He's no Shakespeare, but in one college course, the lyrics of rapper Jay-Z are being studied just as closely as if they were classic literature.
The unusual course at Georgetown University is called "Sociology of Hip Hop: Jay-Z," where the lyrics of songs like "Jigga That N*gga" are subject to the same literary scrutiny as the works of Homer.
Professor Michael Eric Dyson teaches the class at the majority-white, Jesuit school in Washington, D.C. and said the hip-hop icon's works are a social commentary on topics like racial and gender identity, sexuality, capitalism and economic inequality. (Recall last month when Jay-Z sought to capitalize on the Occupy Wall Street protests with a line of T-shirts inspired by the movement.)
"It just happens to have an interesting object of engagement in Jay-Z — and what better way to meet people where they are?" Dyson told the Associated Press in an interview. "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."
Dyson, a professor and radio host who has authored books on Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tupac Shakur and others, said he's taught similar courses on Tupac and Marvin Gaye at the University of Pennsylvania. According to the AP, Dyson said Jay-Z -- whose real name is Shawn Carter -- "is a worthy subject because of his diversity of business interests" – a clothing entrepreneur and a part owner of the NBA's New Jersey Nets – "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," said Dyson, who has a Ph.D. in religion from Princeton University.
Like many college classes, the course has a midterm and final examination, as well as required readings, including from Jay-Z's memoir, "Decoded." According to the Associated Press, classes focus more on black culture and business than on the rapper's biographical details, which include millions of dollars in record sales, Grammy Awards, tours with Kanye West and Eminem, his marriage to Beyonce and impending fatherhood:
One recent lecture centered on how popular black artists reflect their culture and race to the public at large, with Dyson name-dropping LL Cool J, Diahann Carroll and 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.
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."
Timothy Wickham-Crowley, the chair of Georgetown's sociology department, is supportive of the course, saying it shows how Jay-Z's music fits into American society. Steve Stoute, an author and marketing executive who has done business with the rapper and has spoken to the class, said it has practical value for students interested in business.
But not everyone agrees: Some have raised questions about the misogyny in the rapper's lyrics, including in his song, "Big Pimpin'." And in an opinion piece published in Georgetown's student newspaper The Hoya, junior Stephen Wu dismissed the class as "poppycock":
Who honestly thinks that the productions of Carter can compare in any way, shape or form with the Homeric corpus? The great bard inclines toward the divine; he brings to light much of the character of human nature and puts man in communion with higher things. Rap music frolics in the gutter, resplendent in vulgarity and the most crass of man's wants.
It speaks volumes that we engage in the beat of Carter's pseudo-music while we scrounge to find serious academic offerings on Beethoven and Liszt. We dissect the lyrics of "Big Pimpin'," but we don't read Spenser or Sophocles closely. Our pedagogical commitments are disordered, and I think that in our heart of hearts we know this.
Danielle Bailey, a senior international business and marketing major who is in the class, said she was a Jay-Z fan before enrolling but now has greater appreciation for his entrepreneurial side.
"I know a lot of people are upset, but I think the point of college is to think outside the box. I rarely have classes that allow me to look at things differently," she told the AP. "It's not always about Mozart and Homer."
Dyson maintains the course is a conduit for studying the "major themes of American life" and said hip-hop artists at their best deserve to be classified alongside literary luminaries.
Jay-Z is apparently aware of the class his work has inspired, reportedly giving a "shout-out" to it during a recent concert. Dyson also said the rapper told him that "You're doing the class there" but "I'm doing kind of the master class while I'm in concert."
Watch Dyson discuss the class during an interview on Today, via NBC: