Greg Thomas is a professor of English at Syracuse University. Contemptuous of the Great Books approach to literary study, in the fall of 2004 he instead drew his texts from the Billboard charts for rap artists: Thomas introduced a new course devoted to the study of Lil’ Kim (real name: Kimberly Jones). The for-credit course, offered through the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse, was titled “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen Bitch 101—The Life and Times of Lil’ Kim.”
The twenty-something Thomas saw much to admire in the hip-hop icon. In Lil’ Kim’s profanity-laced repertoire, Thomas claimed to glimpse a mind of uncommon profundity: “It’s the art with the most profound sexual politics I’ve ever seen anywhere,” he insisted. Even more than their sexual overtones, however, the Berkeley-educated Thomas was taken by what he saw as the radicalism underlying Lil’ Kim’s obscenity-laden recordings. “It’s about her lyricism and the lyrical persona … new notions of sexual consciousness, sexual politics in her rhymes, how she deals with societies based on male domination in her rhymes and societies based on rigid gender categories and constructs,” he explained to the New York Daily News. Interviewed by ABC Radio, Thomas stressed that “[h]er lyrical artistry is nothing short of revolutionary.”
About the wisdom of devoting an entire course to Lil’ Kim, Thomas was confident. Writing on the website AllHipHop.com, he boasted that his course “overturns male domination, lyrically, and rigid, homophobic gender identity on record—way more effectively than any elite Women’s or Gay & Lesbian Studies program in academia,” and rhapsodized that Lil Kim’s “whole system of rhymes radically redistributes power, pleasure and privilege, always doing the unthinkable, embracing sexuality on her kind of terms.”
According to Thomas, the course addressed another pressing dilemma: “How do we communicate the political absurdity of this brilliant Black female artist facing hard time in the age of George ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ Bush, and all these corportate [sic] lies?” The entire class, observed Thomas, “developed out of my ongoing research on race and sex in the context of empire.”
Thomas began the course by instructing his students to transcribe the lyrics of “Get Money,” a song that Lil’ Kim had recorded with her group Junior MAFIA. The song featured the following lines:
_Niggas…betta grab a seat
grab on ya d*k as this bitch gets deep
Deeper than a pssy of a bitch 6 feet
stiff d*cks feel sweet in this little petite
_Thomas described his pedagogical classroom technique this way: “After [the students] had basically been compelled to show respect to the song … then we did the video analysis…. They got to see the way that that meaning was translated on video. They were blown away and we’ve been riding ever since.” To supplement the “analysis” of “Get Money,” