Q&A: Hip-Hop Professor Traveled an Innovative Path to Tenure

July 9, 2024 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

In June, as the University of Virginia sent graduates on their way and ended the academic year, associate professor A.D. Carson concluded his first year as a tenured professor of hip-hop and the Global South.

Professors gaining tenure isn’t uncommon. But in this case, and to the best of our research, Carson is one of the first in the nation – if not the first – to gain tenure making hip-hop mixtapes, a genre that’s just 50 years old. 

We chatted with Carson about what this means for him, and about his most recent album, part of a package of musical work he submitted during the tenure process.

Q. In your notes about your 2023 album, “V: ILLICIT,” you wrote that it is “about what it means to be dope.” What does being dope mean to you?

A. It’s about skill and the ability to make art of a certain quality. It’s important that I’m good at what I do, and that whoever listens can hear that in the art I make. But “being dope” is also about how the world responds to certain products.

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Drugs have a prominent place in American life. Sometimes the difference between prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and illegal drugs is a matter of where you get the drugs and if getting them there is considered legal. This seems to be about control and regulation, and it also seems to include clear race, class and gender issues. Everything I said here about drugs is applicable to culture, music and people.

Black music and Black people have been subject to attempts at strict control and regulation since before this was a country. Simultaneously, people have consistently tried to extract from and exploit Black music and musicians for profit. So, the metaphor is that Black people are like drugs and the U.S.A. is a user, an addict, a wannabe kingpin.

Making rap music, and that work being judged by UVA and larger scholarly communities to determine whether I should earn tenure, keep my job, or be considered an expert, means that my dopeness is also being determined “good” or “bad,” “sanctioned” or not.

Q. What does having tenure mean for you, and what does it mean for UVA?

A. I’m not as concerned about it being “historic” as I am with the work being good and impactful. That said, I’m not going to be fake humble and pretend that history doesn’t matter. I’m proud to be able to use hip-hop to push boundaries that shouldn’t exist.

I’m proud to have presented my scholarship as rap music. My department, the College of Arts & Sciences and the University see those contributions as worthy of recognition with tenure. This is an example of UVA leading by creating a model that other universities should follow. 

Q. Your path to tenure was different than many of your colleagues, in that part of your tenure submissions were rap albums. Why did you choose that path? 

A. One of the primary ideas in my work is about what determines who is viewed as an expert about certain subjects. What makes something “academic” or “scholarly”? A researcher who raps his findings is no less a researcher.

In the summer of 2017, I released the first album in the series, “Sleepwalking, Vol. 1.” It contains a recording of me at a counterprotest on the morning of Aug. 12 (2017, when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville). “Sleepwalking 2” came a year later. The third album, “i used to love to dream,” was published in 2020 and was the first album ever peer-reviewed and published with an academic press. The fourth, in 2022, “iv: talking to ghosts,” was written and released during those difficult pandemic times.

Q. Does being a hip-hop professor in Charlottesville rather than New York, Los Angeles or Chicago make it more or less difficult to pursue your scholarship?

The cover photo of A.D. Carson's latest album.

Carson’s latest album, “V: Illicit,” is part series made for his tenure submission. “A researcher who raps his findings is no less a researcher,” Carson says.

A. In Charlottesville, my work as a hip-hop professor is more likely to face resistance from certain people. It’s more likely that folks will try to mischaracterize and weaponize it against me. My work seems to attract the attention of groups like those who compiled the “Professor Watchlist,” which they say is to “unmask radical professors,” but feels like modern McCarthyism.

Maybe they feel like there might be a more receptive audience for such absurd claims in Charlottesville, given its history and politics. Academic freedom is another reason tenure is important. While lists like that certainly make my safety an urgent concern, and I’ve had to get used to rude or threatening email or social media posts, working in Charlottesville at UVA presents as many opportunities as any other place.

Hip-hop has global appeal, but it manifests locally. Earning tenure as a professor of hip-hop by recording rap albums at the University created by the man who argued that Black people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” adds to its historic, social, artistic, cultural and academic significance.

Q. What kinds of scholarship or research do you plan to pursue in the coming years?

A. Writing about hip-hop for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Spin and NPR has created more publicly accessible ways to engage in conversations at the intersection of hip-hop and popular culture and to share my scholarship with broader audiences.

It’s as important to respond in the moment to things in the media as it is to comment through the longer process of traditional academic publications. And many academic publications don’t speak to larger general audiences, which I want to prioritize.

I will continue creating and publishing through the venues that have published my previous work. I’m releasing a mastered, peer-reviewed version of my dissertation album, “Owning My Masters,” with University of Michigan Press later this year. My book, “Being Dope: Hip-Hop & Theory Through Mixtape Memoir,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press as part of their Theorizing African American Music Book Series in early 2025.

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications