Beyond the beat: exploring the politics of Black poetry and rap

Posted on February 28, 2022

Professor Demetrius Noble and the lines of the poem

If you come upon Room 332 in Curry Building on Monday evenings, there’s a good chance you’ll hear the rhythmic beats of a rap or a powerful, cadenced recitation of a poem resonating from the classroom. That’s Professor Demetrius ‘D.’ Noble’s newest course in UNC Greensboro’s Dept. of African American and African Diaspora Studies (AADS): Politics of Black Poetry & Rap.

For students, it’s three hours of head bobbing to hip-hop, picking apart poetry, and dissecting politics from works of art in a way that’s “intellectually rigorous, but incredibly fun.” 

For Noble, it’s a “dream come true.”

Throughout his eight years of teaching at UNCG (his first course was on Jay-Z As Ideology in 2013), Noble has developed his courses to explore popular culture, specifically Black popular culture and cultural production.

“It’s been great having the space and opportunity in the AADS department to explore these interests and engage students about the larger political project and considerations of Black liberation struggle,” said Noble. “When we look at what’s going on with Black people historically and how we’re attempting to further this fight against racial and class oppression, I’m exploring how those issues manifest themselves within the arena of arts and cultural production.”

He says the department has always been supportive of his ideas for courses, but they were especially excited about Politics of Black Poetry and Rap, a course that he had been conceptualizing for years. 

Throughout his studies, Noble has been fascinated by the way rap and Black poetry intersect. How is Jay-Z representing Black politics and Black capitalism in his music? How does this contradict the revolutionary socialist poetry of Assata Shakur and the politics of the Black Panther Party? And how do Jay-Z’s music and message diverge from what underground artists like Dead Prez and Linqua Franqa are rapping about?

Students in ADS 305 have the chance to explore this and more in the discussion-fueled course.

“It’s a really democratic and collective learning experience where they’re learning from each other and having fruitful conversations,” said Noble. “Each class, we work together to extract all the meaning from one piece of work and link it back to previous readings or discussions, so every week is a building block where students can refine their tool kit.”

What are students examining in the verses of No Name and Nicki Minaj and the stanzas of poems from Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka?

Real-life phenomena, Noble says.

“You can’t engage with a poem, a novel, a short story, or a song without taking in what was happening in the world at the particular time the work was inspired.”

By the end of the semester, Noble wants his students to be able to identify the political contours and dimensions that are imbued within pop culture, rap music, and Black art.

“I’m trying to equip my students with some tools to be able to identify the types of political and ideological assumptions that are at play within each piece of work so they will be able to think critically about politics and the world as a whole,” said Noble.

But more than that, Noble wants his students to walk away from each class feeling that they can change the world.

“New possibilities can be created through human activity. I’m hoping that these explorations of the art of Black liberation struggle  will help inform and inspire them to think more critically about what they can do to get involved and make the world a better place.”

Story by Dana Broadus and Alexandra McQueen, University Communications
Photography and videography by Martin W.
Kane, University Communications


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