It’s a rainy Friday in late October, the first cold night of fall, and the people who’ve dared to venture outside tiptoe quickly around autumn leaves sticking slick on the Downtown Mall bricks.
A few stories above, it’s warm and cozy inside the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, where a small crowd has gathered to hear some rap.
A.D. Carson stands a few feet away from the stage and listens intently to Sons of Ichibei, Marcel P. Black, and Black Liquid. He puts his hands up when artists ask for it, joins in on the “no human’s illegal,” “peace to Puerto Rico,” and “fuck Donald Trump” call-and-response segments. He nods his head with the beat and occasionally runs a hand through his beard.
When it’s Carson’s turn to take the stage for the last set of the evening, the Rugged Arts Hip-Hop Showcase organizers and members of Sons of Ichibei give him a glowing introduction.
“This next performer, entertainer, educator—educator, educator, educator—is breaking down walls,” says Remy St. Clair to a round of applause. “He has the vision, he has the walk, and he needs soldiers behind him. I am one of them.”
Bathed in a wash of cobalt light, Carson begins his five-song set with “Kill Whitey,” a track off his latest release, Sleepwalking 2. The message is simple: “It’s just my opinion white supremacy should die,” Carson spits on the hook. But there’s more to the song than that. As St. Clair notes, the song is an education, one on white supremacy, what it looks like and how it operates, how it affects Carson, and others, directly.
“They got the police scared of what I potentially/ Will do to them, and so they made a note mentally/ to get to me, before I do to anybody else what they did to me and so that limits the/ freedom that I get to see,” Carson spits on the second verse.
It’s a song that begs a second listen, a third, then a fourth.
Carson closes his eyes as he performs, hands moving through the air before him. When he references a book, he makes one with his palms; he holds an invisible pen and writes words in the air.
He’s a brilliant MC, known for his smooth flow and his unusually prolific production of thought-provoking rhymes.
Read more about Carson’s latest release, Sleepwalking 2, at the end of this story.
He’s also an inspired academic, having earned a Ph.D. in rhetorics, communication, and information design from Clemson University in May 2017. He created and submitted his doctoral dissertation in the form of a 34-track rap album, Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions—maybe you heard about it on NPR, or read about it in Time magazine, or in Complex. Currently, he’s assistant professor of hip-hop and the global South at the University of Virginia.
In the underground hip-hop world, academic credentials don’t matter. In the academic world, hip-hop credentials don’t matter. But Carson’s cred holds up in both spaces, and he’s perhaps the first artist and scholar to bridge the two worlds in the ways that he does. He’s well aware of the weight that responsibility rests upon his shoulders, and he’s up to the task of carrying it.
‘What are you gonna do with it?’
A.D. Carson grew up in Decatur, Illinois, about three hours south of Chicago and three hours west of Indianapolis. Some of Carson’s classmates grew up to work in the same factories that employed their parents, while others went off to college.
Almost as soon as Carson could talk, one of his aunties started calling him “Professor.”
“I’d come out and say some ridiculous thing that my little mind had conjured up, and she’d be like, ‘here goes the Professor,’” Carson recalls. The nickname wasn’t entirely affectionate, he says, “but better in this world to be called ‘professor’ or ‘lawyer’ than to be called the thing that the world views with such disdain that, if your body is destroyed by this world, folks aren’t surprised and actually expect it and applaud it.”
Once Carson could read, he read voraciously, anything he could get his hands on, including Walter Mosley detective novels and the leather-bound volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia that Carson’s mother pulled from the shelf only after Carson finished his chores and washed his hands.
He was athletic and dreamed of playing basketball in the NBA, or at least getting a scholarship to college. But his reality was poetry. While in fourth grade at Durfee Elementary School, Carson asked his teacher, Mrs. Audrey Graves, if he could make one of his assignments rhyme. Mrs. Graves didn’t just agree, she encouraged the request by giving Carson a somewhat dusty but essential book of “Afro American” poetry that included work by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. Rhyming assignments became Carson’s favorite challenge, each one an exciting new puzzle to create and solve.
Carson began writing his own poetry, and a few years later he had the chance to meet Brooks, poet laureate of Illinois, former U.S. poet laureate, and the first black person to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950, for Annie Allen). Carson handed Brooks an original poem, she handed him her address, and the two struck up a correspondence, one where Brooks—who cared deeply about mentoring young black poets—gave Carson feedback on his work.
“I want to be a poet,” Carson told Brooks.
“It’s clear that you are that,” Carson recalls her telling him. “What are you gonna do with it?”
Around the same time Brooks affirmed Carson a poet, Carson became captivated by another art form: rap.
Carson estimates he was maybe 12 or 13 when he caught himself humming the hook of 2Pac and Thug Life’s “Bury Me A G”: “I ain’t got time for bitches/ Gotta keep my mind on my motherfuckin’ riches.”
Rap was everywhere in Carson’s life. His older brother religiously watched “Rap City” on BET. His older cousin, Tony, counted rap as one of the many arts he practiced, along with poetry, the visual arts, and martial arts. Carson’s friends listened to it constantly. At family parties, people rapped casually.
But for a long time, Carson hadn’t cared much about rap. Experiences like those described in raps like “Bury Me A G” weren’t in the books he liked to read, or on the shows he liked to watch—shows like “Jeopardy!” and reruns of “Quantum Leap,” a program that gave Carson a bit of hope that “maybe we can change,…maybe we could go back and right some wrongs and make the present better so that the future is correct, in some way.”
Rap captured the attention of everyone around him, but Carson wasn’t the kind of kid who did what everyone else was doing.
But he did want to be like Tony…and “Bury Me A G” was catchy…and Carson realized that he could probably rap, because he had plenty of skills that could translate. As a poet, he knew rhyming words. As a reader, he knew storytelling. He knew plenty of random trivia, thanks to those encyclopedias, “Jeopardy!,” and all the shows he watched with his mom (“Gunsmoke,” “I Love Lucy,” anything on Lifetime) and his grandma (“Matlock,” “Hunter,” “Hee Haw,” Trinity Broadcasting Network).
So Carson started rapping. It wasn’t long before his brother brought him to house parties, where there was always a DJ and the chance to freestyle. “I was this little bitty dude, four foot eight as a freshman in high school,” says Carson, so while no one could see him over the taller teenagers in the crowd, they could hear him as he spit his lyrics, and word started getting around about his skill.
Carson wrote raps to have at the ready when people asked, and they were always asking. He and his friends rapped in the school cafeteria, banging out beats on the lunch tables. They passed raps like notes in class, where one person wrote a few bars of lyrics on a piece of paper, passed it to someone else to continue the rap in the next class period, and so on.
High school “was when it really solidified in my mind that this is what I want to do,” says Carson. He still wrote poetry, but at that point, being a professional rapper was his “only aspiration,” even though most people discouraged him from pursuing it as anything more than a hobby. He continued writing and performing raps through his undergraduate degrees in creative writing and education at Millikin University, through his time as a high school teacher in Decatur, through a creative writing fellowship (he’s published two novels), through a master’s degree in English at the University of Illinois, Springfield. When he moved to Clemson, South Carolina, in 2013 to start a doctoral program in rhetorics, communication, and information design, one of the first things he did was set up recording gear in his new place. A few days later, George Zimmerman, the white neighborhood watch volunteer who had been charged with second-degree murder for killing black teen Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty. Carson, unhappy with the verdict (and all its implications) responded in rap.
“It’s a foundational mode of communication for me,” says Carson. “It [is] the most responsive I [can] be…the most responsive work that I can do.” Carson has a lot to respond to. He addresses, among many other things, systemic racism and violence against black bodies in America, and more recently, on his Sleepwalking albums, systemic racism and violence against black bodies in Charlottesville. He raps about what it’s like to be a black man in the United States in 2018, a black academic working in a black art form at a mostly white university. He raps about history, his own experience, the experiences of people he knows, and people like the people he knows. What’s more, he’s an MC with the flow and the storytelling skills to best share that knowledge.
That’s part of what makes Carson stick out among his peers, says Blake “Preme” Wallace, a Decatur-based producer who’s made beats for Carson for nearly a decade. “We’re in a ‘vibe era’ of hip-hop” right now, Wallace says, one where many artists and listeners care about how a song makes them feel rather than how a song makes them think. But rap, a component of hip-hop, a black cultural product, has always necessarily addressed race, racism, and race relations, says Wallace, and it’s unfortunate that some artists have lost that consciousness of rap as a vehicle for knowledge. He admires that with Carson, “it’s never a song for the sake of being a song; it always has a message to it. And it’s always dope at the same time.”
At Clemson, Carson rapped about his experience as a black man in a doctoral program at a mostly white Southern university, a university built around a former plantation. The plantation house still stands, and Carson noticed that the tour guides rarely, if ever, mentioned the enslaved people who had lived and worked there. He responded in rap to white students wearing blackface at parties, and to the university’s (lackluster) response. He responded in rap to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, to the massacre inside a black church in Charleston, and much more.
Eventually, it became clear to Carson that the music he’d been making all along said more than any essay or traditional academic research project or paper could. It should be an album, he realized, and it should be his dissertation. “The most responsive thing I could do, with the work and with the tools that I have to do the work, would be to write that album,” he says. He felt the form would be the best way to represent “the stuff that wasn’t being written, that wasn’t being said, that wasn’t being done.” Music helps capture “all the in-between stuff” that’s often left out, he says.
Even as he pursued his dreams of becoming a poet, a novelist, and a professional rapper, Carson, who still watches “Jeopardy!” and admits to getting a little out of sorts when he misses an episode, was living up to his childhood nickname: “Professor.” But he was going to use it on his own terms.
Teaching the craft
On a bright Thursday morning in early October, about 25 UVA undergraduate students slide into an untidy crescent of desks in a basement classroom of Old Cabell Hall. A piano and a few dozen music stands are pushed against the walls—all Carson needs to teach his Writing Rap class is his students, a device to play music (today, it’s his phone), and some speakers. Some students open their laptops while others flip to a fresh piece of notebook paper; most of them pull Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop out of their backpacks.
Carson wears a black T-shirt that reads “Beats, Narratives, Knowledge, Rhymes.” During the last Writing Rap class, he asked his students, “Is hip-hop dead?” This time, his question is, “What does narrative do for rap?”
Over the course of an hour and 15 minutes, Carson guides students in a conversation about how storytelling is used in other genres of music (using Tim McGraw’s country song “Don’t Take the Girl” as one example) versus how it’s used in rap.
They discuss authenticity—why is it that rappers are expected to be authentic, in ways that maybe rock, pop, and country musicians are not? What about rappers with personas? Why, in the case of, say, 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby” do we assume that Brenda is a real woman, with a real baby? Why can’t it be allegory, a parable, or even fiction?
More than once, Carson encourages his students to disagree, respectfully, with him, with Bradley’s text, with one another. They listen to “Rewind” by Nas, widely considered one of the finest examples of storytelling in rap, not just for the story but for the way Nas tells it—his flow, his vocabulary and imagery, his use of storytelling devices. “Listen up gangstas and honeys with ya hair done/ Pull up a chair hon’ and put it in the air son/ Dog, whatever they call you, god, just listen/ I spit a story backwards, it starts at the ending.”
At the end of class, Carson gives the students their assignment—write 16 bars of a storytelling rap—and when they leave Old Cabell Hall, Carson and a handful of students head over to the rap lab, a space Carson’s designed for them to write, talk out, and even record their work.
As outlined in UVA’s course catalog, Carson’s Writing Rap class is about “the craft of writing raps,” and no previous rap-writing experience is required. Students will listen to, evaluate, and attempt to deconstruct a variety of raps, while also learning how to write their own by exploring the basics of composing lyrics and other songwriting techniques. They learn about the history of rap and hip-hop culture along the way, and at the end of the semester, they won’t take a traditional final exam or hand in a typical college research paper—they’ll record their original raps for a collaborative class mixtape (here’s the one from spring 2018).
Kyla James, one of the undergraduate students in the class that morning, has listened to a lot of rap, and she’s listened closely—she notices how each rapper has a unique writing style, a way of bending words to stay on the beat, keep with the flow and the tone of a song. She signed up for “Writing Rap” because she wanted to better understand how rappers practice their art…and because she wanted to try it herself.
“Writing a good rap song is difficult,” says James. “I’ve grown a deeper respect for lyricists, because they are truly masters of words,” using simile, metaphor, repetition, alliteration, assonance, and other literary and linguistic devices to get their points across.
What James didn’t expect to get out of the class was a deeper appreciation for her roots. James was born and grew up in the Bronx, the very New York City borough where hip-hop was born (at DJ Kool Herc’s sister’s birthday party on August 11, 1973). James’ mother immigrated to the Bronx from the Caribbean when hip-hop was still in its infancy, when it was (often unfairly) a culture and a music associated with the violence, crime, and drug use that all but devastated the borough at the time—and so she banned it from her household.
“As I grew up, I started listening to the beautiful art of rapping, and I now realize that the dangerous, damaged history of the Bronx formed the perfect environment for people looking for an outlet to express themselves and to be actually heard,” says James.
Carson became a teacher for a number of reasons, among them Audrey Graves and Gwendolyn Brooks. Both women have passed, and since he can’t pay them back, he’ll pay it forward in hopes of giving his students the knowledge, the care, the hope, and the affirmation that his teachers gave him. “Whether it’s in the classroom or not, teaching is probably the most important job anyone will ever have. And I don’t think you have much control over whether you’re a teacher or not. Folks look at what you do, they look at what you say, and if they’re not learning about the world, they’re learning about you,” he says.
And it matters to him that he practice the craft he teaches. That way, he can show his students—in the classroom, in the audience, even those listening to his music in their headphones—how it’s done.
Breaking new ground
Teaching hip-hop as an academic subject is “a strange challenge, and it’s not necessarily the most organic relationship,” says Munier Ahmad Nazeer, a local teacher, musician, and longtime fixture in the Charlottesville hip-hop scene (Unspoken Heard, The Beetnix, Nathaniel Star & Kinfolk) who also attended UVA for graduate school in the late 1990s. “Hip-hop is, obviously, an African American, or black, form of music, and academia, especially at UVA, is almost the antithesis of that.”
Kyra Gaunt, a dancer, poet, spoken word artist, and ethnomusicologist, was among the first generation of scholars to teach hip-hop in an academic setting. Gaunt, now an assistant professor in the music department at SUNY Albany, first taught her Black American Music course at UVA in 1996. The class focused on performing hip-hop music and culture via an understanding of the history that led to it, and Gaunt says that it was “a radical moment” both for her and for UVA. Thomas Jefferson makes it very clear in his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia, that he believes black people to be inferior to white people in many ways, including imagination and creativity. And there was Gaunt, a black woman, teaching black creative culture, to a group of mostly black students, at Jefferson’s university.
Gaunt still has a letter she received at the end of that first semester, postmarked from the Hampton Roads area, from a UVA alumnus who had heard about Black American Music. “You should not be teaching music at our white university. You should be teaching at an Afro university,” Gaunt recalls the note saying.
In general, Gaunt says, UVA’s music department has “an exceptional breed of curriculum” in its focus on cultural and historical musicology. More than 20 years after she first taught hip-hop in the department, there is an entire faculty position dedicated to it. So while Carson isn’t the first, or even the second, professor to teach hip-hop at UVA, Gaunt says he’s still a groundbreaking figure.
“There’s no way someone could have gotten away with doing their dissertation in the hip-hop aesthetic [in the 1990s],” says Gaunt. The cultural mindset within academia was not broad enough at the time to include a student like Carson, or a dissertation that was also a rap album, and a very, very good rap album at that. “It takes a good bit of finesse, to convince your [dissertation] committee” that a dissertation in the form of a rap album is appropriate, says Gaunt, and then it takes talent to actually execute it.
What makes Carson truly exceptional, Gaunt says, is that he records his work and offers it online at no charge. He often includes lengthy citations, references, and explanations of individual lines and songs sampled in the beats, providing deeper context and provoking deeper understanding of the messages contained in his lyrics. Unlike most academic work, it’s accessible to everyone. In fact, it’s not just accessible, it’s appealing.
According to a Nielsen poll published at the end of 2017, rap/R&B is the most popular music in the United States. R&B and hip-hop together represented 24.5 percent of all music consumed in the U.S. in 2017 (knocking rock, representing 20.8 percent of U.S. music consumption that year, out of its long-held top spot), the report said. That year, eight of the 10 most listened-to artists, and seven of the top 10 albums, fell into the hip-hop and R&B category.
By releasing his work into the world in the form of recorded rap music, Carson positions it for maximum influence.
“It’s audio. You don’t have to translate the words, or the discourse, or the jargon. That makes it insanely simple to grasp. Make things insanely simple and you get a broader audience,” says Gaunt. “It’s brilliant.”
Nazeer, who was one of Gaunt’s students, says that Carson has demonstrated “his ability to speak directly to a lot of the issues we face as black folks in this town” through his music. “Not only does he speak to these things, he is able to speak to these things, I think, in the language of the oppressor, on a lot of levels, especially within academia.”
Carson almost didn’t apply for the position he now holds at UVA. By the end of his time at Clemson, he’d tired of how black students and professors were treated in the academic sphere, and though he was certain he’d continue to teach, either in the classroom or through his music, he wanted to escape the ivory tower. A few people sent him the job posting, but Carson hesitated—”What does a professor of hip-hop even do?” he asked. But then one of his mentors said something to the effect of, “If you’re not teaching hip-hop, imagine who will?”
After that conversation, Carson realized, “if I do care about hip-hop, if I do care about rap and the work that I am doing, and since I have these feelings about this kind of work happening in these kinds of places, at least I will have something to do with it…some say about what’s going on.”
Finding his footing
When Carson finishes his Rugged Arts set, he’s met with lengthy applause, a series of handshakes and pound hugs. “Sick set, man,” someone says. “That was dope as fuck,” says another.
“Thank you. Thank you for coming out,” Carson says over and over.
He didn’t mind the small crowd so much, he says a couple minutes later as he takes a sip of water, his heart still beating fast from the set (that blue light is deceptively hot, he says). He could see people nodding their heads; he could see them listening, and that’s what he wants, whether it’s 10 people or 10,000.
Carson’s priority with rap is to do work that is meaningful to the communities he lives in, and the people who inhabit those spaces he shares. Now that he lives in Charlottesville, it’s important to him to do that work in the city, not just at the University of Virginia, and he wants to be respectful of how he goes about that.
Carson often wears a T-shirt that reads “Respect the Locals” in big, bold letters, and he’s practicing what he preaches, say the local artists who have worked with him in some capacity.
The first bit of work that Carson did in Charlottesville’s hip-hop community was not a rap performance. In spring 2018, as part of the second annual Nine Pillars Hip Hop Cultural Festival, Cullen “Fellowman” Wade invited Carson to facilitate and record an oral history of Charlottesville hip-hop. Dozens of artists, ranging in age from 60-ish to 16, plus longtime listeners of all ages, were in the room to talk about their work, their lives in hip-hop here.
Wade, a co-founder of Nine Pillars, invited Carson after meeting him at a film screening at the 2017 festival, when Carson just happened to be in town looking for a place to live. Carson hadn’t even moved to town, and already he was showing up. Together, Carson and Wade are now working on a multimedia Charlottesville hip-hop archive to help preserve the form’s local history and culture, and they hope it can be housed and cared for in UVA’s Special Collections Library.
“Hip-hop is very show-and-prove,” says Wade. Local artists are going to test anyone who comes into their scene, to see if they can hang, to see if they’ll help nurture the community formed around this music, rather than just use it for personal gain.
