The Blog

The Reaction to Jay-Z Studies Shows Guardian Readers Aren't as Educated as They Think

Last month Professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University announced he would be teaching a class entitled "Sociology of Hip Hop" focusing on the life and career of one of the genre's most successful rappers, Jay-Z.

Last month Professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University announced he would be teaching a class entitled "Sociology of Hip Hop" focusing on the life and career of one of the genre's most successful rappers, Jay-Z. The announcement was met with criticism from some in the American national media as well as the University's very own student paper the Hoya, where student Stephen Wu haughtily dismissed the course as: "poppycock."

The story wasn't picked up in the UK until last Wednesday when American social commentator Mychal Denzel Smith published a piece on the Guardian online defending the merits of the course. The piece rightly argued "Jay's life and music are fertile ground for investigating issues of poverty, criminalisation, misogyny, performances of black masculinity, capitalism, linguistics, black political identity and much more."

While the article was reassuringly progressive towards the course, readers were not. One of the most 'recommended' comments on the Guardian's article reads: "Hip hop is about treating women as bitches and hos, killing gays and drug dealing on the streets. If it is going to be taught - it must be as the vile criminal thing it is - one which has destroyed the aspirations of a generation."

Another argues that Hip Hop: "promotes hatred of the Police... the selling of hard drugs... a violent culture... [and] treating women as bitches and ho's."

What's so alarming about the comments is not that people still believe these negative stereotypes- Hip Hop is a diverse genre, it doesn't promote any one thing- but that they use them as justifications not to study it.

'Nothingchanges' writes: "I teach at university, and it fills me with shame and disgust when rubbish topics are elevated to the status of academic subjects."

Jay-Z is not a 'rubbish topic', and Hip-Hop even less so. While some of Jay-Z's work isn't PC, as TV reports dubbed with '99 Problems' and 'Big Pimping' highlight, ignoring it won't make it go away. In fact, if we really listened we'd realise that Jay-Z's music can tell us something about our own society. Like many musical movements and artists, Hip Hop is a gateway to understanding the cultural concerns and realities of certain groups during certain eras.

Just as Bob Dylan represented the liberal attitude of 1960s America, Fela Kuti embodied a reaction against the Nigerian government of the 1970s and N.W.A. captured the racial tensions in late 80s L.A., Jay-Z is equally emblematic of his times. His songs capture both the poverty and crime at lower end of the American spectrum and the individualistic, money-grabbing spirit that characterised the upper echelons in the pre-credit crunch 00ies.

The problem is the cultures Jay-Z represents are not ones many want to acknowledge. His songs about expensive cars, women and copious consumption lack the humility, or "embarrassment of riches" as Simon Schama put it, that middle and upper classes feel necessary to moderate success. It's not socially acceptable to 'flash your cash'.

At the other end of the spectrum his songs about his youth depict a world corrupted by systemic poverty and crime in an uncomfortably honest light. Jay frankly talks about drug dealing and violence, highlighting how it made him rich and successful rather than condemning it.

But these songs are both social commentaries and projections of identity and are abundant with significance for sociologists.

Even if you're not convinced Jay-Z is the chronicler of his age, he is a culturally significant figure. He's sold 50 million albums worldwide, has 2 albums in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Album's of All Time list and can boast residency on Obama's iPod. You might disapprove of his music, but isn't it worth examining how he's made millions from it?

"Ideologyissacred" wrote on the Guardian's piece: "I dream of a culture without Hip-Hop." As much as readers may want to stick their head in the sand, Hip Hop has become a dominant force on both sides of the Atlantic, and a vital method of expression for many. You may disapprove of it, but it's worth understand what you're disagreeing with and why it's come about.

We need to start acknowledging this and listen to what artists are telling us. Professor Dyson's class and Mychal Smith's article are steps in the right direction. Readers reactions are not.