A.D. Carson begins his day at 7 a.m. on this morning in March with a walk across the University of Virginia’s Grounds, passing below still-lit streetlamps. In his headphones, Saba’s “Few Good Things” album plays, followed by the “Dilla Time” audiobook by Dan Charnas. He makes his way to UVA’s Rap Lab.
Carson is an assistant professor of hip-hop and the Global South in UVA’s Department of Music. Before coming to Charlottesville, he earned his Ph.D. in rhetorics, communication and information design at Clemson University.
His doctoral dissertation, an album titled “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions,” was recognized by Clemson’s Graduate Student Government as the 2017 Outstanding Dissertation. A mastered version of the album has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication this spring with University of Michigan Press, five years after its debut.
His most recent album, “i used to love to dream,” also released by the University of Michigan Press, is the first rap album peer-reviewed for publication through an academic press. Because of the pandemic, Carson only recently was able to perform live what’s on the album, which won a Prose Award from the Association of American Publishers and UVA’s Research Award for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities.
“I hate that it was released during the pandemic, because this past week was the first time I’ve been able to listen to the project in a space with other people, and that is such an important part of music,” Carson says.
During the disruption, Carson started working on a new album, titled “talking to ghosts.” The 13-track album is expected to be released April 13.
“Initially I made the album, and I didn’t know I was making an album. I just thought I was working through challenging personal and academic questions during the pandemic,” he says. “All of these people were passing away, and we had to become accustomed to this tragedy and a perpetual state of mourning. I started writing and recording to deal with the heaviness of it all.”
Students trickle into the classroom. Conversation flows about spring break plans, and Carson plays OutKast’s “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac).” He starts the lesson by turning the music off and welcoming them back to class. They were assigned not only to listen to OutKast’s “ATLiens” album, but also to read the 1923 novel “Cane” by Jean Toomer.
This is before the school administration relaxed COVID restrictions on Grounds, so Carson and his students are masked despite their task at hand, which is composing a rap album. In the first minutes of class, they throw around potential album names, reflecting on what students did last semester. By the end of the semester, the students will have written and produced an entire album to share with the Charlottesville community.
Last year’s students presented their album online, using the event as a fundraiser for the Charlottesville Community Foundation.
“That was a testament to how hip-hop doesn’t exist outside community engagement and how we are a part of a larger musical community,” Carson says.
Carson then asks his current students to reflect on how their location affects the music they produce.
“So what does it mean to be a person who makes music and lives in Charlottesville? And how is that different than when I lived in South Carolina? How is that different than when I lived in Illinois?” he asks. “I can’t make the same music now that I made five years ago. Circumstances and context of a place have to affect what I make.”
Living in Charlottesville influenced Carson’s upcoming album, “talking to ghosts.” Most of Carson’s family lives in Decatur, Illinois, about 11 hours from Charlottesville.
“My cousin was murdered in Decatur in April of 2020,” he says. “My first reaction was thinking I should get in the car and drive home, but being hundreds of miles away during the pandemic made me stay here, and I felt a lot of physical isolation. I didn’t know what the most responsible thing to do during that time was.
“This album is also about people who are no longer physically with us. It’s a way to converse with them and make sure their names are not forgotten.”
11 a.m.: Office Hours
After Carson dismisses the class, most students stay seated. They pull out their laptops and talk amongst themselves. One student passes headphones to the person sitting next to him. Afterward, they discuss a song and talk about the “thickness” of the sounds.
Students section off into pods, sharing their work and asking for advice. Multiple times, fingers tap against the desk to the beat of a song.
Carson walks around the room and chats with the students, who are from various backgrounds.
“Some are musicians and from the music department, but many of them study all kinds of different things,” he says. “There are students interested in professional careers as musicians, and some who see this as an opportunity to do something different.”
2 p.m.: Graduate Course, The “Black” Voice
In a room of five graduate students, Carson fuels the class with questions. He asks his students to listen closely to rap songs and reflect on their meaning.
“Like, what if we really listen to rappers?” he asks. “Like for real, if we listen to rappers, what might we learn? And why is that a question that is so provocative in 2022?
“In asking people to examine their relationship to rap, they are uncomfortable because we don’t often interrogate our relationships to the kinds of things that entertain us. Yet, when we do this, all this other stuff comes up that can be broken down, like everyday racism.”
Carson wants his upcoming album to be listened to closely across both academic and community spaces, which is why he’s making it free to stream before having it peer-reviewed by a publisher.
“This kind of hip-hop academic work should be public scholarship and something that is accessible to people,” he says. “There has to be a conduit for what’s happening in the classroom and the community. This work shouldn’t just exist in academic spaces.”
Carson says he has specific personal hopes for the project.
“I want the groundbreaking part of this album to be that my grandmas are quoted, or my cousins are mentioned, because their perspectives were often excluded, and they deserve a place in history.”
5 p.m.: Leaving Grounds
Carson’s graduate class ends at 4:30, but the class lingers and chats until almost 5. Carson walks across Grounds to his car, slipping on his headphones again.