By Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II
Troubled circumstances in his youth. Occupant of an environment shaped by persistent and structural anti-black racism. A memoir to reflect on his experiences. Those characteristics describe Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and others. They also describe the life and times of Shawn Carter, best known, as Jay Z.
The past two semesters, people have often asked us why Jay Z is a central figure in our African American literary courses. Even though many people place him among a cohort of legendary lyricists and moguls, we have found that our students, rap fans, and some educators may still wonder what makes Jay Z worthy of focused attention in a literature course.
As African American literary scholars and as researchers who actively study and produce works in digital formats, we’ve been drawn to Jay Z and his work for a number of reasons. Among those reasons, we’ve often returned to the following four:
• A continuing tradition of black men autobiographical narratives – From The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass to The Life and Times of S. Carter, we’ve been interested in studying the autobiographical narratives of a range of black men. Douglass, Wright, Malcolm, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and so forth. We realized that Jay Z’s own narratives corresponded to and departed from the discussions of figures who’ve worked through the challenges and opportunities of negotiating life as black men in America.
• Jay Z’s work is notably data-rich – Jay Z’s 12 solo albums contain 74, 751 words, 8, 311 unique word types, over 100 different producers, and more than 35 featured artists. “
• Jay Z as a gateway artist – As a rapper, Jay Z is fond of signifying on words and phrasings from a wide range of source materials, and more broadly, his music – arranged by more than 100 producers – samples an expansive body of various other music. Add that with the dozens (or should we say “hundreds”) of artists that Jay Z has collaborated with over the course of his career, and we view him as an endlessly fascinating gateway, linking to countless other figures in hip hop. We’ve also find him to serve as a gateway to a range of other topics concerning popular culture to emerge over the last 20 years.
• Jay Z as the crossroads of multiple interests – We’ve found that our research and writing on Jay Z allows us to combine our interests in rap music, literary studies, data science, digital humanities, and African American artistic culture.
• A Notebook on Jay Z