Why Not Me? The Remarkable Story of A.D. Carson
One of the most heralded arrivals on Grounds this fall, A.D Carson, the new Assistant Professor of Hip Hop and the Global South, arrived at UVA as a pioneer in many ways.
It’s 8am on an early September morning, and A.D. Carson is sitting in his new office in Wilson Hall. The bookshelves are empty. Pictures sit propped against the wall. Leaning over an old school ledger, Carson is logging in grades with a pencil. He apologizes for the delay.
Yet, there is nothing that feels late about A.D. Carson. The freshly-minted Clemson Ph.D. seems to have a knack for always being at the right place at the right time. He is one of the most heralded arrivals on Grounds this fall, the new Assistant Professor of Hip Hop and the Global South. He arrived at UVA as a pioneer in many ways. He is the first “Hip Hop Professor” in the school’s history. He is one of a relatively small group of scholars focusing on this transformative musical and cultural force in America and around the world. And he is most definitely the only one whose thesis took the form of a 34-track hip hop album.
As he begins to talk about the road he took to get to where he is, you notice quickly that there is a lyrical, kinetic energy to his speech, a natural rhythm that feels like it puts him always staked out on the border between prose and poetry. The more he talks the more you start thinking that someday space on those empty office shelves should probably be reserved for someone who will write Carson’s own story. You can almost see the cover staring out at you, with the title, Why Not Me?
Those three words, those nine letters, have vaulted Carson to national prominence and landed him where he is today. Just ask Audrey Graves. She was Carson’s fourth-grade teacher at Durfee Elementary School in Decatur, Illinois. It was in her classroom that he learned an early lesson in the power of boundary stretching when he asked if it would be OK to complete an assignment using rhyme instead of narrative. “And from there, I would try and do that all the time. Rather than just writing the essay or the paragraph, I would always try and make sure it would rhyme, because at some point it wasn’t interesting enough to just do what we were told.”
The teacher not only agreed to these requests, she went the extra mile. “I remember her giving me these poetry textbooks, both the student and teachers’ editions,” Carson said. “They had all these questions and notes. I just remember going through and circling all the ones that rhymed. Then, as I learned more I would go back and underline things or try to answer the questions, even though I knew nothing of the content, and they seemed to me to be far beyond my fourth-grade understanding. The books provided me the boost that I was looking for. I still have them.”
Carson is not the only one who still has keepsakes from that classroom. After his dissertation made national news, he logged onto Facebook one day to find a message from Mrs. Graves. It included a copy of the very first poem he had written in class.
“I was overwhelmed, because for a really long time I have carried that experience with me, but to know that it meant enough to her to keep it all these years later really meant a lot. She told me her daughter was a professor, and that she had been following my story and was not at all shocked that I was doing work in language.”
Carson’s love of words was matched by a love of music inherited from a family with deep and diverse musical roots. His dad played in a band with Carson’s uncles and aunts. He was, Carson said, the hip Dad who always seemed to have the newest music. His mother dabbled in poetry but kept her journals hidden, and gospel was a musical staple in her home. “I remember being home after church was over and my brothers and my cousins and I would always remix the church songs with our own lyrics. There was a song that was like “Jesus on the main line/Tell Him what you want.” One of my cousins changed the words to “If you want a freeze pop/Tell ‘em what you want.” My grandma was so tickled by it that she went and got us all freeze pops. He tried it again and she was like… ‘Nah. That only works one time.’”
Carson drove deeper into his world of words as he got older, especially when his family moved multiple times a year and his rhymes and music gave him a way to fit in. The more he went on, the more those nine words came back into his mind.
“More and more, I found myself thinking, ‘Why shouldn’t this be the work that I am doing?’ Here I am reading Oedipus or The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird and it is automatically conjuring these songs or images in ways that I can make it make sense by making rhymes. What should stop me from doing that?”
Carson got a boost of confidence from a high-profile source when he shared his work with the legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, who praised his work and encouraged him to continue. He did his undergraduate work at Millikin University in Decatur, where one professor thought that his focus on hip hop was important enough for other students to experience it as well. The thing was, they didn’t have anyone who could teach the course.
Why Not Me?
“The teacher asked if I believed that everyone could rap, if I believed that everyone could understand the poetics or the mechanics of Rap. I said that they could, in the same way that we can learn to do this with poetry. That made me realize that if an English department at a university thought this was important enough for me to teach it, and it is so close to what I have always seen myself, that I could really make this happen. At the same time, I realized that if I was going to do these advanced degrees, it was going to have to be on my terms.”
While doing research on doctoral programs, there was something that caught Carson’s eye. It was a description of the program at Clemson and specifically, their characterization of their program around knowing, making, and doing. He reached out to the program director and explained his experience as an artist, as a teacher, as a performer, and as someone working with high school students in an after-school program. How would you feel, he asked, about having someone like me in your program?
Why Not Me?
That program director, Dr. Victor Vitanza, would go on to play a pivotal role in Carson’s improbable tale. Yet while he immediately saw the promise and potential in Carson, he knew others may need convincing, so he did important work advocating on his behalf, setting up meetings with colleagues that would give them a hint of what and who was coming their way – an artist and an educator who is not afraid of forging his own path and tackling head on the issues that others may be more comfortable tiptoeing around.
Carson delivered a statement of that individuality that earned him attention and acclaim not just at Clemson, but around the world. Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions is a powerful look at the world, incorporating history with current events, referencing traditional literature and the latest and greatest makers in the hip hop world – and never shrinking from the stark social and racial realities of today’s world. The songs have been seen tens of thousands of times on YouTube, have more than 150,000 downloads, and garnered hundreds of thousands of Facebook hits.
His groundbreaking hire at UVA builds on the legacy of Kyra Gaunt, a professor of ethnomusicology from 1996 to 2002 and a pioneer in promoting the study of hip hop at universities around the country.
The timing of his appointment, coming directly in the midst of the lingering effects of a summer’s worth of troubling and tragic events in Charlottesville and on Grounds culminating in the “Unite the Right” rally, is very much on Carson’s mind as he talks about his first semester on Grounds. “We started off the semester by having some difficult conversations,” he said. “We were able to talk about our power and privilege and they are totally engaged in those conversations. The students have been really curious and very expressive of their desire to learn, and open about the things they feel they lack and what they hope they can get out of the class and out of my engagement as a professor.”
The immediacy of a genre where artists are constantly, and often immediately, responding to the world around them is also key to his approach. “We are able to speak directly to what is going on at this moment in a way that doesn’t have to be metaphorical. People are coming specifically to UVA to perform in Charlottesville. We have a chance to talk about Charlottesville in Charlottesville, and we are going to engage in that conversation that the whole country is engaged in.”
A.D. Carson is very conscious of where he is, how he got here, and that the story is one that would make publishers and screenwriters skeptical. “Sometimes I kind of have to laugh,” he said, “because it seems so unreal. I am just really grateful for the opportunity to be present in this moment. I take it seriously and I am thankful for the opportunity to do work that will provide opportunities for others like me who want to do something different in the classroom.”
His work is preserved by and accessible through the UVA Library, with no login required: