By: Caroline Newman | University Communications
A.D. Carson read his first poetry book as a fourth-grader in central Illinois, when he asked his teacher if he could make his writing assignment rhyme.
Decades later, Carson – now a University of Virginia professor of hip-hop and a prolific rapper – still loves writing rhymes.
“Writing is how I feel my way through new spaces,” Carson said, speaking shortly after moving to Charlottesville from Clemson, South Carolina, where he earned his Ph.D. from Clemson University. “I have been here for a week and recorded two pieces already.”
It was Carson’s writing – and his talent for crafting compelling rap lyrics – that led him to create arguably the most unique dissertation in Clemson history, and one that garnered media attention worldwide. Instead of a typical dissertation – pages and pages of text and citations – Carson wrote, performed and produced a 34-song rap album, “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions.”
Tracks on the album – which begins with a riff on the Confederate anthem “Dixie,” before launching into raps weaving together history, literature, art and current events – have attracted tens of thousands of YouTube viewers, more than 60,000 listeners on SoundCloud and more than half-a-million hits on Facebook. The quality impressed faculty members in Carson’s rhetorics, communication and information design doctoral program, and ultimately caught the attention of faculty members in UVA’s McIntire Department of Music. Carson was hired as an Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop and the Global South this spring. His appointment builds on the legacy of Kyra Gaunt, a former professor of ethnomusicology at UVA from 1996 to 2002, who helped pioneer hip-hop studies at UVA and nationwide.
1998 music graduate Erik Nielson, called Gaunt "one of the forerunners of hip-hop scholarship." UVA, he said, gave her research an early platform.
"Her scholarship really helped redefine what hip-hop is and revealed the role that women and girls play in the importance of hip-hop," said Nielson, who now teaches hip-hop at the University of Richmond.
Gaunt, now about to join the faculty at the University of Albany, taught classes on African-American popular music, particularly focusing on the art of deejaying and the dance culture that came with hip-hop music. She often brought local DJs in to perform for students, and wrote about her class for a top academic journal, Musical Quarterly, sharing her innovative approach. It struck a nerve at UVA, attracting nearly 100 students just in her first semester.
"I believe I set a precedent of immersing yourself in the firsthand, personal study of making music, making hip-hop, as opposed to simply studying the lyrics," Gaunt said. She said she had followed Carson's work at Clemson closely, and was glad to see him choose UVA.
"Those of us in hip-hop were very excited to see what he has done," she said. "Having him at UVA will be such a draw for students who are musically inclined and also want to get a Ph.D. studying hip-hop. Perhaps it will send a ripple through music departments throughout the country."
Current faculty members are eager to see what Carson will add to Gaunt's legacy.