What does it mean when something is considered "art"? That’s what English professor Andrew Hoberek asks his University of Missouri students through a course focused on rappers Kanye West and Jay Z.
Hoberek, who specializes in 20th- and 21st-century literature, says he wants to give students the opportunity to figure out for themselves what makes something art, instead of simply telling them that something is art.
“Our department has courses on Shakespeare, Melville and other authors who are considered artists without question,” Hoberek told HLN in a phone interview. “So why not give the students something and ask them what makes it art and if they believe it is art, instead of giving them something and just telling them it’s art?”
Hoberek first taught the course in fall 2013, and after receiving enthusiastic feedback from students, he decided to teach it again in fall 2014.
Here are the basic concepts of the class, according to the course description on Mizzou’s website:
This course looks at the career and work of Jay Z and Kanye West from three perspectives: (1) Where do they fit within, and how do they change, the history of hip-hop music? (2) How is what they do similar to and different from what poets do?, and (3) How does their rise to both celebrity and corporate power alter what we understand as the American dream? In addition to listening to music and watching videos, we will also read Jay Z's [book] "Decoded"; histories of and critical works on rap music by Jeff Chang, Adam Bradley, and others; and one or two good studies of how poetry works.
So, what is it about these two hip-hop stars that caught Hoberek's attention? He said when he began thinking about teaching a course like this, West and Jay Z stood out to him, because he considers what they do with words and music comparable to what poets and authors have done with literature in the past. They're changing the way society views music. Hoberek compares what these rappers do with music to what writers like William Faulkner did with the novel in the early 20th century. Hoberek said one goal of the course is to discuss how the form of rap works. Since it's always against a backdrop of music, rap uses words differently from how traditional poets use words.
“Here are artists who have inherited a form of art, and they’re tired of the constraints of that form, so they’re trying to remake it,” he said. "I decided to focus on [Kanye West and Jay Z] because of what they're doing with words. There's a bridge to an English class."
Hoberek said one of the things he starts the course with is Jay Z’s “Death of Auto-Tune,” a song he co-produced with West that criticizes the increasingly popular use of auto-tuning across the music industry. The song’s controversial message was aimed at rappers who Jay Z said only use the effect to mask their lack of talent. The song questioned what rap is to today’s society, and where it’s going as an art form.
“I’m not necessarily interested in teaching the political or social issues,” Hoberek said. “What I’m interested in is how rap works as an art and talking about whether or not it’s moving from simply being a form of entertainment to being considered an art form. In the early 20th century, the novel did just that. The novel was just entertainment, and at the time it was ludicrous to consider a novel art, that was only for poetry. But now the novel has become art, and that’s what these rappers are doing as musicians.”
Follow Alexandra Thomas on Twitter @AlexThomasHLN.