News & Politics » Feature

The Pure Heart of Gangsta Rap

Scholar and minister Michael Eric Dyson finds moral lessons in places others seldom even look.



By Elizabeth Armstrong

As a teenager growing up on the near west side of Detroit, Michael Eric Dyson got an early lesson in the gap between the academy and the street. A voracious reader, he'd developed a passion for Jean-Paul Sartre, but he wasn't expecting a visit to the corner store to become an existential crisis.

"One day I go down to get me a cellophane-wrapped cigar," he says, chuckling at the memory. "I haven't smoked a day in my life, but I was trying to be like Sartre. I go down to the corner store, Mixon's, and fetch my crumpled dollar out of my pocket and put it down on the countertop, and I feel a jolt in my back. So I turn, and there's a man standing there with a sawed-off double-pumped shotgun in my back. He told us to hit the floor."

The man wore a long fur coat, and three armed partners were stationed around the store.

"My very good friend Jeffrey Byrd and his brother are sitting there, and his brother looks up at this gunman, and the gunman hits him on the head with his gun. Blood starts spurting everywhere, and we just fix our eyes immediately back on the ground, drilling holes into the cement. It seems like forever before they collect all their money in the cliched brown paper bags, and the gunman who was my personal robber--like a personal banker or something--stands at the door and says: 'All right. When you go home tonight, tell your mama you been robbed by some gangstas.' And so they tear out of the store into a waiting station wagon and take off down the street. So, of course, after the way was clear I did get up and run home and tell my mama I'd been robbed by a gangsta."

Now 42, Dyson sits in his small corner office on the ninth floor of the Egan Urban Center at DePaul University's downtown campus. His neatly trimmed hair frames a face dotted with freckles, and glasses rim his deep brown eyes. The walls of his office are bare, the window small, his desk empty except for a phone and a computer. Books are scattered haphazardly across the floor; though he lives in Hyde Park and joined the department of religious studies more than a year ago, he travels so frequently that his office serves mainly as a storage room.

For the past decade Dyson, a Baptist pastor and self-described "homeboy with a PhD," has been trying to close the gap between high culture and low. His controversial books reexamining black popular culture and religion in America have fueled his growing reputation as the intellectual voice of hip-hop and won him a place in the circle of black social commentators that includes Cornel West, Patricia J. Williams, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. In Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture (1996), Dyson argues that, despite its faults, the youth culture that revolves around hip-hop has been unfairly demonized by the society whose racial and social inequities gave rise to the music. "For black folk who have too often been dismissed, stigmatized or silenced without a hearing," he writes, "we should be wary of repeating such rituals of repression on our own kids."

Alan Light, editor-in-chief of Spin, thinks Dyson deserves credit simply for recognizing the cultural importance of hip-hop. "Forget whether you like or respect or will give the aesthetic credibility to the form itself. Its audience does! It exists within a sociohistorical context, and it should be taken seriously. It's unbelievable that we still have to stand up and say it at all. But the reality is that we do."

Last year Dyson took on black America's greatest modern icon: I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. confronts the civil rights leader's plagiarism and extramarital affairs, challenging Americans to see him not as a deity but as a human being who, despite his personal flaws, became one of the great moral leaders of the 20th century. Dyson even draws a comparison between King and rapper Tupac Shakur, another voice for black America who was gunned down in his prime: "Tupac's plea for divine guidance is cast in thugs' terms. Still, it touches a universal nerve. Even if they had vastly different answers, such a perspective binds Shakur and other hip-hoppers to King. Both participated, in different ways, in a powerful tradition of reflecting on suffering and evil."

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who began his political career with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told the Washington Post, "A lot of what Dyson is doing is just a fad. I think he does this to get attention. I heard him comparing King to one of these rappers, Doggy Doggy or somebody. I think it's a disgrace. It's shameful for him to put Dr. King on that level."

"Many critics have taken Dyson to task for suggesting that King had much in common with the likes of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace [the Notorious B.I.G.]," writes Mark Anthony Neal in the music magazine PopMatters. "Even if Dyson's claims are not legitimate, what is the harm in attempting to build some kind of intellectual or ideological bridge between the civil rights generation and 'Generation Hip-Hop'? Given Dyson's immersion in black Christian discourse and hip-hop culture, he is perhaps uniquely suited for such a project."

"Art is about breaking boundaries," Dyson said last summer in a speech to the Illinois Arts Alliance. "Art is the means by which societies deal with material insufficiencies in order to stretch what they have. It's about the connection to poor people. Or to people who don't look like us, smell like us, talk like us. Whose last names don't end like ours. How important these resources are in a place like Chicago--yes, this mammoth of artistic energy and architectural genius, which yields to surrounding pockets of misery....Art at its best is always pushing against the boundaries, forcing us to be uncomfortable. Nobody gets off clean. Nobody's hands are not bloody. Art makes us deal with those unsmooth realities at the coarsest edges of human existence."

As a kid in Detroit, Dyson attended schools infested with roaches and rodents. At night he lay in bed flinching at the sounds of gang warfare outside his window. He wore hand-me-downs and ate mostly leftovers. Life was what his mother called making ends meet. "I remember nights laying on the floor, and I could hear the rodents in the walls, chipping the insides away," he recalls. "We used to have to go put the trash out in the back, and these rats the size of cats were walking around. My father had become an expert. He could take a brick and hit one from about 30 or 40 yards. He was amazing."

Dyson's father worked in various factories, often pulling 70 hours a week to feed his wife and five boys. Michael, the second oldest, felt tremendous warmth at home despite the family's financial struggles, and he attributes much of his current success to his parents' work ethic. But violence seeped in through the walls, oozing into Dyson's consciousness like wet cement.

"The aesthetics of poverty I found offensive, and we tried to fight against that, but it was really the violence that cluttered my social and physical landscape. Detroit was known as the murder capital of the world when I was growing up. We felt that very up close." The Detroit riots of 1967 claimed the lives of 43 people, and Dyson still remembers the sound of gunfire, the sight of neighborhood children looting stores.

"What I remember most vividly is that a trail of gray smoke spiraled upward in the sky one evening, and I asked my mother what was going on. I was intrigued by the riots. I sought to understand why black people were so angry at racism that they would take it to the streets. I marveled at brothers and sisters scurrying up and down the street, with TVs and money stashed under their brooming big Afros. And I saw the devastating consequences, in burnt buildings we could no longer patronize, in washed-up, embittered lives of the focal figures, in displaced economic and social resources. All of which I didn't understand until much later."

In April 1968, when Dyson was nine, he was watching TV with his father when a news bulletin informed them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in Memphis. His father rarely showed emotion, but that night he let out a long, low moan, a sound that haunts Dyson to this day.

At age 12 he entered and won the Detroit Optimist Club's oratory contest with a speech that urged his classmates to fight hard for their dreams, and the Detroit News published the speech along with his photograph. Three years later a neighbor gave him her late husband's set of Harvard Classics, and Dyson discovered the power of poetry. "I tell you, it changed my life," he says. "I'm reading Richard Dana. I'm reading Thomas Gray's 'Elegy.' I'm reading Abraham Lincoln's powerfully eloquent rhetoric, understanding Harriet Beecher Stowe." Dyson reaches back into memory for Tennyson's "Ulysses," gaining momentum as he recites: "'Though much is taken, much abides; and though / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are-- / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'"

He pauses, staring out the window. "Of course, today people would call them dead white men. But those dead white men were very important to this living black boy. And that's why it's not either/or for me. It's not either we get into our indigenous African tradition, which has been murdered, maligned, and messed over by the predominant society, or we uncritically celebrate and valorize European visions, viewpoints, and perspectives at the expense of an appreciation for our own culture. To me it's not either/or--it's both/and."

Dyson buried himself in books, often skipping school to read at the public library. After his flirtation with existentialism he returned to his church, Tabernacle Missionary Baptist, with newfound faith. The pastor, Frederick G. Sampson, was a tall and commanding man who could quote DuBois and Shakespeare but never lost touch with his congregation. "Sampson took a liking to me and let me hang out with him," says Dyson. "He claimed that I possessed a mind like a steel trap. He'd go to meetings around the city and take me with him. I'm 14 years old, in the civic life of Detroit, and, of course, I'm feeling important, my eyes wide open and checking it all out. I felt like Tupac--'All Eyes on Me.' Sampson gave me a sense of what was achievable, what was actually doable."

Gradually Dyson realized that most people didn't live the way he did. "It made me more than angry. It made me desire to find an outlet to really express that anger and to make things better for people. I thought it was unfair that black people and white people couldn't live the same. That because of the color of your skin you could get treated differently....I thought that we had to fight racism with tooth and nail, that we had to fight it with every resource we could muster, every intellectual capacity we could foster, to try to tear it down."

A deacon at his church, federal judge Damon J. Keith, helped Dyson get a scholarship from the civic organization New Detroit to attend Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, an affluent suburb of Detroit. The boarding school was among the top five preparatory schools in the nation, and in a class of about 1,000 students Dyson was one of ten blacks. In order to qualify he had to spend two years at the academy, which meant he would have to repeat 11th grade, and work every weekend for Operation Get Down, a social service organization that catered to poor black Detroit neighborhoods. "Every weekend I left the cloistered sanctuary of this resplendent educational place and went to the ghetto of Detroit. So it reminded me. Even if I tended to forget--even if I wanted to forget--I couldn't forget."

The culture shock was overwhelming. "It was my first exposure to a predominantly white and rich environment....I can remember being in the middle of this field, having a sense of lostness, displacement, and dislocation. It was beautifully green everywhere, and it just spun."

Once he found a cartoon affixed to the door of his room with "Nigger go home" scribbled across it. He got hold of an audiotape circulating through school on which some classmates said: "We're going cigar fishing. No we're not, we're going 'niggar' fishing. What's the bait? Hominy grits." And a white student spoke of using sickle-cell anemia to "kill off all the undesirables."

Dyson flunked out during his senior year--he says he couldn't concentrate--and returned to Detroit, where he attended night school to earn his diploma. His new girlfriend, 26-year-old Theresa Taylor, got pregnant, and after what he calls a "shotgun wedding," Dyson found himself a husband and expectant father at 18. He worked a series of jobs, from janitorial to fast-food to the auto industry, but his son, Mike, was born to a shabby apartment in a dirt-poor neighborhood. Dyson and his wife soon divorced, and he saw his son less and less frequently. The child prodigy had become what his neighborhood had always prepared him to be: a disillusioned black man with little hope for the future.

Eventually Dyson got his bearings. Working with his old pastor, Frederick Sampson, he became a licensed minister in 1979. He majored in philosophy at Knoxville College in Tennessee and graduated magna cum laude. At Princeton University he earned a master's degree in religion and a PhD in religious ethics and politics, and in the early 90s he joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He never abandoned his son. He'd won partial custody when the boy was seven, but as Mike grew into a teenager and began to get into trouble at school his mother unofficially granted Dyson complete custody. When Mike was 14, Dyson remarried (his wife, Marcia, is also a minister), and as he began to build a relationship with his son, he realized that he'd never be close to him unless he could understand what Mike was going through as a black teenager in the 90s. Perhaps inevitably, that led him to the world of rap and hip-hop. At first, like most of his generation, he had misgivings about the music. But he knew his son was already hearing it, so he gave it a chance.

He listened to the beats, the words, and he empathized with what he heard: in hip-hop lay the pain of his own ghetto youth. Father and son listened to the music together and talked about it. "I was 10 or 11," recalls Mike, now a 22-year-old student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. "He just sat me down and said, 'Be prepared to listen to some music right quick.' I felt awkward, because he was my dad, and I was hearing swearwords and all."

"I love so much of what's going on in hip-hop," says Dyson, "which is why I take the time to think critically about it, to understand its variety, its depth, its diversity." He says the music has brought him closer to his son, and while they often debate its merits, the communication they share has fostered trust and respect. "We have a great relationship. Not one that's necessarily easy all the time, because he's a very sharp, strong young man, and he's gonna argue with me and I'm gonna argue with him. But that's my baby. That's my number one man."

Mike still listens to hip-hop with his father, but he thinks it's become diluted in the mainstream. "The substance is going down," he says. "There's nothing to rap now; it's all glitz and glamour. They all have strip clubs and naked babes on videos. But you gotta show what's goin' on. You gotta talk about the stipulations of government laws and wrongdoings. My dad always tried to steer me into political rap, into people expressing themselves articulately. He told me when they talk, they should say something behind it."

