New course at Johnson C. Smith connects Rapsody’s album ‘Eve’ with important Black literature and history

 By Cameron Lee

March 29, 2021

The bridge between hip-hop and academia has grown sturdier over the years. The 2004 publication That’s the Joint!: The Hip Hop Studies Reader is often referenced as the moment the study of hip-hop was more clearly defined. Edited by Murray Forman and North Carolina’s own Mark Anthony Neal (author, professor, and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Duke University), the book brings together a collection of hip-hop scholarship addressing the history of hip-hop, identity politics, social movements, production technologies, and more. Neal also co-teaches a course on the history of hip-hop at Duke University with North Carolina Music Hall of Fame inductee, Patrick Douthit aka 9th Wonder. 

Rapsody performing at Made in America Festival in 2017. Photo: Andre Jones for CLTure

North Carolina native and 9th Wonder protégé Rapsody was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards for her release, Laila’s Wisdom. Her 2019 follow up Eve was equally impressive. A 16-track album paying tribute to 15 dynamic Black women with an interlude by spoken word poet Reyna Biddy, Eve celebrates the contributions of Black women to the cultural landscape of America while serving as a podium for Rapsody’s own challenges in navigating a mostly male-dominated music industry. 

Interweaving recognizable samples from songs like “Strange Fruit” (originally performed by Billie Holiday and later by Nina Simone) on the track “Nina” to Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” on the track “Afeni,” Rapsody’s Eve is a web of sounds and soliloquies that honors the influence and impact of Black women. With tracks dedicated to civil rights activist and journalist Myrlie Evers-Williams to fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, best known as the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics, it’s easy to see Eve as an academic instrument. 

Raleigh native Dr. Tyler Bunzey, a visiting professor at Johnson C. Smith and UNC-Chapel Hill African American literature and hip-hop teacher, is adopting the album as the subject to his new course Rapsody’s Eve and Hip-Hop Feminist Literature. Following the pioneering trail of educators like Jemayne King, the creator of the first English course dedicated to sneaker culture at Johnson C. Smith, Bunzey’s course examines themes of Black womanhood and hip-hop through literature influenced by Rapsody’s Eve. For Bunzey, who was also a teacher’s assistant for Mark Anthony Neal and 9th Wonder’s History of Hip-Hop course at Duke University, the album was an ideal subject for his course. Rapsody’s North Carolina roots and her impact in modern music further cemented his affirmation. 

Jemayne King, the creator of the first English course dedicated to sneaker culture at Johnson C. Smith and founder of Sole Food Brand.

“Sixteen tracks and 16 weeks in a semester, I was like, ‘This is ready made for a syllabus,’” he said. “What can we learn from sort of like an interdisciplinary study of Eve about hip-hop feminism and about gender, as it relates to hip-hop, because you know, this album is very specifically focused on honoring and holding dearly, the innovative contributions of Black women.”

While some may wonder what a white male professor of cultural studies may know about hip-hop feminism or the contributions of Black women in society, Bunzey makes it very clear his role in the course syllabus.

Dr. Tyler Bunzey, a visiting professor at Johnson C. Smith teaches Rapsody’s Eve and Hip-Hop Feminist Literature at Johnson C. Smith. 

“My goal in the classroom and in my research is to promote liberatory practices that center marginalized voices in the spaces that often erase, denigrate, or ignore such rich academic work,” Bunzey said. “Because I experience a privileged position in the academy, I seek to create spaces for the voices of others to be heard and taken seriously and then get out of the way.” 

Conscious of the importance of perspective in a course such as Rapsody’s Eve and Hip-Hop Feminist Literature, Bunzey has invited guests such as famed rappers Rah Digga and Sa-Roc, and Taylor Crumpton, a music, pop culture and politics writer to speak to the class. Connecting the music to contemporary voices in the space, the course also dives deep into Black literature. 

Rapper Sa-Roc is a guest speaker for Rapsody’s Eve and Hip-Hop Feminist Literature class at Johnson C. Smith.

“Students are engaging with a longer history of Black women’s discourse throughout multiple centuries. I have assigned readings dating back to the 19th century,” he said. “So we think through the sample of “Strange Fruit” through the history that the song is identifying. And then we think through the legacies, specifically Nina Simone’s voice being sampled in hip-hop history.”

The correlation with songs like “Nina” lead to social issues that have plagued America for centuries. In the first week, students read Ida B. Wells’ The Red Record, a book published in 1895, that accounts the horrific practice of lynching in the South. In the course, students discuss parallels in the sample of “Strange Fruit,” a protest song that compares the victims of lynchings to the fruit of trees. Analyzing important articles like scholar Salamishah Tillet’s essay on Nina Simone for the Gagosian Quarterly, each track is profoundly studied. 

While the course was originally developed and launched at UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall of 2020, Bunzey hopes to continue to teach it at Johnson C. Smith. As a Raleigh native and a newcomer to Charlotte, he’s also beholden for the opportunity. 

“Whatever work that this is doing that’s interesting or nuanced or different. You know, it’s heavily indebted to the people who have been doing this work for much longer than me.”  

Courtey of Johnson C. Smith

Continuing the work of so many pioneers in hip-hop academia like Tricia Rose (Black Noise), Mark Anthony Neal, Murray Forman, 9th Wonder, Davidson’s own Joseph Ewoodzie (Break Beats in the Bronx), and many others, Rapsody’s Eve and Hip-Hop Feminist Literature course at Johnson C. Smith, continues to further substantiate the importance of hip-hop to the fabric of social culture and Black history in academia. 

Learn more about Rapsody’s Eve and Hip-Hop Feminist Literature course and more on Johnson C. Smith’s official website

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