Sometime in 2004, Dr. Scott Heath discovered a buzzing rapper and producer he thought was named "Kane" West. Back then, Heath wasn't especially blown away. "It's alright," he thought. "I'll listen." Fast-forward a decade, though, and Heath, an English language and literature professor at Georgia State University, and an early champion of so-called hip-hop studies, has found something deeply compelling in the rapper—enough to build an entire class around. "We're in the business of solving problems," Heath says of his work as an educator, "and Kanye West is an incredible puzzle."
His class at Georgia State, called Kanye Versus Everybody: Black Poetry and Poetics from Hughes to Hip-Hop, examines Ye as an artist and public figure, from his beginnings as an outsider desperate to muscle his way in to his current place as the ultimate culture-controller and one of the most famous men in the world. According to the syllabus, Kanye makes for a useful lens through which to "investigate the continuous development of African American poetry and poetics—the uses of language and literature to represent blackness and Americanness in particular—observing shifting meanings in and of the text with important considerations of race, class, gender, and sexuality." Throughout the semester, students decode Kanye's work and interviews, which Heath believes help draw a line from the Harlem Renaissance to the black nationalist era to current-day hip-hop.
We spoke to Heath about the importance of Kanye as a public intellectual and, more broadly, about the value of hip-hop studies as part of a broader academic curriculum.
Hip-hop studies are super valuable
"I think that young writers around the world—and especially young black writers—are more prolific than they've ever been," Heath says. "It just so happens that they're writing to a beat." The quality of work by artists like Kanye makes understanding the connection between popular culture and poetry essential. "And it's not even new to say it's essential," Heath adds. "Stuart Hall was saying back in the '90s that culture is no longer of Western Europe. What we call culture now [is the culture of] North America, and if you're gonna talk about American culture, what you're talking about is black culture." To understand the world, then, you've got to understand hip-hop.
Over the past decade, popular culture studies, and in particular hip-hop studies, has spread across higher education. "They like to point and say, 'We're doing these kinds of progressive things,'" Heath says. "But at the end of the day, the academy is still pretty stodgy. Sometimes things like a hip-hop studies class are hard to push through; they force you to have to justify it, rather than just letting you teach." His solution: "I'm just like, 'Well, it's poetry.'" And students are certainly excited: when Heath was teaching a 30-person class about hip-hop at Georgetown, he had a waitlist of 180 students. "Tells you a lot about what people want," he says.
And Kanye West is a perfect character study
The genesis of the course was Kanye's recent public reflections on art, music, and design. "He's one of the few musicians that you get to hear actually talk about hip-hop as art," Heath says. Even more, Kanye goes the extra length of acknowledging himself—and hip-hop—as part of a greater conversation. "He talks about designing culture—not just designing fashion, but designing culture," Heath says, pointing to Kanye's proclamation in a 2013 Zane Lowe interview that "We culture!
Another inspiration for the course was hip-hop's longstanding history of setting artists against one another, whether in DJ sets, battles, or just fans' Top Fives. In the same way that a party DJ could hold Prince up against Michael Jackson, Heath's class pits Kanye alongside poets like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nikki Giovanni. The result? A century's worth of poetry illuminated through newly teased connections.
Because Kanye is one of the most important public thinkers today
Though Kanye doesn't always get credit for it—in fact, sometimes it earns him widespread derision—he's essentially a public thinker. "[He] is among our most prominent and dynamic public thinkers working today," says Heath. "You can detect his real awareness of himself as a represented, even mediated body.
His relationship with the press is, to the say the least, fraught. But as a "metacritical thinker," that dynamic is complex and layered. "He's aware of the criticism and the critiques that come his way, and he then critiques those critiques. This is a guy who gives interviews where the entire interview is about another interview that he gave earlier," says Heath, pointing to conversations with Jimmy Kimmel and Ricky Smiley as examples. "That, to me, is very keenly discursive."
And he offers a link to black poetics of the past and the present
Heath's course is fundamentally an American poetry survey, conceived broadly. "It's not just poetry, but [also] the ways that we use language, discuss language, think through language," he explains. Other black public figures who have used language to similar effect as Kanye are touchpoints in the class, too: Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Richard Sherman, and, more recently, Marshawn Lynch. "Kanye really wants to control his image. He wants to control his reputation. And, you know, it's off-putting for some, just like how Marshawn Lynch is off-putting for some," he says.
Going further back, Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka addressed similar issues—significant swaths of their work was concerned with addressing the gap between black people being treated by America as a collective problem and being treated as individuals. "They talked about it in the '20s, they talked about it more aggressively in the '60s and '70s, and they're talking about it now," says Heath. Among other things, a significant commonality from Hughes to Kanye is clear: they are black men who won't shrink themselves for the sake of cooperation.
Finally, students connect to the material even when they're not fans
Though most students walk into the class with some knowledge of who Kanye is, they're not necessarily fans or even familiar with his work. Heath says it's especially rewarding when his students begin grasping tough concepts and making important connections, like understanding how Kanye fits within the paradigm of W.E.B. Du Bois' theory of double consciousness. "He's having to process or deal with other people's interpretation of what he's saying and who he happens to be," says Heath, alluding to Du Bois' assessment that black people in America are tasked with the emotionally arduous task of filtering their own identities through the lens of dominant white culture. "An exciting moment for me was the students reading Du Bois and the lightbulb going off and them making the connection to Kanye."
Lead photo Frazer Harrison / Getty Images