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Ph.D. rapper bringing hip-hop to U.Va. classroom

7/21/2017, 1:38 p.m.
A.D. Carson isn’t concerned about those who don’t think hip-hop is a valid area of study in academia. Nor does ...
Dr. Carson

By Julexus Cappell

A.D. Carson isn’t concerned about those who don’t think hip-hop is a valid area of study in academia.

Nor does the rapper who just earned his Ph.D. in May from Clemson University by presenting his dissertation as an album want people to think he’s the first to pursue hip-hop as an academic subject.

But the 38-year-old Dr. Carson is making headlines nationally as he is poised to take over the classroom at the staid University of Virginia this fall as an assistant professor of hip-hop and the global South.

“My concern is not mainstream approval or a pat on the back,” Dr. Carson told the Free Press in an interview on Monday.

Instead, Dr. Carson views teaching the course as a chance to showcase all that goes into hip-hop, which at times can be dismissed as frivolous or too provocative to be considered a topic worthy of scholastic focus.

“I look at it as an opportunity (to show) what hip-hop in the academy can be, can do, can sound and feel like,” said Dr. Carson.

His “Writing Rap” course will focus on one of the key fundamentals of the music genre — advocating for issues relevant to the culture and its people, and specifically how hip-hop is used as a medium to discuss social justice and other political issues.

“That is hip-hop doing what it has historically done,” said Dr. Carson.

He said it will cover everything from learning the basics of how to compose a rap song, to analyzing both past and current hip-hop works, including Jay Z’s “4:44” and Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN,” two 2017 rap albums that have both gone platinum since their release, sparking conversations across the globe because of their controversial lyrics regarding issues such as police brutality, homosexuality and the use of the “n” word.

“We’ll be really attempting to get at what it means to compose rap lyrics and what they mean,” Dr. Carson said.

Dr. Carson’s unique, 34-track album dissertation, “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions,” caught the attention of many, including officials at the state-supported university in Charlottesville.

The album, which took three and a half years to complete, was inspired by many factors, “both in and outside of the classroom,” Dr. Carson said of his work as a Ph.D. student. Most of those factors were race-related, including witnessing visits from white nationalists to the Clemson University campus, open Ku Klux Klan recruitments and even the location of the university itself — on the grounds of a former South Carolina plantation owned by slave-owner and former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun.

“I mean even being on the grounds of a plantation” was a factor in the creation of the dissertation, he said. Mr. Calhoun’s house, located in the center of campus, “is open seven days a week, too,” he said.

Another building on campus, Tillman Hall, is named for former South Carolina Gov. Benjamin Tillman, a known white supremacist.

Dr. Carson, an Illinois native, received his bachelor’s in education and creative writing at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., followed by a master’s in English from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

In addition to his work being published in “The Guardian” and “The Alchemist’s Review,” among others, Dr. Carson has recorded at least four other mix tapes that are posted online. He was featured last weekend on National Public Radio.

While this is the first course of its kind at U.Va., Dr. Carson recognizes that hip-hop has been incorporated into music courses at the university.

Bowie State University in Maryland and the University of Arizona have minors in hip-hop studies. Harvard University has a Hiphop Archive and Research Institute established in 2002. In April 2013, the College of William & Mary launched its Hip Hop Collection in Swem Library’s Special Collections. They call it the most comprehensive collection of its kind, featuring oral histories, recordings, publications and other items by Virginia-based artists, collectives and businesses from the mid-1980s to present.

A major goal for the U.Va. class is to offer students an in-depth study of a culture that is widely known and widely appropriated.

“My concern is more with giving space to something that already exists, that already has a richness to it and that a lot of people have acknowledged, but has been exploited,” Dr. Carson said.