To author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, rapper Jay-Z is “America at its scrappy, brash, irreverent, soulful, ingenious best.”
Dyson has written more than 20 books, many of which are critical explorations of race and hip-hop. His latest, Jay-Z: Made in America, is a deep analysis of the rapper’s catalog of lyrics and its place in hip-hop, and of hip-hop’s place in the world.
“The thing Jay gave me that was most precious and important was the ability to quote liberally, at length, and with no limitation,” Dyson said. “That was a game-changer.”
The book is comprised of a foreword by rapper and producer Pharrell Williams and three large sections: “Hustling,” “Poetry,” and “Politics,” which Dyson sees as the most important element of Jay-Z’s career. He said he wanted to use Jay-Z’s lyrics as “hooks on which to hang my reflections on his very exciting and intriguing life.”
Ahead of a discussion on his book at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books on Monday, Dyson spoke to The Inquirer about his writing process and why he considers Jay-Z to be hip-hop’s most genre-defining artist. This is an edited and condensed transcript.
What was your intention in writing this book?
I wanted to make an assessment of Jay as he hit the half-century mark and 30 years of recording. He’s a guy who’s risen from the bottom to the top, who is constantly changing himself and using his own genius to forge a way in a world that was not made for a black man like him. So I wanted to look at his art, at his social consciousness, his poetic inventiveness and imagination, and his political engagement in the world.
What was your process of choosing which lyrics to explore?
His catalog is sublimely dense with so much reflection, critical engagement, playful banter, but also substantive wrestling with serious issues. So when I wanted to talk about three big issues — hustling, poetry, politics — there was so much to choose from. So it is driven in part by the topics, and then even further by my interpretation of his variances and his lyrical expressions within the realm of those topics.
How long did it take you to complete the book?
I’ve been teaching a class on Jay-Z for nearly 10 years [at Georgetown University] so it’s been marinating in me for nearly a decade. The actual writing of it [has been] in the last couple of years. But it’s been a labor of love for a decade, and this book is the fruition of that reflection.
What are your thoughts on Philly’s role in hip-hop?
It’s got a rich role in hip-hop. I think [Philadelphia] played an enormously important role as a sister city to the origin of hip-hop, New York City. And of course, Meek Mill right now, representing that city in a nearly unprecedented commercial success and also [we’re] finding some of his most powerful lyrical expression to date. Meek Mill represents, I think, the culmination of decades of struggle and wrestling with ideas of overcoming odds to make certain that the ideas of the black urban dweller are seen and heard with the appreciation that they deserve.
On page 35 you write, “LeBron [James] and his mentor Jay-Z are bringing a new definition of black masculine identity and achievement to the public realm.” How so?
They’re both in control of their brands and their images. They control the narrative that surrounds them. They dictate the terms of their interpretation to a large degree. They’ve built enormous empires taking risks on themselves, insisting that they were worthy of both emulation and celebration. And worthy of investment to make certain that they can derive benefits from their images.
If you add social conscience to all of that, Jay and LeBron have leveraged their own cultural capital in defense of ordinary black people, and that’s pretty remarkable.
The book examines several men in hip-hop, but women in the genre — even those who had significant ties to Jay-Z like Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim — don’t seem to have much of a presence. Was that intentional?
It’s certainly a legitimate criticism that could be leveled against me. I think both of them are significant and played a role, but in probing the themes of masculinity, [the book] skewed toward talking about his interaction with and playing off the men in his group to form his edifying or problematic conceptions of gender.
Of course, the woman I do discuss is Beyoncé. So in speaking about her at length, because that’s been the most significant female relationship in his life professionally and personally, I rested a lot of my insight about gender in that relationship but certainly could have extended it to both Foxy and Lil’ Kim.
You write, “Jay-Z has made high art of low culture.” Could you explain?
A passing phenomenon called hip-hop has now become the most popular genre in the world, and Jay-Z insisted that those things we would discard and not see as important were indeed important, and made great and high art out of what was dismissed as low and unredeemable culture.
Michael Eric Dyson, “Jay-Z: Made in America”
6 p.m. Monday, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books, 5445 Germantown Ave., free, 215-438-3678, unclebobbies.com.