Few scholars have had as highly publicized a junior faculty career as A. D. Carson, Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop and the Global South at the University of Virginia (UVA). In 2017, Carson made national headlines as the Clemson University doctoral candidate who submitted his dissertation in the form of a thirty-four-track rap album entitled “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions.” Carson used the album to reflect upon his experience of living in Clemson, South Carolina, as a Black graduate student navigating a predominantly white Southern university campus structured by physical markers and histories of white supremacy. Rather than using traditional modes of academic writing, he employed rap performance as his central methodology to illuminate and articulate issues of race and racism in predominantly white academic spaces and Black communities. In doing so, he put into practice a powerful method of documenting, processing, and working through the trauma many nonwhite scholars endure inside the academy and in everyday life.
In 2020, Carson made headlines again with the release of his open-source mixtape I Used to Love to Dream, the first peer-reviewed rap album to be published by an academic press.1 The project is the third in his Sleepwalking mixtape series, which was inspired by Black writer Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man.2 Like Ellison, Carson positions himself as an invisible narrator on a quest to find a place of belonging while challenging issues of racism and white supremacy. The first volume of Sleepwalking, released in 2017, articulates the terror of the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally that took place as Carson was transitioning into his new faculty position in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2018, at the end of his first year at UVA, he released the second Sleepwalking project, which detailed his experiences as a Black scholar working on Black popular music while navigating a predominantly white institution.
Carson categorizes I Used to Love to Dream as a mixtap/e/ssay that uses rap music to perform scholarship on race, literature, history, and rhetoric. The hip-hop mixtap/e/ssay genre enables him to put the practices of record production, Afrodiasporic storytelling, and traditional academic writing in dialogue with each other to produce a novel utterance that blurs the boundary between the vernacular and the scholarly. The project is twenty-four minutes long and features eight tracks that combine numerous music, film, and news audio samples, live instrumentation, and original rap lyrics. You can access the mixtape for free in the form of an e-book hosted by Fulcrum, an open-source publishing platform that allows authors to embed various forms of media into their written texts. Students and educators can access this platform without signing into an institutional account, making this project a useful Open Educational Resource (OER) for instructors looking to reduce textbook costs.
The Fulcrum platform offers several innovative digital affordances that add depth and richness to the project. The mixtape e-book provides lyrics and an embedded media player capable of playing each song. You can engage with the album directly on your web browser or download it as an EPUB file to view on a separate EPUB reader application such as Kindle or Apple Books. Additionally, the album is available on most of the major music streaming platforms including Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, and Apple Music. There are also a number of supplementary materials including a short documentary, liner notes, and essays that contextualize the work. Admittedly, the user must navigate through several different web pages and technologies, which might be difficult for those with less familiarity with Internet-based tools and functions.
I Used to Love to Dream is a highly introspective, autobiographical project that centers on the notion of home. This is not, however, the sentimental and nostalgic framing of home that is often depicted in creative and academic works. Rather, the album functions as a form of critical inquiry that utilizes the notion of home as a broader signifier to raise nuanced questions about race, place, authenticity, social justice, and mental health. Throughout the mixtape, Carson raps about feelings of placelessness and loneliness, articulating his experience of living and working in Charlottesville while constantly questioning his loyalties to his hometown Decatur, Illinois. In the e-book’s introduction, he explains that the album is “about growing up & moving away & wondering if the choices you made were the right ones, despite what might be viewed externally as success.” Through these means, he philosophically explores complex sentiments of betrayal, authenticity, and success in relation to home—social and intellectual issues articulated by numerous Black scholars who have felt that their existence was split between two different worlds.3 In the following sections, I show how Carson compellingly articulates and theorizes these issues of home, identity, and belonging through his impressive lyrical writing and commanding rap performances, thus breaking new ground on scholarly knowledge production.
Mixtap/e/ssay Tracks 1–4
When I first opened the e-book, my attention was immediately drawn to the parental advisory sticker displayed prominently on the album cover (see figure 1), an unusual visual symbol for a piece of academic scholarship. The rest of the artwork centers on a profile image of Carson wearing a black baseball cap and sweater. His image is rotated to the right by ninety degrees, such that his body occupies the bottom half of the cover. His eyes appear half shut and he is surrounded by blackness with a faint light shining from the bottom right corner, making him look as though he is in a dream state. The only pops of color on the cover are the yellow words of the album title, a small pan-African crown stitched onto his sweater, and an almost imperceptibly superimposed map of Decatur. This image is an example of the myriad visual and sonic signifiers that mark this project as distinct from the traditional works we have regarded as peer-reviewed scholarship.
Following the cover page, the e-book begins with an introductory essay in which Carson references several passages from Invisible Man that are central to the overall theme of the project. Notably, he warns us of sleepwalkers with poor vision—privileged members of the academy who both knowingly and unknowingly uphold the structures of white supremacy. Quoting Ellison, Carson explains how people of color must walk softly “so as not to awaken the sleeping ones” as “there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.” The track pages in the e-book display the song title, the name of the instrumental beat producer, tempo information, and lyrics (see figure 2). Below the title, there is an auto-scrolling text box embedded in a media player window, which highlights the song lyrics as Carson raps. The media player has several speed options, and allows you to skip to different points in the song and adjust the volume. One feature that musicologists and theorists might find useful is that you can click on specific lyrics in the text box and the media player will jump the audio to the exact spot where those lyrics occur—a useful feature for close analysis.
The first track of the mixtap/e/ssay, “Framing Pain,” establishes the thematic foundation for the entire album. Carson begins the song with an unapologetic confidence in his vocal delivery undergirded by thundering kick, bass, and snare sounds inspired by the boom-bap, sample-based instrumental beats typical of 1980s and 1990s Chicago hip-hop production. There is also a bright sawtooth wave synthesizer lilting in the background, signifying the uneven terrain Carson is constantly navigating as a Black scholar. Over the dense and somewhat disorienting texture, he asserts his commitment to rap as scholarship, marking this song as the point where his “newfound vision” as a scholar-rapper begins—a realization that allows him to frame the pain and disillusionment of his personal and academic journey throughout this mixtape.
Toward the end of the song, the beat suddenly stops and we hear an audio sample of a presumably white male broadcaster from the 1940s pleasantly describing the demographics of Decatur as Western classical music plays in the background. The sample derives from a postwar documentary film called Playtown U.S.A., in which the narrator presents a race-neutral (read: white) perspective of Decatur as an ideal American city.4 Carson uses these samples throughout the mixtape to represent sleepwalkers who only understand lived experience in the United States through romanticized perspectives far removed from the plight and strife of Black Americans. Carson’s rapping and production offer a counternarrative to the white hegemonic framing of Decatur provided by the broadcaster. In this way, the album functions as a form of critical race counterstorytelling, a practice of placing dominant narratives told by those in power alongside counternarratives that center the oppressions and distinct lived experiences of marginalized people to unveil and challenge unjust structures of power.5
In the second song, “Ampersand,” Carson discloses his ten-year sobriety journey in the line “some days i really hate i chose therapy over Jameson.” In doing so, he also brings his mental health into the picture, a vulnerable topic among Black communities in the United States. Furthermore, in the hook, Carson consistently foregrounds African American Vernacular English (AAVE) by stating, “i be knowing, i be on some shit i shouldn’t.” I was particularly struck by the prominence in a peer-reviewed work of the “habitual be,” an uninflected application of the word “be” used to indicate that a subject regularly performs an action or embodies a trait. Historically, scholars have translated hip-hop cultural expressions into traditional academic prose to cater to their predominantly white academic readership. The publication of this work by a university press affirms that hip-hop lyricism is academic in its pure form, no translation necessary.
“Ampersand” ends with another clip from the Playtown documentary, promising a peaceful and joyous life for those who move to Decatur. Carson offers a counternarrative to this perspective at the beginning of the third track, entitled “Crack, USA,” with audio of a Black man discussing intergenerational issues of mass incarceration, drugs, and crime. In the hook, Carson describes a “war going on outside,” a reference to the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. The sonic texture is sharp and transparent—filled with punctuating horn stabs, punchy kick hits, and bluesy electric guitar lines reminiscent of a late 1960s to early 1970s funk song. Toward the end of this song, an audio sample appears from the 1975 Black coming-of-age movie Cooley High set in Chicago. This is yet another example of the way place and locality are subtly grounded throughout the album, as much of the sampled media and hip-hop production style references Illinois. The sample features one of the film’s protagonists, Preach, a Black high school student, “pouring one out” for a deceased friend at a cemetery and preparing to recite a poem that leads directly into the next song.6
“Just In Case,” the fourth track, begins with a brief continuation of the previous audio sample. We then hear Carson’s voice delivering poetry above a somber and heavily reverberated piano backing. I found this track to be one of the most powerful, sincere, and intimate moments on the mixtape. It was composed as a letter to his mother, asking her and the listener to make a promise that, in the event of his untimely death in police custody, we would not let that death go uninvestigated. With the sparse musical texture, you can hear the full bass in his voice and focus on his masterful internal rhyming structure. A swell of strings begins building around 2:05, leading to a climactic moment where Carson’s voice becomes more insistent, urging the listener to unyieldingly question his wrongful death. This track is both highly personal and universal, in that it articulates the fears and anxieties many Black Americans have grappled with in the wake of the extrajudicial killings of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others. I appreciated the silence at the end of the track, as it offered a moment in which to process the powerful and visceral performance. In this way, “Just In Case” acts as an effective close to the first half of the mixtape.
