CLEMSON — Clemson University doctoral student A.D. Carson is many things — poet, activist, and rap artist to name a few — but “typical Ph.D. candidate” is not one of them. So when it came to writing a dissertation, he couldn’t simply write a traditional one. Instead, he produced a 34-song rap album that already has the internet buzzing.
The album, “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions” uses hip-hop to explore such ideas as identity, justice, economics, citizenship and language. The songs have garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube, more than 50,000 streams and downloads on SoundCloud and hundreds of thousands of hits on Facebook, all before Carson defends them as a whole to his doctoral committee Friday in the Watt Family Innovation Center auditorium.
Using a music album for a dissertation, as opposed to the usual written document, has never been done at Clemson before, but Carson says it was the only way he could do it.
“I had people ask, ‘Are you doing this just to be provocative? Is this a gimmick?’ My response is ‘absolutely not.’ This is my way of being in the world,” said Carson, who speaks with effortless eloquence and cuts a cool and dignified figure in a ball cap, T-shirt and dark grey sweater with a “Reading is Sexy” badge pinned to it. “Both my senior and master’s theses were on music that I’d been making, so at this point I figure, you don’t get to the one-yard line — to use a metaphor that Clemson will understand — and then put the ball down.”
Carson recorded the album in a small studio he put together in his apartment near campus, using Adobe recording software made available to all Clemson students. He enlisted two childhood friends from Illinois, Blake E. Wallace and Marcus Fitzgerald, to help produce it.
The resulting music has a production value good enough to rival anything on the charts today.
At Clemson, Carson discovered that one of his professors, Chenjerai Kumanyika, just happened to be a former hip-hop musician with a Ph.D. in mass communication. Before he became an assistant professor at Clemson, Kumanyika was in the hip-hop group “The Spooks,” which had several gold and platinum records in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Kumanyika became a mentor to Carson and provided literature and insight on theory and methodology that informed his dissertation.
“A.D. Carson’s virtuosic musical performance and composition, his scholarly rigor and his deep literacy with African-American cultural production are all on display in his mostly completed dissertation,” said Kumanyika. “The project, which has already been referenced publicly by such leading scholars in popular music culture as Mark Anthony Neal, explores complicated questions related to the art, criticism and knowledge production in the context of the ongoing problem of global racial and class hierarchies within and beyond the academy. Throughout the process, Carson has been clear and committed to his vision.”
The album begins with the scratchy notes of a fiddle and banjo playing the classic Southern anthem “Dixie,” but then it slips into beat-driven hip-hop with rapid-fire lyrics and cadence that wouldn’t seem out of place on contemporary albums by Jay Z or Common. Carson uses a diverse selection of samples throughout the album — from Aretha Franklin to the soundtrack of the movie “Django Unchained” — which he equates to the quoting of sources in a standard dissertation.
“The central thesis of my dissertation is: Are certain voices treated differently?” said Carson. “I’m trying to examine how an authentically identifiable black voice might be used or accepted as authentic, or ignored, or could answer academic questions and be considered rightly academic. So I have to present a voice rather than writing about a voice.”
Carson has never been one to take the path of least resistance. Throughout his childhood in Decatur, Illinois, where his father was a factory worker and his mother a caretaker for her disabled brother, Carson was more a seeker of knowledge than a dreamer of fame and fortune.
“My parents divorced when I was fairly young and I have seven siblings,” he explained. “I mostly grew up with my mother and one — sometimes two — of my brothers. We moved from one apartment to another just about every nine months. I attended a different school every year until my junior and senior years of high school. I think that might’ve inspired a lot of writing for me during those times.”
His thirst for comprehension drove him to become the first in his family to graduate from college. He received undergraduate degrees in English (secondary education) and writing from Millikin University in Decatur and his master’s degree in English from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
Clemson’s rhetorics, communication and information design (RCID) Ph.D. program drew him to the Upstate. The program is cross-cultural and transdisciplinary and offers an academic-professional degree designed to prepare students to conduct research and to disseminate their findings through teaching and publishing in professional journals.
“The [RCID] program here is really innovative,” said Carson. “When I spoke to the director of the program, he knew that I was working for the Urban League and was a writer-in-residence for a university’s literary journal and doing a lot of other things. I operated in a lot of different worlds and he said, ‘Yes, that’s what we do — that’s what we want!’”
Clemson associate professor of English Jillian Weise, herself an award-winning poet on the national stage, said being a member of Carson’s dissertation committee has broadened her notion of what a thesis — and literature itself — can be.
“It expanded my comfort zone. I listened to rap, but I hadn’t been analyzing it until coming on board as a dissertation committee member,” she said. “One thing I think is really amazing is we’re in the year when the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Bob Dylan. To me, I just see in the next 50-100 years, the Nobel will go to a rapper. There’s that potential. I really believe in the power of the lyric.”
Carson’s music already has demonstrated the kind of power Weise referenced. One of the tracks, “See The Stripes” — a spoken-word poem full of biting metaphoric imagery imploring students to “see” the black stripes in the Clemson Tiger, not just the bright orange normally associated with the football team — generated nearly 15,000 views on YouTube alone and sparked a public dialogue online and on campus in 2015 that eventually involved Clemson’s administration and led to a series of lectures, discussions, performances, exhibitions and peaceful protests.
Carson credits the university for encouraging such open discussion.
“I would not have been able to do the work or learn what I’ve been able to learn had it not been for coming here,” he said. “The challenges and the triumphs are all a product of this particular space, and my critical perspective has been sharpened here.”
Carson admits that some people will find parts of “Owning My Masters” offensive, but that is part of the design.
“There are challenging lyrics and even challenging language. Those are deliberate choices I’m making. That’s part of the kind of engagement that we need,” he said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to find the opportunity to approach a conversation about language. Hip-hop makes it an organic engagement.”
Carson carefully controlled every detail in the 34 songs and he laid out the amount of thought that went into them by using one as an example:
“There’s a song called Familiar that uses a classic trap beat — trap being a distinct form of rap with a very deliberate tempo and drum pattern that originated in the South, specifically Atlanta. So it’s not just a style of music, it speaks to the circumstance the people who make it might be in,” he explained. “The form of the song is imitating Langston Hughes’ ‘Dream Variations,’ a poem that has two stanzas that are very close to one another, and the content is informed by James Baldwin’s idea that Americans are trapped in history and history is trapped in us. So think about using this rap form called trap that originates in the South in a song where you don’t know if the verses are the present or the past. It’s subtle but it works on a lot of different levels.”
The resulting record is breaking boundaries and challenging assumptions even long-time faculty members have about academics.
“I’m really excited to be working with A.D. and the possibilities it opens up for Clemson,” said Weise. “I’m also excited to teach at a university where a student comes to us and says: ‘This is my dream. This is what I want to do,’ and we say, ‘Yes you can do that here at Clemson!’ That makes me proud to be on faculty here. I’m so grateful that we are sharing with the world the possibilities here at Clemson that are manifest in his work.”
Carson himself might best sum up the impact his dissertation will make in the opening lyrics to the second song on his album, “Dissertation [Part 1: The Introduction]”:
They say History is written by the victors,
so when you see my picture
in the book it’ll be consistent with my memory,
my victories, my tendencies that tempered me and wintered me.
Cold, like those Chi City winds, ‘cause they’re blistering.
It’s in my DNA.
It’s in my bloodline.
What I do is much deeper than a punchline.
Ken Scar works in Media Relations at Clemson University.