Earlier this year, rapper A.D. Carson completed a 34-song album he called Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics Of Rhymes & Revolutions. If that sounds like an unusual title for a hip-hop record, keep in mind that the album also served as Carson's doctoral dissertation.
Carson received his Ph.D. in rhetorics, communication and information design from Clemson University in May. His unconventional project made headlines around the world, and the University of Virginia's music department took notice. This fall, Carson will begin teaching at U-Va. as Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop and the Global South.
Carson is far from the first person to take hip-hop seriously as an academic subject. Harvard University has housed the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute since 2002, and students at the University of Arizona and Bowie State University can minor in hip-hop studies. But when Carson embarked on this project, he wasn't certain the committee overseeing his work would accept the album as his dissertation.
Still, as a student at Clemson — located on the grounds of a former plantation owned by pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun — Carson tells NPR's Michel Martin he felt he needed to complete the project exactly as he did.
"John C. Calhoun's house is open seven days a week ... at the center of the campus," he says. "The more that I found myself speaking up and speaking out about the ways that history and current circumstances were intertwined there — in the layout of the place and the ways that people interact with one another there — the more I felt that people were not listening to my voice."
By delivering his dissertation as a hip-hop album, Carson hoped, in part, to illuminate issues he felt were going unexamined at Clemson. "People dress up as the historic characters who made Clemson possible, but then ignore the fact that there were enslaved people who helped to build the buildings that were there," he says. "Much of what is going on currently — if we think about exploited labor, if we think about amateur athletes — like, these things seem to resonate in some way that we're not acknowledging at all."
At the University of Virginia this fall, Carson will teach a composition class for music students called "Writing Rap." He says his students will learn about hip-hop history and write their own rhymes. "You can imagine a composition-of-rap course being similar to a composition course where you're learning to write an argumentative essay," Carson explains.
What would he tell parents, or even Virginia taxpayers, who might question whether hip-hop is a subject worth teaching at a public university like U-Va.? "I think that my response would be the same response that I would give if I was teaching literature at the University of Virginia," Carson says. "The reason that we read and engage with the literature that we engage with is, hopefully, for empathy — so that we have ways into worlds that we don't fully understand."
Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, we're talking about trends in education from time to time this summer, partly because summer is when educators tend to have a bit more room in their schedules. Today, another sign that what started as the music of the streets has moved to the halls of the academy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSAGE")
A.D. CARSON: (Rapping) Just hoping that no one better expecting fire to come. And still they ask if he wasn't guilty, why did he run?
MARTIN: What you just heard was a sample of A.D. Carson's 34-song hip-hop album. It was also his dissertation for his doctorate, which he received from Clemson University this past May. The academic album made headlines around the world. The University of Virginia's music department took notice. And this fall, A.D. Carson will begin teaching at that department with the official title of assistant professor of hip-hop and the global south. And now professor Carson is with us now from Springfield, Ill., where he is performing some of the work from his album and other work. Professor Carson, congratulations on the degree and the new job.
CARSON: Thank you so much. I really do appreciate it.
MARTIN: So what is a professor of hip-hop? Give us a sense of what you think your curriculum will include.
CARSON: So in the fall, I'll be teaching a class called writing rap. And it's a composition course for music students, but we'll also do some history around hip-hop and the writing of rap songs. The students will be also writing their own rap lyrics. And so you can imagine a composition of a rap course being similar to a composition course where you're learning to write an argumentative essay. And then we'll also try to tackle some of the issues that are going on in the contemporary rap world. So I imagine this upcoming semester will probably talk quite a bit about Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z.
MARTIN: I do want to emphasize, first of all, that that you are not the first person to take hip-hop and rap seriously as an academic subject. And I'm sure you would want me to make sure that that is understood.
MARTIN: But do I have it right that you decided to do the album as your dissertation without knowing for sure that the album would be accepted as your dissertation? This could have been an expensive, not to mention emotionally draining and, you know, time consuming endeavor, if it were not accepted.
CARSON: Yes. I mean, that is very true. And I think that that's part of the reason that it was necessary in my mind to do the project the way that I did it because that's kind of how I felt as a doctoral student in the program being situated on the former plantation that is Clemson University.
MARTIN: And, you know, just to be clear, you don't mean that metaphorically. For those who are not aware, it is, in fact, located on a former plantation. It is not solely a metaphor, let me just say. It is, in fact, a former plantation, just to be clear.
CARSON: It is. And the plantation house, the John C. Calhoun's house is open seven days a week on the campus. And to me, the accessibility of poetry in hip-hop and rap were ways that I could go around that, you know, the so-called academic engagement and just spread what I thought was, you know, a more responsible engagement with that history with people who might be interested in it. And that was where the "See The Stripes" poem came in.
(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "SEE THE STRIPES")
CARSON: You are now a Clemson Tiger. Wear your orange proudly. But it's pretty well-known fact that Tigers have stripes and almost as well-known is the reason they do. Yet Clemson University, home of the Tigers, doesn't do much acknowledging of those dark marks it knows to be so integral a part of its existence. Solid orange, we say, at this university that was once a plantation.
Folks then realized that we were talking about that history and, you know, the current iterations of the, you know, like the legacy that comes along with the history. And the legacy isn't just Thomas Green Clemson or John C. Calhoun, but it's also, you know, all of the people in, you know, like those dark parts that we don't feel like bragging about when the university is having its legacy day or the fact that, you know, people dress up as the historic characters who made Clemson possible but then ignore the fact that there were enslaved people who helped to build the buildings that were there, who did most of that building.
MARTIN: So the inevitable question being asked increasingly of many people who are in traditional liberal arts fields, particularly as university education has become so expensive, is just what makes hip-hop a subject worth teaching? I mean, if a parent calls you up and says, why am I paying for my child to be in your class? Or since the University of Virginia is a public university, why are taxpayers paying for that? You know, what do you say?
CARSON: I think that my response would be the same response that I would give if I was teaching literature at the University of Virginia. And I would say that the reason that we read and engage the literature that we engage with is hopefully for empathy, so that we have ways into worlds that we don't fully understand or that we don't understand in ways that hopefully being in that class will open us up to. I think that many things are presented in hip-hop in ways that we are able to be drawn into the conversation we need to be having through this particular song or through this particular album or this particular artist.
MARTIN: That is A.D. Carson. His 34-song rap album "Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics Of Rhymes And Revolutions" was accepted by Clemson University as his doctoral dissertation this past May. This fall, he will begin teaching at the University of Virginia as the new assistant professor of hip-hop and the global south. Professor Carson, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CARSON: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMEFE'S "STUTTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.