A.D. Carson just scored, arguably, the dopest job in academia.
Last month, Carson moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, to take on the role of assistant professor of hip-hop and the global south at the University of Virginia's McIntire Department of Music.
"In my mind, I'm thinking about the hip-hop world. I'm making music — I'm still a part of this world," Carson said. "If the music is not dope, if I'm not a dope emcee, if I'm not good at what I do, then this all means very little."
Carson graduated with distinctions this past spring from Clemson University's rhetorics, communication and information design doctorate program, and his dissertation quickly took off — the 34-track rap album titled "Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions" received national acclaim and launched his work forward in a way he hadn't anticipated.
Though Clemson University heralded his dissertation as something unique — and unique to Clemson — Carson said that was just about the only time the university showed him support.
"Being in the climate that is Clemson University really helped to push forward the thoughts I was having and how I would present my work," Carson said. "My life every day in Clemson — the dissertation is kind of like a metaphor for that."
During his four years on campus, Carson was heavily involved in addressing what he and others viewed as institutional injustice embedded within Clemson. In April 2016, just about a year before he presented (and successfully defended) his unconventional dissertation, he was arrested for trespassing during the nine-day sit-in at Sikes Hall.
"Being detained out in front of Sikes, then to have Clemson tweeting and posting on Facebook about this 'innovative dissertation project' as though it was always in support or as though it was their idea — it was really a surreal moment," Carson said. "Just a year ago it seemed as though the institution had taken a stance against me and now the institution is championing this work. They’ve taken a certain kind of credit for it."
Clemson University officials declined to comment last week on Carson's new position or on the protests he was involved in during his time at Clemson.
Carson acknowledges his work wouldn't have been the same without Clemson, but given his conflict with the university he had no qualms about leaving for Virginia.
"It was very impactful, I learned a lot. But there was no hesitation whatsoever with me packing up and leaving town," Carson said. "They weren’t willing to really engage — they were just interested in the public perception."
Emily Blackshire, who has known Carson for several years, said this is a conversation they've had repeatedly.
"The process of Clemson all of a sudden realizing the crown jewel they have in A.D. Carson when they (university police) arrested him a year ago — the tendency is to cover themselves until it makes national headlines in a positive way," Blackshire said. "This is just so typical of Clemson and of black students in general. ... Clemson doing everything in its power to nab credit for that is offensive."
Blackshire, who recently penned a column on Clemson's inability to acknowledge injustices on campus, graduated in May with her bachelor's degree in language and public health. She now teaches middle school math and science in rural North Carolina, and said she's looking forward to seeing what Carson will do next through his position at UVA.
"This isn’t just a student that one time caught the administration's eye for one action — this is someone who was repeatedly told to step down and to know his place," Blackshire said. "I have always always admired A.D. so much. I think that at UVA there are no bounds to what A.D. is going to accomplish."
Ted Coffey, associate professor of composition and computer technologies in UVA's McIntire Department of Music, chaired the search committee that ultimately hired Carson. While he said they had numerous outstanding candidates, Carson's work — and especially his dissertation — was something they hadn't seen before.
"I think that A.D. is rooted in black American intellectual history, both literature and theory. And the content of his dissertation — he has rap where he's ripping, sampling the rhyme scheme of Langston Hughes and of Jay-Z. He's synthesizing stuff that came before," Coffey said. "I'm just really curious to see what he's going to do next."
Coffey has high expectations for Carson at UVA, and knows that his background in music and literature will allow him to collaborate with both members of the university and members of the surrounding community.
"His energy — he's charged up. It was clear to us that he was charged up, so it doesn’t surprise me that he's jumping into the middle of things already," Coffey said. "He's (in a sense) a freedom fighter. I have a sense that he's going to throw himself into the middle of the most egregious injustices he can find and work to make them more just."
In the few weeks since Carson moved to Virginia, he's already been making an effort to get to know the local hip-hop scene, both on campus and off. He's performing this Friday at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, and has already collaborated with a doctoral student at UVA on a track for a new project — which he plans to drop at the start of classes.
"I believe so strongly in hip-hop and have been so influenced by the culture that I take the responsibility very seriously and I have to be very mindful and very careful and very deliberate of the moves I make while I'm in this position," Carson said. "I want to establish myself as a scholar and artist and to really get a feel of the community that exists through hip-hop, especially at the local level in Charlottesville."
Finding the tenure-track position at UVA was unreal, he said, and though it seems the position was custom-made for him, Carson said he isn't taking the opportunity for granted.
"I think that it's just really monumental that the title is assistant professor of hip-hop and the global south," Carson said. "I think that is a big deal for what hip-hop means in the academic space."