It’s 8:10 a.m., the first day of the spring semester on the snow-covered campus American University (AU), and the classroom is packed. Students enter the room to the beats and lyrics of “Moment of Clarity” from “The Black Album,” Jay-Z’s acclaimed 2003 album. Through the song, the hip-hop artist offered a self-assessment about navigating the music business:
Music business hate me ’cause the industry ain’t make me
Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be making
I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”
If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
Omékongo Dibinga uses this lyrical example to illustrate how context is key in academic research and for creating a historical biography. His AU course, “Jay-Z and the Practice of Historical Biography,” is under AU’s Advanced International Studies Research track in the School of International Services (SIS).
Dibinga has been a professor at AU for three years teaching Cross-Cultural Communications and the course about Jay-Z.
“The two most important words in this class are historical context,” he said. “You can’t just say whatever you want without looking at context. In this class, context matters.”
The “Moment of Clarity” lyrics show that Jay-Z gave music executives what they wanted, that is to make money. Jay-Z originally desired to deliver “conscious rap” such as that produced by rappers Talib Kweli and Common Sense. When listening to all of “Moment of Clarity,” one hears that Jay-Z wanted to make money to give back to his community. The result was a “win-win” as Jay-Z fulfilled his objectives and made money for industry executives.
Dibinga, who raps in three languages, began to take a closer look at Jay-Z when he was a teaching assistant at Georgetown University for Michael Eric Dyson, who has used hip-hop and R&B in his writing and teaching.
Dibinga acknowledges that he started out stereotyping Jay-Z.
“He was not like Public Enemy or A Tribe Called Quest, who I felt might have been talking about things that were socially uplifting,” Dibinga said. “I respected him as a lyricist, but I also see he’s one of the few rappers that I have been able to grow with.”
Because of researching hip-hop and more of Jay-Z’s history, Dibinga wrote “The Life and Rhymes of Jay-Z,” his dissertation at the University of Maryland. Dibinga’s vision is to write a book based on his dissertation.
While reviewing the syllabus for his Jay-Z class, Dibinga breaks down the difference between a regular biography and a historical biography. A historical biography puts context in a life. It goes beyond a chronological timeline.
Students will deliver a research paper and oral presentation on a topic or personality of their choosing for the final class project. The topic does not have to be about hip-hop.
Dibinga knows his course will help his students to better understand how to use research in writing a thesis or dissertation. He also wants to build critical thinking skills.
Dibinga is clear on what he expects from his students, as well as what he won’t tolerate, such as making statements without backing them up with facts.
“We are not gonna just throw things out there in this class,” he said. “As scholars, we must understand that context matters not only as it relates to hip-hop, but with history, in general.”
Dibinga continues to give his students the historical context for Jay-Z’s story. In Jay-Z’s lyrics, the historical context explores how can he get a real job? Drugs were right there and appeared to be the ticket out of his community in the late 1980s when drug dealers had beepers. There is a pause as Dibinga sees puzzled looks on the faces of his students. He realizes that they do not know what is a beeper or a pager. It was an example of historical context and a generational difference.
Sophomore Camila Cisneros of Miami Beach, a SIS major with an emphasis on Latin American Culture, heard about Dibinga’s class from her Lambda Pi Chi line sister.
“I liked the idea of incorporating history into international research,” said Cisneros, who plans to focus her research project on the life of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. “I heard my parents talk about how Venezuela use to be. I want to understand why Venezuela is in the state it is in today.”
Dibinga hopes to deliver research concepts in an exciting way that leads to success for his students. Last year, Yatin Jain, a sophomore SIS student majoring in Global Security, took Dibinga’s Cross-Cultural Communications class. He couldn’t believe it when his professor randomly mentioned that he taught a class about Jay-Z. Jain admits that he has loved Jay-Z since the age of 7.
“I had Professor Dibinga when I was a freshman and he opened up my eyes to a lot of issues I never thought I would learn,” said Jain, who is on a waitlist for the Jay-Z course. “Last year, my research topic did not go as well as I wanted, so I thought taking things from a biographical sense would be a good idea.”