On Hip-Hop, Teaching, and Social Justice: An Interview with A.D. Carson

Clemson University doctoral candidate A.D. Carson takes questions during his dissertation defense in the Watt Family Innovation Center auditorium, Feb. 24, 2017 (Photo by Ken Scar).

This month I interviewed A.D. Carson, a performance artist and educator from Decatur, Illinois. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson University doing work that focuses on race, literature, history, and rhetorical performances. Through his See the Stripes campaign, which takes its name from his 2014 poem, Carson has worked with Clemson students, faculty, staff, and community members to raise awareness of historic and entrenched racism at the university. He is an award-winning artist with essays, music, and poetry published at a variety of diverse venues such as The Guardian, Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public-Radio Program, and Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, among others. His essay “Trimalchio from Chicago: Flashing Lights and the Great Kanye in West Egg” appears in The Cultural Impact of Kanye West (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and “Oedipus—Not So Complex: A Blueprint for Literary Education” is published in Jay-Z: Essays on Hip Hop’s Philosopher King (McFarland & Co., 2011). He has written a novel, COLD, which hybridizes poetry, rap lyrics, and prose, and The City: [un]poems, thoughts, rhymes & miscellany, a collection of poems, short stories, and essays. Carson is a 2016 recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Excellence in Service at Clemson University. Follow him on Twitter/IG @aydeethegreat.

Darryl Robertson: Please tell us more about your dissertation topic. What inspired you to make a hip-hop album to defend your dissertation?

A.D. Carson: “Owning My Masters” is a digital archive of original rap music and spoken word poetry. Rather than theorizing about hip-hop, my project “does” this work through the genre of hip-hop. We know the study of hip-hop has assisted in pushing through some of the boundaries imposed by many academic conventions. I think the performance of some of hip-hop’s cultural products tend to exist on the margins of what is considered “proper” scholarly engagement in many academic disciplines. This works to reproduce certain forms of – and assumptions about – knowledge production regarding hip-hop. My project privileges rap and spoken word poetry as its primary means of rhetorical engagement, and its content calls for attentiveness to historical and contemporary social justice issues. There are 34 tracks in the primary playlist, as well as seven additional playlists, a YouTube video channel, a chronological timeline annotated with media and bibliographic resources, photo galleries, and a blog with essays, videos, publications, and other associated media.

Tricia Rose’s Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America is an invaluable text. I hope my project is performing what she calls “techno-black cultural syncretism” by combining Black oral traditions with the sampling of Black voices by utilizing recording technologies to enter into conversations with those voices.

Robertson: Your research explores identity, language, and justice. How do you explore these topics in the dissertation?

Carson: It is difficult – and something I try to resist – to articulate what my work means. With this work and lots of art, meaning is dialogical and often open to collective construction at any given moment. I can much more easily talk about my intentions when composing and my process. Of course, I hope there are places to which those intentions and those processes lead, but I know I often fail at this.

12 Years A Slave was one of the first films I saw when I got to Clemson. It was not lost on me that I had moved onto a plantation. Being an artist and a performer brought me south. I am not Solomon Northup. But I was acutely aware of the similarities. In Northup’s story, as Hortense Spillers notes, he writes about bonded persons who were made to dance for their masters. 12 Years A Slave offers us yet another way to see the brutality of slavery and the ways in which communities were constructed within the confines of that particular social arrangement, and also the ways certain identities were forced upon the (enslaved) people living within that arrangement. Solomon Northup’s story and that film are, undeniably, part of my story at Clemson, so I use audio from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal to respond to the questions at the end of each verse of “Talking to Ghosts [Produced by Preme]” (Where are you? Who are you? and What are you?).

Language is necessarily explored throughout the project. As a framing device I have envisioned a cypher taking place in that underground space Ralph Ellison writes as the dwelling place of his narrator in Invisible Man. In this space a number of voices are standing out clearly from the rest to say their piece, waiting patiently for the other voices to speak. This has been helpful to think about what I mean by “dope” when I use the term to describe scholarship. When the narrator has smoked he is described as having “discovered a new analytical way of listening to music.” He is on dope. For the emcee, the dope we want a listener to be under the influence of is language.

Justice is also dealt with in a number of ways throughout the project. I started writing the album the day after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted. The song is not on the album’s final playlist but can be found on the “other sounds” section of the site with lots of other content. It is called “Right Here In America” and is written to the instrumental of Jay-Z’s “Somewhere In America” from Magna Carta Holy Grail. Where Jay-Z raps about Miley Cyrus twerking I write:

Somewhere in America, looking to target me,

is a man thinking ‘Birth of a Nation’ without a sheet,

who feels his grounds need stood, and probably,

since I ain’t his property,

won’t properly pardon me,

but feels like I’m harboring

some aggression, and ought to be

more respectful in honoring

that I’m here, so he wants to teach me a lesson,

except I know what I know—and it’s just this:

These fists, these feet, this brain, and this heart

can’t be dismissed without laying a few scars.


So Somewhere in America They’re fearing

‘cause it’s scarier that Right Here in America We’re ready.

Robertson: How do you think your dissertation will change the way hip-hop is assessed by scholars? How do you think it will transform the field in general?

Carson: My hope is that the production of hip-hop–writing, music, poetry, art, dance–continues to be counted as, added to, and accepted among the many ways we respond to the pressing questions being asked and addressed in our scholarship. I want to change the politics of knowledge production. It is clear there is much to be appreciated in what hip-hop offers to many academic conversations. I do not know that the dissertation calls for transformation so much as it asks what might be gained from opening up those conversations to others who might want to participate by way of these types of offerings of responses to the calls.

Clemson University doctoral candidate A.D. Carson prepares to defend his dissertation in the Watt Family Innovation Center auditorium, Feb. 24, 2017 (Photo by Ken Scar).

Robertson: How has hip-hop given you hope inside the classroom? And how does hip-hop offer hope to youth in urban spaces?

Carson: Since high school I had a desire to write, and rap was what I wrote most. My insistence that I process and write in this way has helped me as a thinker and scholar. Philosophically, this naturally leads me to advocate for scholars attempting to find and embrace their voices and then consider presenting those voices when and where they feel appropriate. But we should all understand the consequences, as stated earlier, could easily become matters of life and death. I think that hip-hop opens up a space for me as an educator to introduce works to my students in a form many of them enjoy listening and responding to and many create themselves. Countless students express in class how much this enjoyment affects their attention to a given text or subject in class. I definitely was that way in high school and as an undergraduate. I have been teaching Citizen and The Fire Next Time to high school students the past two years in South Carolina, and the ways the students understand and interpret the texts through hip-hop are remarkable. I think my project is one of the many ways I have seen and heard artists, activists, and scholars who see and feel (in and through hip-hop) hope that a better world is possible. Many of us see the great work people like Chance, 9th Wonder, and Talib Kweli are doing around the world.

Robertson: What types of responses have you received since you created a hip hop album to defend your dissertation?

Carson: The week of my dissertation defense I spoke to a graduate student who was about to go into a meeting with his committee to talk about his dissertation. He is interested in doing a project that is performance-based and called to congratulate me and to say thank you. I was humbled by that call because I never really considered the possibility that my project might help other people considering their own project so immediately. I am aware, now, that there are numerous scholars interested in doing similar work, and have been in contact with many people to talk about these projects. I am truly appreciative of those conversations as well as the congratulations and encouragement that have come in the wake of the dissertation defense. I am also just really happy to have that phase over with and to have successfully defended!

The Rhetorics, Communication and Information Design at Clemson University is a forward-thinking, transdisciplinary program. Being in this program made doing a project like mine much easier than I assume it might have been somewhere else. Along with my project I presented a 279 page written document and a 37 page digital booklet/liner notes to my committee before I defended the digital archive/album. I state these things because much of the criticism that I have encountered about “Owning My Masters” has been more concerned with the form than the content. Many question the implications of a project like this on the particular genre of scholarship that is the doctoral dissertation. I hope those conversations that will ultimately lead to productive work. I assume people inside and outside of so-called scholarly communities know and understand rap’s rhetorical functions on a basic level, and people can see how this project demonstrates that.

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Darryl Robertson

Darryl Robertson is a graduate student at Fordham University studying hip-hop and African American history. He is especially interested in understanding how the Black Panther Party serviced black communities during the late-1960s. Follow him on Twitter @darry_robertson.