which include millions in record sales, Grammy Awards, a marriage to singer Beyonce with a baby on the way and tours with rappers Kanye West and Eminem.
One recent lecture centered on how popular Black artists reflect their culture and race to the public at large, with Dyson name-dropping rapper LL Cool J, singer Diahann Carroll and actor-comedian Bill Cosby. The professor and one student went back and forth on whether the rapper’s lyrical depictions of his extravagant lifestyle — ”Used to rock a throwback, balling on the corner/Now I rock a Teller suit, looking like an owner” is one of many examples — amounted to bragging and rubbing his taste for fine living in the faces of his listeners, almost all restricted to much less opulent lifestyles.
The student took the position that Jay-Z appears overly boastful, but Dyson countered that the rapper, who grew up in a Brooklyn housing project but has since become a multimillionaire, has never lost his ability to relate to the struggles of everyday people and has continued giving voice to their concerns. Though Jay-Z raps about Saint-Tropez and expensive cigars, he also talks about being nurtured by Brooklyn. And in one song, ”99 Problems,” he attacks racial profiling with a stark depiction of a racially motivated traffic stop: ”Son, do you know why I’m stopping you for?” the officer asks. Jay-Z replies: ”Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low.”
The chairman of Georgetown’s sociology department, Timothy Wickham-Crowley, says he supports Dyson’s course for trying to show how Jay-Z’s music fits into American society, and Steve Stoute, an author and marketing executive who has done business with Jay-Z and has spoken to the class, said the course has practical value for students interested in business.
Others think differently.
Kevin Powell, who writes about hip-hop and has run unsuccessfully for Congress in Brooklyn, said any discussion of Jay-Z should account for what Powell says are the rapper’s derogatory lyrics toward women and his expressions of excessive materialism. Kris Marsh, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in the Black middle class, said that while she appreciated Jay-Z’s cultural significance, she was wary of structuring an entire course around him and using his narrative alone to reflect Black America. Although hip-hop artists can focus a lens on urban life, she said, ”sometimes these artists use poetic license” and blend fact and fiction to an audience that is often suburban and White.
”We’re not sure if it’s fiction or real life. It can be almost indistinguishable sometimes in hip-hop,” she said.
Danielle Bailey, a senior international business and marketing major who is taking the class, said she was a Jay-Z fan before enrolling but now has greater appreciation for his business acumen.