Mixtap/e/ssay Tracks 5–8
The second half of the project strikes a very different tone. While in the first half Carson succeeds in narrating particular sentiments of loneliness, alienation, and placelessness, from the fifth song, “Stage Fright,” we hear new voices and perspectives inserted into the narrative. The track begins with an audio sample of a gospel choir that sonically evokes Black spirituality, power, and community. Carson reasserts his confident demeanor over a dense and energetic boom-bap instrumental beat. Simultaneously, a heavily equalized male voice that is panned between the left and right sides of the mix functions as Carson’s inner critic—an articulation of stage fright and self-doubt that he resists with his confident vocal delivery.
In the next song, “Nword Gem,” Carson again questions whether he is being true to himself as he fights against his inner critic, institutional pressures to conform to whiteness, and feelings of hometown betrayal. As a contrast to the narratives of isolation he has presented thus far, Carson describes how his good friend and mentor Jay helped him navigate his time as an undergraduate student and aspiring musical artist. Notably, Jay provided him with the perspective that people both in the academy and from his hometown are “gon’ hate” him because they are jealous of his successes. By bringing Jay into the narrative, Carson reminds us that he has never been on this journey alone, no matter how isolating his experience has felt. Toward the end of the track, Carson passes down this same affirmation to his nephew, saying, “they hate you because they jealous,” an act of intergenerational Black empowerment against the persistent forces of white supremacy and the pressures to stay true to one’s community.
The seventh and penultimate track, “Ready,” also reinforces that Carson is not alone on this journey. It begins with a sample of an upbeat gospel-styled piano accompanied by faint sounds of Black churchgoers speaking and clapping in the background. The samples of the Black churchgoers are pitched up and interspersed throughout the track in a style reminiscent of Kanye West’s early 2000s productions, further defining a sense of the local embedded in the Midwest. I found this track to be the most uplifting and refreshing performance on the album, as it is the first and only song to feature another artist, Truth. Throughout the song, Carson and Truth trade verses back and forth, both emphasizing the words “we” and “our” in their lyrics, a counter to the narratives of isolation prominently articulated in the earlier tracks. At the beginning of the song, Truth asserts, “we don’t need charms. with our love, with our knowledge, we don’t need arms,” an articulation of Black joy, empowerment, brotherhood, and self-determination.
The eighth and final song on the mixtape is “Asterisk.” Drawing on the practice of using an asterisk to denote a sports victory or accomplishment that is tainted, Carson reflects on how his own success might be tainted by the fact that he has not been able to help everyone from his hometown. I found it interesting that he chose to temper the joyous and motivating energy of “Ready” with an expression of his lingering regrets over leaving his community to pursue an academic career. Notably, he asks, “is it really a win when your team ain’t there?” In this way, Carson puts his past, present, and future in dialogue with each other, musing, “something to consider when you off inventing the life you wanna live, then the life you gonna live, & the life you used to live will be incongruent with now.” I find these sentiments poignant, since many scholars from diverse backgrounds must often negotiate these various temporalities as they move between different social, cultural, and economic contexts throughout their studies and careers. The track ends with the return of the Playtown narrator concluding “from a distance, it looks like any other american town. it could be your town.” The reassertion of this audio sample, representative of white cultural hegemony and supremacy, serves as a reminder to the listener that these experiences happen everywhere, and we are all walking among sleepwalkers in our institutional spaces. Whether we attempt to wake those sleepwalkers, as Carson does in this project, is ultimately up to each listener.
Conclusions: Rap as Scholarship
I commend the efforts of Carson and the University of Michigan Press to make this project highly accessible. The font is white on a black background, and the text is consistently formatted and clearly organized, contributing to its high readability. Furthermore, on the right side of the e-book web page, there is a settings area where you can adjust the text size and change the display from a page-by-page view to a scrolling text. You cannot adjust the size or text of the media player, however, which might lead to accessibility issues for some viewers, as the text box is small and the words scroll by quickly during real-time playback. The Fulcrum platform is useful for analyzing the album, especially with students in the classroom, as you can speed up and slow down the tracks using the media player. The audio significantly degrades in quality with the speed changes, however. This technology should be improved, as being able to slow down the tracks while retaining high audio quality would enable a more critical and nuanced analysis of the songs. Moreover, the user has to switch manually between tracks, creating disruptions in the listening experience, especially where an audio sample at the end of one track is designed to flow into a sample at the beginning of the next. It would be helpful if the platform had an option to automatically play sequenced tracks without interruption. There is, however, the option to listen to the album without pause on music streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. Finally, the fully digital nature of the project makes it inaccessible to those without Internet access.
