Jay-Z: Not a 21st-Century Homer
Published: Monday, October 31, 2011
Updated: Monday, October 31, 2011 22:10
Twice per week, 134 undergraduates proceed into class to discuss the sociology on hip-hop, viewed through the lens on rap person Jay-Z. When I initially heard about the course, I thought it perhaps a clever, ironic dig at modern sociological methodology and the dismal state of contemporary musical culture. As such, I was stunned to learn that this is a genuine academic offering in Georgetown College, a school that purports to be intellectually serious and maintain a commitment to real liberal education.
The syllabus, which prudently drops the rather extravagant original subtitle of the course as "Urban Theodicy," gives a broad outline of the class structure, covering literary analysis, race relations and the "sociology of knowledge" manifest in the rapper's life and compositions. The prism through which this prospect wide and various is viewed is the work of one Shawn Carter, who goes by the stage name of Jay-Z.
Carter represents an element of modern American society that many find crude and unpleasant, so it is important to understand the viewpoint of this particular party. It is less appropriate, however, to spend an entire course on this material and pretend that it fulfills a serious academic purpose.
Perhaps, though, I protest too much. Perhaps there is some scholarly merit in this class and too much rigidity in my own conception of the liberal arts. After observing a few class sessions, however, I remain convinced that the course cannot stand intellectual muster.
The fundamental reason why we ostensibly study Jay-Z is because of his "important cultural impact," replete with an ordered hierarchy of discipline, politics and excellence. Now, his conception of excellence may or may not accord with Ciceronian virtus, but even this can be bemusedly contemplated until the claim is uttered that he is in some way an inheritor of the great Homeric tradition.
"Were he alive during the period of ancient Greece," the course professor charges, Carter "would be regarded as a god in terms of literary and poetic expression." This is poppycock. The claim is so wildly risible that it almost single-handedly discredits the entire project. The proposition that Jay-Z is in the same galaxy as — much less the heir to — the preeminent epic poet of human history represents a basic misapprehension of either Jay-Z's importance or the development of Western thought and literature over 2,500 years.
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.
Charlton Heston once read out the lyrics of a hip-hop song called "Cop Killer" at a record company's shareholder meeting. Those words have no place on these pages, and likewise no place in serious scholarship. As Allan Bloom, one of the most eminent critics and observers of modern life and education noted, this type of music has "only one appeal, a barbaric appeal to sexual desire," to inflame the base emotions, which proceeds to do nothing less than "ruin the imagination of young people and make it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education."
The stakes of this type of class, then, are no small matter. 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.
When I asked a peer what class I was sitting in on, with a bit of embarrassment, she sheepishly admitted that it was "sociology … of hip hop." Her blush confirmed what we all know: At this ancient school, with the accumulated wisdom of the ages, we should not be spending our time in sorry endeavors.
We want to learn what is real and important to the human person, and we understand that Jay-Z is not Homer; he is not a "literary god," and he is ultimately unworthy of this place and this noble mission. If there is one benefit of this class, though, it is that it brings up the civilizational question of what we will bequeath two millennia hence to students: Presenting the majesty of the "Iliad" or the sad tale of Carter's sound and fury.
Stephen Wu is a junior in the College.