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Getting Schooled On Jay Z: Professor Links Rapper's Lyrics To Historic African-American Writers

Gus Contreras / KERA News

Usually students get to class early to pick a good seat. Get to Kenton Rambsy’s class early and you’ll hear Jay Z’s music playing in the room.

The artist is the subject of a debut course called “The Life and Times of S. Carter.” Sean Carter is the given name of the Brooklyn-born rapper.

Jay Z’s more than a rapper. Rambsy says he’s practically a modern day Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright or Malcolm X.

The professor says themes in his music are just as significant as the writings and speeches of these historical African American figures.

That’s because the music is literature.

“I know we’re in a college classroom, we’re studying literature and it’s supposed to be so serious,” Rambsy said in his lecture. “It stood the test of time, but I want to remind you guys of something. Literature was meant to entertain.”

Rambsy’s students are breaking down Jay Z’s lyrics for meaning and connecting those lyrics to the black American experience today.

Like in Jay Z’s song “Public Service Announcement," when he dips into his past as a former drug dealer:

Allow me to reintroduce myself

My name is Hov' -- oh, H to the O V

I used to move snowflakes by the O Z.

I used to move snowflakes by the O Z,” Rambsy said, reciting Jay Z’s lyrics to his students. “That’s a lot right there. What’s going on in those three lines? He’s like I’m not a drug dealer anymore get away from that. Get away, I’m not a drug dealer anymore. I’m reintroducing myself, I am a businessman. I am respectable, I am of high society.”

During his lecture, Rambsy says the great African-American writers are often recognized for their honest storytelling of American life. And that Jay Z’s no different.

“This is how he explains, this is how he talks to us,” Rambsy tells his class. “This is how he tells an American story. This dude from Marcy Projects, a drug dealer is pulling up all these particular things to communicate with us. Think about that you guys.”

Rambsy picked Jay Z because he’s been around since the '90s and produced several albums. His longevity means that there’s plenty of material to study.  

“Not only do we judge rap careers but we judge writing careers off that, too,” Rambsy said. “How often do people stay in the public eye? How often do they command the attention through their works, through their stories? And that's one of the reasons I think Jay Z is so important and so valuable as a literary figure.”

Rambsy says Jay Z is most similar to Frederick Douglass. In their work, they both explore about how they made better lives for themselves.

For Douglass, it was escaping slavery. For Jay Z, it’s about getting out of the drug trade.

“It seems like he describes it as captivity,” Rambsy said. “He's talking about this idea of going from captivity to freedom, from North to South, from Brooklyn to Manhattan in a lot of different ways."

Rambsy is 27 and grew up listening to Jay Z’s music. He got the idea for this class after reading Jay Z’s autobiography.

UT-Arlington is among many colleges across the country that offer courses based on musician lyrics. Elsewhere there are courses on the Beatles, Kendrick Lamar and Madonna. Even Rambsy’s older brother in Illinois teaches a class about a trio of rappers.

Rambsy’s students like this unique way of learning.

Ayona Dixon, 24, is an English major. She didn’t even know the class was about Jay Z when she signed up for it.

“I think it's something different," Dixon says. "I'm not going to say other classes are boring. It's just kind of the same repetition, so to teach it like this it's entertaining and makes you actually want to learn.”

Rambsy says he’s happy with the new class. He’s going to offer another lyrics course this fall. Or as Jay Z might say, he’s ready for his “Encore.”

Gus Contreras is a digital producer and reporter at KERA News. Gus produces the local All Things Considered segment and reports on a variety of topics from, sports to immigration. He was an intern and production assistant for All Things Considered in Washington D.C.