Dyson likes to remind his own generation that hip-hop offers powerful analyses of what it means to grow up black in America. "When I go out and talk about the hip-hop generation to older black people, I like to quote rapper Biggy Smalls, who said: 'Back in the days our parents used to take care of us / Calling the city for help because they can't maintain / Damn things done changed / If I wasn't in the rap game / I'd probably have a key knee deep in the crack game / 'Cause the streets is a short stop / Either ya' slingin' crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot / Damn it's hard bein' young from the slums / Eatin' five-cent gums / Not knowin' where your next meal is comin' from / What happened to the summertime cookouts / Every time I turn around, a nigga's bein' took out.'"

Aside from its violent images, hip-hop is most frequently targeted for its misogyny, and while Dyson can't defend the way some songs portray women, he finds many of them a reflection of a society that enforces gender stereotypes. "Every arena of American life is shot through at some level with vicious disrespect for women. Hip-hop puts it in your face. It pulls it out of the closet."

Reflecting on the sexism in hip-hop has forced Dyson to confront his own upbringing, where respect for women was often scarce in school, on the streets, and even in church. He lost his first ministry, as pastor of a Tennessee church, for supporting the ordination of women deacons. "Women can go to churches, especially in a black church, where they are 75 to 80 percent of the congregation, and they can cook, they can clean, they can sew. They can do everything but run the very church they numerically dominate. You may not be calling a woman a bitch, but you're treating her like one."

Dyson says that much of his work redefining and exploring black culture is informed by concern for his younger brother. Everett Dyson-Bey was convicted of second-degree murder in 1990; according to Dyson, his brother had been caught up in the drug world for a few years and was convicted of killing a Detroit dealer based on the dying man's declaration, which might have been misunderstood by witnesses. Dyson says his brother's imprisonment is an example of how the judicial system fails today's black youth, and in his Between God and Gangsta Rap he writes an open letter to Everett, describing his family's heartbreak, promising that they'll never give up trying to free him, and pondering what it means to be a man in the ghetto:

"Even though we grew up in a household where we knew we were loved, we rarely, if ever, heard the words, 'I love you.' Daddy taught us to be macho men, strong enough to take care of ourselves on the mean streets of Detroit. And though Mama protested, thinking Daddy was trying to make us too rough at times, I'm sure we both appreciate many of his efforts to prepare us for an often cold-hearted, violent world.

"I remember once when I was about eight years old, I was mimicking his pronunciation of the number four. He pronounced it 'foe.' I followed suit. But he stopped me.

"'Don't you go to school, boy?' he asked.

"'Yes,' I replied.

"'Don't you know how to say that right?'


"'Then do that from now on, OK?'

"I've never forgotten that exchange. He didn't have a great education, but he sure wanted me to be learned. Indeed, he wanted the best for all his boys. Even as I talk about you on television and radio, though, I always try to impress on the audiences and interviewers in the short time I have that ours is no 'one son makes good and the other makes bad: what a tragedy' scenario. I'm not trying to pimp your pain or commercialize your misery to make a name for myself. That's because I believe in my heart, and I hope you do, too, that it could just as easily be me in your cell. I don't want people using our story as a justification for rewarding black men like me who are able to do well while punishing brothers like you who've fallen on harder times."

Dyson knows how it feels to be silenced, to be invisible, and that feeling is the spark that powers hip-hop. "You can be righteously infuriated by its expressions while also endorsing its fundamental vision about rebelling against invisibility and rebelling against silence. Hip-hop at its best has an amazing degree of eloquence to articulate its viewpoint about the world. But even there, they're going to be explicit....They're going to tell the truth about police brutality. They're going to bludgeon you with it, because they're not into the politics of deceit and mendacity."

In many of his speeches, Dyson notes that much of hip-hop sounds like a cry for help, the same cry he stifled while growing up in Detroit. Today, in his little office at DePaul, he recites the plea of Tupac Shakur, his voice trembling as he strains to be heard over the el rumbling by outside: "Help me / Somebody tell me where to go from here / Cuz even thugs cry / But do the Lord care?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

Add a comment