Hip-Hop Professor’s New Album Mixes Literature and Art With Current Events

A.D. Carson standing at a podium talking in front of a crowd

A.D. Carson joined UVA’s McIntire Department of Music this year as a professor of hip-hop. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Just a few weeks into his new role as a music professor at the University of Virginia, hip-hop artist A.D. Carson has produced a new album.

Carson, who earned his Ph.D. from Clemson University in May, wrote, performed and produced his previous album as his dissertation project. The album, “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions,” earned national media attention for its unique format – a fully realized rap album is hardly a common format for dissertation work – and helped Carson land a faculty position at UVA.

His most recent album, “Sleepwalking, Vol. 1: A Mixtape,” came out last week. Like Carson’s previous album, the 12 songs on this album draw on a wide variety of influences, quoting artists, films and authors much as a traditional essay does. Both free albums can be found on Carson’s website.

A.D. Carson published a new album just a few weeks after starting his first semester as a UVA faculty member.

A.D. Carson published a new album just a few weeks after starting his first semester as a UVA faculty member.

The album takes its title from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man.” In the prologue, Ellison’s character discusses how he often feels unseen or even that he needs to conceal himself and not awaken “the sleeping ones,” because, as the character explains, “there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.”

“Choosing that title continues the work I was doing with my dissertation, engaging with the concepts Ellison raises in his novel,” Carson said. “It’s a perfect metaphor for the difficult work we have to do today, interrogating ourselves and asking ourselves how we might be ‘sleepwalking.’” 

Though drawing on Ellison and other past works, Carson’s new album also includes contemporary references to new films, hip-hop albums and current events, including the white supremacist demonstrations that roiled Charlottesville and the rest of the country this summer.

Like many in the UVA and Charlottesville communities, Carson has put a lot of thought into the implications of this summer’s demonstrations, which included a torchlight rally downtown in Emancipation Park on May 13, a Ku Klux Klan rally downtown in Justice Park on July 8 and protests at UVA and in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12. The latter resulted in three deaths and many injuries.

Carson called those protests, and the tragedy and fear that followed, “eye-opening,” or, fitting with his album title, “awakening.” 

“We saw firsthand what we are contending with as a community and a country,” he said.

As he always does when thinking through a difficult problem, Carson turned to music. He created the entire album over the course of the summer, much of it after the events of Aug. 11 and 12.

The album begins with sound clips from the morning of Aug. 12 when Carson spoke at a peaceful gathering in McGuffey Park, a downtown art park a few blocks away from Emancipation Park and the Robert E. Lee statue. He read passages from “Invisible Man” and a poem, “Good Mourning, America” from his dissertation album, that deals with America’s complicated history by blending the perspectives of Ralph Ellison’s narrator with the title of James Baldwin’s 1963 book “The Fire Next Time.”

“For me, those works provided a way to narrate the story that we were seeing,” Carson said.

Alongside those clips of live events, Carson’s album incorporates some of the latest work in the music and film industries, such as rapper Jay-Z’s album “4:44,” which came out this summer, and the 2017 psychological thriller “Get Out,” which follows the bizarre twists of an interracial couple’s trip home.

“Referencing these works allows me to situate my own work within, or in some proximity to, these conversations that are happening in pop culture,” Carson said.

Colleagues closer to home are included as well. Music Ph.D. student Ryan Maguire, who is studying composition and computer technologies, produced two songs on the album: “Furious” and “Maybe Metaphors Are Easier.”

“The sounds he created were so intricately done,” Carson said. “He has meticulous attention to detail, and a very good ear for interesting sound.”

Carson also shared his work with his students – he teaches a rap writing and composition course – and allowed them to observe recordings if they were interested.  

“To me, as they are writing rap, it is important that they see it in practice,” Carson said.

Like Carson, many students in his class are using songwriting and composition as a way to think through some of the difficult issues being presented in local and national conversations.

“They are doing really great work, digging deep and engaging critically with their chosen topics,” he said. “They are having to find their way through these issues, too, through the larger questions that we will all have to contend with as people living in this community, this country and this world.

“I’m glad to have them to talk to, and glad to be challenged by their questions and commentary.”