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SIS Class Places Jay-Z's Life in Context

In conjunction with Black History Month’s 2024 celebration of “African Americans in the Arts,” we talked with SIS professor Omekongo Dibinga to learn more about his undergraduate class, “Jay-Z and Historical Biography.”

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February marks Black History Month—a time to recognize the contributions and achievements of Black Americans. The theme for this year’s Black History Month is “African Americans in the Arts,” which will highlight the achievements of Black artists, including visual and performing artists.

Legendary hip-hop artist Jay-Z is known worldwide for his many accolades, his discography spanning decades, and his trailblazing career in the music industry. After releasing his debut album in 1996, all 13 of his studio albums have been certified platinum, and he’s estimated to have sold more than 33 million records, per Business Insider. Jay-Z received the second annual Dr. Dre Global Impact Award at the 2024 Grammy Awards

The rapper’s life is a focus of an undergraduate class at SIS, “Jay-Z and Historical Biography,” taught by SIS professor Omekongo Dibinga. In honor of this year’s Black History Month theme celebrating artists, we sat down with Dibinga to learn more about the inspiration for his undergraduate class and get a taste of what students learn.  

Inspired by Artistry

Dibinga dove headfirst into Jay-Z’s world when writing his dissertation, “The Life & Rhymes of Jay-Z: An Historical Biography.” His decision to write about the 24-time Grammy award-winner came after a change of heart.

“I'm also a rapper, a poet, and a motivational speaker, and I was not a big fan of Jay-Z at all, because I felt like when I would be going into schools, and I would be going into prisons, and I'd be talking to kids in different places, I felt like I was telling them not to do the things that Jay-Z was rapping about,” Dibinga explained. “Like, I’d say, ‘Don’t get caught up in the sex and the drugs,’ and ‘stay in school, don’t be a drop-out.’”

“I felt like [Jay-Z’s] message was a problem for my community,” Dibinga added. “I appreciated his ability to put lyrics together, but I felt like he was part of the problem.”

It wasn’t until Dibinga contemplated Jay-Z’s lyrics in the song “Moment of Clarity” that his opinion of the rapper began to shift:

I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars

They criticize 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

“Talib Kweli and Common Sense are political rappers, so, basically what he was saying in that verse was like, ‘I would love to rap about politics and Black empowerment, but you all are not going to buy it. And I want to help people, and I also want to be rich. So, I gave you all what you wanted, I got rich, and now I'm able to help people the way I want’,” Dibinga explained.

This realization led Dibinga to jump deeper into Jay-Z’s music catalog, where he found “snippets of Black empowerment” throughout his lyrics.

“That’s when I realized that we shouldn't judge people prematurely,” Dibinga said. “We should do the work beyond the superficial and get to know them, and that everybody's story is worthy of study. So, that experience turned [Jay-Z] from one of my most hated rappers to one of my favorites of all time.”

Jay-Z in the Classroom

In his undergraduate class, Dibinga teaches students the process he used to write a historical biography of Jay-Z. Instead of starting at Jay-Z’s birth, Dibinga takes a longer lens and walks students through the period of history leading up to the rapper’s birth.

“When you look at Jay-Z, he obviously has his rap accolades, but he's also directly tied to the civil rights movement in a particular sense in that he was born on the same day that Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was assassinated—December 4, 1969,” Dibinga explained. “So, with that class, what we do is we put somebody's life in context. We talk about what they inherit, what's going on in the world before they even get here that will determine their life chances and their life story.”

As part of the curriculum, students in the class choose a person to profile in a historical biography. Dibinga said there is an array of interesting figures that his students have chosen to profile in the past, ranging from political figures, like AOC and Winston Churchill, to personal influences, like favorite schoolteachers.

The course encourages students to understand their research subjects on a “deeper level” by examining how their personal experiences and the time period in which they lived contributed to their life story, Dibinga explained.

“SIS students are reading the books about Churchill, Thatcher, and Mandela, but what went behind the decisions that they made? What were the experiences in their lives that would lead them to sign this treaty or start this war or lead in a particular way? SIS students need to continue to get into the minds of the people they’re studying, because in doing that at a deeper level, it better helps them understand themselves as future practitioners,” Dibinga said.

The class also explores different challenges in writing a historical biography, including the differences in writing about a man versus a woman and how to approach writing about someone who is a different race from the author.

At the end of the semester, students submit a research paper on their chosen person and present their historical biography to the class.

Celebrating Artists During Black History Month

There are many ways to celebrate Black History Month this year and recognize the contributions of African Americans in the arts. The Smithsonian is hosting an array of events this month to highlight the contributions of African Americans in visual arts, music, cultural movements, and more.

When recognizing artists during Black History Month and beyond, Dibinga encourages people to look deeper.

“What I would encourage people to do for Black History Month and beyond is go beyond the artists,” Dibinga said. “Ask yourself, ‘Why did they write that song? What was happening in our society at the time that they created that song?’ If you can go to that deeper level, like I had to do with Jay-Z, you develop a greater appreciation for the artists beyond, ‘Oh, I love how they hit that note,’ or ‘I love how they put that rhyme together.’”