by Elizabeth Ash and Amanda Van Orden — October 5, 2018
Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammy Awards performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” may not be the typical start to a class at Georgetown University. But for professor Michael Eric Dyson, pop-cultural emblems and music videos regularly feature in his “Sociology and Culture: Beyoncé” class; a course where students often discuss topics such as the political implication of Beyoncé’s inclusion of young black men as backup singers.
Since his arrival at Georgetown in 2007, Dyson has lectured almost a thousand Hoyas about the fusion of politics, hip-hop and race relations. His fame and popularity among students with classes like “Sociology of Hip-Hop,” as well as impassioned sermons to church congregations, have attracted NBC and Washington Post reporters to his lectures.
Dyson believes art, no matter how subtle, can act as a platform for resistance. His work as a sociology professor blurs into artistic expression: He is a prolific author of more than 20 books, a political analyst for several news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC, and an ordained Baptist minister since age 19. Indeed, Dyson’s many art forms — teaching, writing, preaching, protesting — all contribute to his political activism.
The Scholarship of Hip-hop
Dyson began exploring the United States’ tumultuous racial divide through hip-hop lyrics during his time at Princeton University, where he earned his doctorate in religion in 1993. At the time, many scholars scoffed at the notion that hip-hop could be perceived as an academic discipline. However, Dyson saw hip-hop — or, as he prefers to call it, the “CNN of the inner-city” — in a different light.
Dyson explained that the genre has historically served as an avenue for young black Americans to express pertinent social issues ignored by mainstream media.
“The racial traumas and crisis of society were being addressed in music,” he said in an interview with The Hoya.
Dyson first brought his scholarly hip-hop analysis to classrooms in 1995 at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Since joining the sociology department at Georgetown in 2007, Dyson has created courses about Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. Enrollment in his courses are healthy by any professor’s standards, with his Jay-Z class attracting 150 students.
Teaching a course about Beyoncé means keeping up with the ever-changing nature of pop culture. Drawing parallels to his personal friend Jay-Z — who Skyped into Dyson’s class a few years ago — Dyson said he always strives to “learn and grow and be inspired by young people.”