I am a fourth year doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying African American literature and hip-hop. My work focuses on the relationship of literacy as a noetic process to hip-hop, particularly how artists engage with the concept of literacy in their work. When I am not working I am trying to learn piano, cooking, tending my vegetable garden, or spending time with my wife Maggie.
Dissertation Project: "Writing in the Break: On the Textuality of Hip-Hop"
My approach to literacy and orality follows Walter Ong's formulation as literacy and orality as primarily noetic processes, not just learned skills. In other words, literacy is as much a state of mind and a state of creative production as it is the ability to read and write. Hip-hop inhabits a zone that ruptures a neat connection between author and text or composer and composition, and cutting Fred Moten's theorization of "the break" in In the Break (2004) and consent not to be a single being (2018) with the musical concept of the "break" beat in hip-hop, I propose that hip-hop inhabits a compositional rupture that erodes neat aesthetic categorizations of its aesthetics as literate or oral.
Instead of ascribing to a binaristic understanding of hip-hop's aesthetics, I argue that hip-hop places aesthetics in a greater matrix of meaning making that includes performance, the voice, sound, and the audience. Hip-hop artists inflect their work differently for different aesthetic purposes, sometimes relying on purely affective oral communication to move the crowd, and other times relying on the power of the written word to delicately craft a political message. This phenomenon is what I call hip-hop's "aesthetics in motion" in which artists rely on the malleability of the matrix of meaning making to develop their craft, never ascribing to a fixed set of aesthetic categories.
My project melds these theoretical concerns of Moten and other Black studies scholars with auto-theory from hip-hop's practitioners. Hip-hop is a form that is formed and theorized far from the walls of the academy and its Critical Theory, and thus my project turns to hip-hop's practitioners as auto-theorists. Hip-hop is exceptional in that it works throughout its canon to theorize itself, and some of its practitioners constantly work both in the recorded archive and in interviews to define its aesthetics. My archive is broadly defined to access the multiple points of auto-theory throughout hip-hop, including recorded music, live performance, interviews, music videos, etc. To supplement this field, I am conducting personal interviews with hip-hop's current practitioners to integrate hip-hop's practitioners past and present into my theory of hip-hop's writing in the break.
While hip-hop scholarship often addresses religion's presence throughout hip-hop history, it usually focuses on the humanistic religion of hip-hop that situates the divine in the everyday. This scholarship explores how artists recontextualize religious iconography for their own aesthetic, narrative, and social purposes, such as Kanye West in "I Am a God."
I am interested in adding to this discourse by adding analysis religious orthodoxy in writings about hip-hop and religion. With artists like Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and evangelical rapper Lecrae's recent mainstream project All Things Work Together, Christian orthodoxy particularly has become a prominent in mainstream hip-hop production. Through a lens of post-secularism, I am interested in how the establishment ideology of Christian orthodoxy interacts with notions of hip-hop authenticity, especially in hip-hop's cultural production in the 2010s.
I am currently working on an article-length project that suggests post-secular theory can help to explain how a traditionally evangelical artist like Atlanta rapper Lecrae Moore can attempt to be authentically evangelical and authentically hip-hop simultaneously. If this project were to further develop into a longer book-length work, it would include a chapter on Kanye West's JESUS IS KING, a chapter on eschatology in Kendrick Lamar's and Chance the Rapper's work, and a chapter contextualizing the history of hip-hop's historical engagement with religion through the Five Percent Nation.
While reading is classically a silent activity, the presence of music and musical references within a text creates tension between the reader's silent interaction with the text and its "sound." I am interested in how the "soundtrack" of novels interact with their soundscape; in other words, texts can sound out beyond the silence of their pages through deploying music references that both saturate the diegetic soundscape and signify upon the events and characters themselves
Unlike film, which is able to draw a more direct line between diegetic and non-diegetic music, literary texts are forced conflate the two, with music both soundtracking the plot of the novel as well as existing in the world of the characters. I am interested particularly in how musical signification interacts with racial identity in novels and allows or disallows characters to formulate their racial identity.
I am currently working on a project on how the soundtrack of Danzy Senna's Caucasia musically sounds the racial struggles of her mixed race and racially ambiguous protagonist, Birdie, and how the musical soundscape of the novel is the only territory in which Birdie's body is allowed to voice its seeming racial contradictions.