Carson “is not an academic-turned-rapper,” says Wade. “He is an MC,” the real deal, who happens to be an academic, too, and he proved it on the Rugged Arts stage that October night.
“It’s rare that you get to meet someone who embodies anything,” says Nathaniel Star, a local songwriter and neo-soul singer who recently invited Carson to rap with his group, Nathaniel Star and Kinfolk. And Carson, he says, “embodies the genre” with his conscious rhymes, his “blazing” delivery, and his down-to-earth nature—a quick glance at Carson’s Instagram account reveals a guy who takes pleasure in photographing and eating dessert (especially cheesecake), buying books, and attending spoken word poetry slams, and who is perplexed as to why he finds spiders wherever he goes.
Carson says that moving to Charlottesville and accepting this position at UVA, taking on the challenge of connecting the worlds of local hip-hop, rap, and academia in a responsible and meaningful way, has given him a renewed sense of the importance of his work. He doesn’t plan on just coasting now that he has a doctorate and an academic job. As Charlottesville does the work of reckoning with its identity, with its past and its present, with an eye to its future, Carson feels like there’s a lot to be done.
He’s still realizing “the weight, the impact, what it means” for him to be here right now, he says, but he knows one thing for sure: There are raps to be written.
Track by track
A.D. Carson released his most recent album, Sleepwalking 2, in May of this year. The five-track record, which deliberately mimics the five-paragraph essay form (thesis, three supporting points, conclusion), proves a point about the “dire implications” language has on our lives.
It’s short, only about 20 minutes, and Carson suggests taking 20 minutes to listen then maybe 30 minutes to discuss what you’ve heard. It’s perfect for a one-hour class period or community listening session, he says. “This is my work, and I want people to engage with it,” he says.
Here’s a track-by-track breakdown to give you something to chew on:
1.“Sticks and Stones”
The gist: We know the saying “sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me” to be untrue, Carson argues. Words hurt, and they
Sample: “Now that we see/ the broken bodies and bones,/ the bruises of the battered,/ not from sticks stones, but from the results of what we’ve long been taught could never hurt us,/ I wonder if we can stand by our assertion that words don’t matter as much as they’ve always told us.”
The gist: It’s a look at how white supremacist ideology tries to deflect conversations about the harm caused by white supremacy, with arguments like, “What about black on black crime?”
Sample: “If you need a little poison to make the antidote,/ Then with this hand I wrote a standard oath that makes a man that hopes/ that I am planning notes and fanning fires.”
3. “Kill Whitey”
The gist: A straightforward track about white supremacy and why it should be dismantled.
Sample: “So, here’s a soundtrack/ to the death of white supremacy/ whether they ignore or abhor it,/ try to limit the/ freedom to express it or reject it,/ keep remembering/ I’m saying something different than they’re hearing/ when they listening.”
The gist: This song asks, “Who are the ‘right’ types of victims when it comes to gun violence?” (Answer: Victims who are white.) When Carson taught high school creative writing in his hometown of Decatur, Illinois, his students wanted to write and send poetry to students in another school that had experienced gun violence. Carson thought, if this happened to his students, who would write a poem for them? The thought that no one would broke his heart. “Concern” is, in part, for his students.
Sample: “My death won’t make Front Page News. TV shows/ will not be interrupted to tell you/ what happened to me, or why, and you will/ go on with your day as if nothing of/ any consequence had occurred. Because/ I lived–and died–in Chicago, and since/ I’m not from Sandy Hook, Boston–any monumental place of gathering…”
The gist: What do we do now? The last four bars of the songs are designed to make the listener feel boxed in—as Carson calls for escape, the listener realizes that might be impossible.
Sample: “You’ll see the truth in the box./ MSNBC or view it on FOX./ It’s all entertainment/ you choose to watch./ Losing or not,/ snoozing or not,/ using a lot/ doing a lot/ to move you a notch/ lower. Your thoughts/ are not your own…”