Hip Hop Illiterate: Hermeneutics for the Future of American Literary Theory and Criticism Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Belton, Andrew
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • This dissertation puts the critical reading practices and aesthetic techniques of the hip hop emcee at the center of a millennial theory of American literature and cultural criticism. While many disciplines have integrated aspects of hip hop culture into their fields of study, the distance maintained between traditional English literature departments and hip hop’s deep literary archive has generated gaps for literature scholars to fill. In contrast to earlier work that emphasized the emcee’s lyrics as an extension of conventional Western poetics, this dissertation demonstrates how emcees create their own theories of reading and literacy, alongside practices of critical interpretation and evaluation, which teach scholars how to read and interpret more canonical literary texts. Through a series of suggestive close readings positioning hip hop concept albums as a novel form of literary production, the dissertation sets prominent emcees in critical conversation with acknowledged American writers, arguing that all these authors imagine a future American literature (and by extension, a future America) by first sounding the nation differently. In reading hip hop’s shifting concepts of literature and interpretation as transformative of the role of the literary critic in the new millennium, I conclude with a brief consideration of the future of literary and hip hop studies. Specifically, using methods informed by Foucauldian discourse analysis and critical historiography, each chapter precedes by showing how the hip hop emcee cultivates aesthetic practices in conversation with earlier American literary and critical texts, building on techniques first explored in works like My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1933), Mules and Men (1935), and The Color Purple (1982). Ultimately, the project puts these canonical texts in critical dialogue with a number of self-consciously literary moments in hip hop, focusing on the emergence of a new genre of literature production, as seen in the emergence of hip hop concept albums the likes of Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full (1987), Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and Nas’s Untitled album (2008). Through the comparative reading of these hip hop albums and canonical black authors, the project considers how shifting the concepts of authority, expertise, literacy, reception, and literature away from the printed page expands the responsibilities of the literary critic and the possibilities for future literary studies. My introduction begins by meditating on the dichotomy between the concepts of literacy and illiteracy, particularly as the former gets deployed for the purpose of standardizing what comes to constitute literature for study in the American academy. By exploring the early-twentieth century American folkloric tale, “How to Write a Letter,” as related by Zora Neale Hurston in Mules and Men (1935), I theorize the contours for developing a literary hermeneutics based in hip hop’s aesthetics as a function of the fragmentation of the dichotomy between literates and illiterates exposed in the emergence of the hip hop concept album and in the pervasive horizon point of the American emcee’s literary influence. In chapter one, I recoup a literary genealogy of the emcee that predates hip hop’s cultural emergence in America in the 1970s. Turning to W. E. B. Du Bois’s well-known critical text, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and a lesser known reflection in his writings, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (1907), the chapter explores Du Bois’s use of paratextual selection and revisions and redeployments of his previously published work as a prototypical style of sampling and remixing characterized in the techniques of hip hop production. I examine these structural procedures in Du Bois’s writing in order to consider their centrality to American literary aesthetics and to track their development as a trope for sounding racial difference in the literary texts that inform American cultural belonging. The second chapter investigates the idea of love as a critical legacy of black feminist thought and womanist theory by offering a critical reading of Lauryn Hill and the reception of her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998). In the process of mapping Hill’s location and embodiment in and outside of hip hop, the chapter offers a comparative reading of the critical debate chronicled in the 1987 issue of New Literary History between Joyce A. Joyce, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Houston Baker, Jr. regarding the viability of love as a theoretical concept to build African American literary theory and criticism in the 1990s. This comparative reading considers what is really at stake when love is positioned at the margins of literature scholarship and outside the domain of hip hop, working to read Lauryn Hill’s reception as an updated response to June Jordan’s question, “Where is the Love?” from her seminal 1978 essay of that same name. My final chapter takes up the question of how shifting the concepts of literature and literary criticism ultimately effect and transform the role of the literary critic in the twenty-first century. Interrogating notions of critical authority and expertise, I look specifically at Nas’s Untitled ninth studio album (formerly titled the Nigger album) and the controversy surrounding its release in 2008. Calling to mind Jonathan Culler’s invocation of hip hop in his introduction to the PMLA’s 2010 Special Topic issue, “Literary Criticism for the Twenty-First century,” my chapter juxtaposes the ‘disciplinary training’ of literature experts at the second-half of the twentieth century with an analysis of black expressivity and American trafficking in racial stereotype in antebellum times. I showcase Nas’s meditation on the concept of ‘nigger’ as a ‘floating signifier’ of American culture and ultimately read the emcee’s attempts to engage the slur critically in ways that rethink and rework Frederick Douglass’s earlier literary destabilizations of the myths surrounding the slave as subject in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In the conclusion, I revisit many of the arguments made throughout the dissertation, adding a reflection on how I came to write this project as a reaction to the spoken-word poet Saul Williams’s 2009 performance of The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip Hop (2006) as part of the Carolina Performing Art Center’s spring concert series. The conclusion meditates on the institutionalization of hip hop studies, allowing that although many academics have authored, edited, and led major studies and departments contributing to the expanding field, no scholarly works have taken an approach that emphasizes the genre’s possibility for developing literary hermeneutics. Ultimately, Hip Hop Illiterate concludes by speculating about the possibilities of its theoretical framework and grammar for the future of literary analysis, highlighting how an analysis based on the hermeneutic practices of the American hip hop emcee suggests new possibilities for the future of American literary studies.
Date of publication
Resource type
  • Watts, Eric
  • Christmas, Danielle
  • Neal, Mark
  • Avilez, GerShun
  • Jones, Meta
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2018

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