In addition, a great deal of engagement with the project is required to properly contextualize and make meaning of it, which might not be feasible for busy students and early-career scholars. In particular, nonpopular music scholars might have trouble interpreting and discussing the work. I had to conduct a deep analysis of the lyrics and sonic elements, supplemental resources, and Carson’s personal history to fully contextualize and understand the text. I anticipate that it would take a great deal of preparation on the instructor’s behalf to guide a class through a meaningful discussion of the work, especially from a musicological perspective, since the album has a strong connection to literature and rhetorical studies. Furthermore, it would be difficult to incorporate it into a single lecture. Realistically, instructors should allow at least a couple of classes of their course schedule to analyze and interpret it with undergraduates and graduate students. Despite these intensive time demands, however, bringing this multimedia text into our classrooms would, I believe, be worthwhile, as it provides a way for instructors and students to critically discuss new forms of scholarly knowledge production via rap music performance and the potentials of digital texts.
For me, engaging with this work raised numerous questions in relation to intersectionality and inclusion. I could not help but notice that nearly every performer and collaborator on the project was male, a reflection of the male-dominated record production industry. I hope that, in future projects, Carson considers bringing women and other underrepresented identities into the production process, so as not to replicate broader trends of inequity in the recording industry. It is also important to consider how intersectionality might play a role in the future direction of this kind of innovative academic publishing. Specifically, I worry about the opportunity gap that projects of this sort might create between identities that can afford to take these pre-tenure risks and those that may not be able to be as transparent. Can a Black woman afford to be this open about her mental health, substance abuse struggles, or insecurities without consequence? Will those who take these risks be more rewarded in the retention, tenure, and promotion process, while others struggle to find ways to distinguish themselves? Furthermore, how would we respond to the production of such work by a white male scholar, in light of issues of cultural appropriation and exploitation in the music industry and academia? Academic presses and scholars will need to be proactive in promoting equity in this area.
Music scholars might be disappointed and somewhat perplexed by the project’s lack of engagement with the fields of musicology, ethnomusicology, music theory, and sound studies. The project highlights the chasm between Carson’s work and the current field of musicology, in which hip-hop is a popular area of research. Discussions of the work by academics in the fields of Black studies, rhetoric, and literature have primarily focused on the lyrical content and vocal performance. I believe the project would be greatly enhanced if it were put in dialogue with existing and emerging music scholarship, particularly in relation to discussions of genre and music production.
Overall, I Used to Love to Dream is an important and much-needed contribution to popular music scholarship, pedagogy, and tenure practices that will be of great interest to a broad array of music scholars, historians, educators, and students. Specifically, to have these distinct sonic and visual signifiers of Blackness accepted as legitimate academic discourse is an important means of broadening what is considered tenure-worthy scholarship. This multilayered work can speak to a wide variety of music scholars, students, and administrators who are interested in reimagining musicological research practices and career trajectories. Notably, I believe that this project and Carson’s career trajectory should be used to facilitate fruitful conversations between faculty advisors, advisees, and administrators about how the next generation of academics can distinguish themselves as scholar-practitioners in an extremely competitive and unstable academic job market. For pre-tenure junior scholars, especially those of color, Carson offers a framework for documenting and processing the plights of those who struggle in the academy in the form of a creative scholarly practice that can be turned into tenure materials. For scholars from privileged backgrounds and identity positions, it provides an opportunity to reflect on whether they are sleepwalking through the academy. In the end, this project demonstrates that rap is an academic form of critique and writing that can sound diverse voices and perspectives in the academy, a necessary step forward in achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion in our field.
The mixtape was published in the University of Michigan Press’s Tracking Pop series.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1952).
I am particularly reminded of W. E. B. Du Bois’s conceptualization of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903).
Playtown U.S.A., produced by Film Studios of Chicago and the Athletic Institute of America, 1946.
This type of counterstorytelling practice was pioneered by Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and other legal storytellers; see, for example, Richard Delgado, “Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative,” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 8 (August 1989): 2411–41.
“Pouring one out” refers to the act of pouring liquid, usually an alcoholic beverage, on the ground as a symbolic gesture of reverence for loved ones who have passed away. This gesture has become a consistent feature of hip-hop culture.