Updated: January 7, 2012 8:05AM
WASHINGTON — Michael Eric Dyson parses Jay-Z’s 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.
“Sociology of Hip Hop: Jay-Z” may seem an unlikely offering at a Jesuit, majority-white school 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.”
Dyson previously taught classes on Tupac Shakur and Marvin Gaye at the University of Pennsylvania. He says Jay-Z is a worthy subject because of his diversity of business interests — a clothing entrepreneur, he’s also a part owner of the NBA’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 is Wednesday — focus more on African-American culture and business than on the particulars of the rapper’s biography. Jay-Z was on tour and not available for an interview, his representative said. But Dyson, who considers himself a friend of the rapper, says Jay-Z has told him he appreciates the course.
“You’re doing the class there,” Dyson says Jay-Z told him. “I’m doing kind of the master class while I’m in concert.” AP