Rap icon, husband to Beyoncé, and...a major figure in ethnic literature? In Assistant Professor Kenton Rambsy's The Life and Times of S. Carter course in the Department of English, students are approaching the work of Jay Z (aka Shawn Carter) through that lens.
"One of the major shifts over the last two decades in Black Studies has been the rise of what we might call hip-hop studies," Dr. Rambsy says.
I could go on and on describing the discoveries we're making about Jay Z in this course.
His course is unique in the way it employs data-driven discovery to explore literature. His students use text-mining software to quantify linguistic and thematic trends between Jay Z's albums and classic literary texts by African-American writers. Then, they compile data sets on Jay Z in order to produce thematic data visualizations, literary timelines, and a list of key terms, pinpointing intellectual and cultural components of rap and hip-hop music.
"It's exciting to place Jay Z in a broader literary context," says Rebecca Newsom, a junior English major. "Also, this course is giving me hands-on experience accessing, creating, and viewing Jay Z, poetry, and literary history as general data."
Rambsy is eager to bring the hip-hop-as-literature discussion into the world of data.
"I could go on and on describing the discoveries we're making about Jay Z in this course," he says. "Mainly, what I want people to understand is the idea of considering data in hip-hop studies."
Check out Kenton Rambsy’s thoughts on Jay Z’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame at his website, Cultural Front.
Jay Z is only the tip of the iceberg. For over a decade now, many scholars have been interested in studying rap as literary art. For an overview of rap poetics, the forces that shaped each period in rap's historical development, and more than 300 rap and hip-hop lyrics written over 30 years, check out The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, with contributions by rappers Common and Chuck D.