepreneur Steve Stoute visited class, discussing his successful career in the music industry and his new book The Tanning of America.

Londell McMillan, famed entertainment attorney and owner of Source Magazine, joined our class and explained the significance of his former classmate and client Jay-Z as the subject of scholarly study. President and CEO of B.E.T., Debra Lee attended class and spoke on her career as it relates to impacting the genre of Hip-Hop. To wrap this list up, our class was also graced by the presences of esteemed civil rights activists Rev Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who both came during a Dyson-hosted event honoring the lifetime of Jackson.

“…never been a guy this good, alive that long”- Jay-Z on Jesse Jackson

Essentially, this class is so ambitious, it works out to be a goldmine for anyone interested in music, marketing, or media. It’s like “Che Guevara with bling on”; it’s complex.

As for me, I find myself decoding Jay-Z’s lyrics on a routine basis. Examining this flow-master’s syncopations and intonations exhibits the talented capacity of Jay to be a widely distributed poet and a commercial force to be reckoned with. I thought I liked Jay-Z and his music before this class, but a post-Dyson world derives a whole new lens to see Jay. The classroom subject of Jiggaman conveys much more than just an account of this talented rap lyricist. The life and times of Shawn Carter are the perfect conduit for sociological analysis.

And to all the haters out there, you “can’t knock this hustle.”

“Why’s the devil gotta have all the good beats?”- Dr. Dyson lamenting on conscious rap

Katherine Propper is an intern, a current freshman at Georgetown University, and an avid fan of Jay-Z AND Hip-Hop. Check for her on the site coming soon!