WASHINGTON — Michael Eric Dyson parses Jay-Z’s rap lyrics as if analyzing fine literature. The rapper’s riffs on luxury cars and tailored clothes and boasts of being the ”Mike Jordan of recording” may make for catchy rhymes, but to Dyson, they also reflect incisive social commentary.
Dyson, a professor, author, radio host and television personality, has offered at Georgetown University this semester a popular, if unusual, class dedicated to Jay-Z and his career. The course, ”Sociology of Hip Hop: Jay-Z,” may seem an unlikely offering at a majority-White Jesuit university that counts former President Bill Clinton among its alumni. But Dyson insists that his class confronts topics present in any sociology course: racial and gender identity, sexuality, capitalism and economic inequality.
” It just happens to have an interesting object of engagement in Jay-Z, and what better way to meet people where they are?” Dyson said.
”It’s like Jesus talking to the woman at the well. You ask for a drink of water, then you get into some theological discussions.”
Classes centered on pop culture superstars like Bruce Springsteen have sprouted on college campuses in recent years; Dyson himself says he previously taught classes on rapper Tupac Shakur and rythm and blues singer Marvin Gaye at the University of Pennsylvania. He says Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, is a worthy subject because of his diversity of business interests. A clothing entrepreneur, he also is part owner of the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets (soon to move to his native New York borough of Brooklyn), as well as his immense cross-cultural appeal and ”lyrical prowess” in articulating contemporary Black culture and his place in it.
” I think he’s an icon of American excellence,” Dyson said.
Though hardly as rigorous as organic chemistry, the course does have midterm and final examinations and required readings, including from Jay-Z’s book, ” Decoded.” The 75-minute classes, the final one coming Wednesday, focus more on African-American culture and business than on the particulars of the rapper’s biography,