Last month, I journeyed to our nation’s capital to see with my own eyes a popular Georgetown University class. It wasn’t another grand strategy offering, nor did it explore the latest advances in quantum physics. But “Sociology of Hip-Hop — Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z” was impressive nonetheless.
The course’s instructor, Professor Michael Eric Dyson, had invited me to give a guest lecture (my book,Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner To Corner Office,is required reading). His 140 students sat and listened–and then grilled me on an array of topics from the legal ramifications of writing an unauthorized biography to the cultural significance of Jay-Z’s rise from one of Brooklyn’s most notorious housing projects.
“Jay-Z is located within the central motif of American history,” Dyson told me after the class. “I think that thematic preoccupation of Jay-Z’s is central to what it means to be an American, which is why he’s such a successful person and valorized in many ways, having meetings with Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, trying to figure out how to become the first billionaire in hip-hop.”
I couldn’t have agreed more; Jay-Z’s life story is the manifestation of the elusive rags-to-riches American Dream. So it came as a bit of a surprise to hear some of the criticisms directed at the class. Though there was plenty of positive coverage from the Washington Post and others, Gawker declared that Dyson and his class should not be taken seriously; Spin called it “semi-ridiculous.”
But it was an opinion piece in The Hoya that struck me most. Penned by a Georgetown junior, the itemtook particular umbrage at Dyson’s comparisons between Jay-Z and Homer:
Who honestly thinks that the productions of [Jay-Z] 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.”
Really? I’m not disputing Homer’s impact on Western civilization, but this sort of small-minded statement ignores the entire body of socially conscious hip-hop (yes, parts of it contributed by Jay-Z), not to mention some of the most prominent themes present throughout Homer’s works.
I spent my freshman year of college studying classics, and I’ll say with confidence that The Iliad glorifies crass desire–and objectification of women–as much as any rap song.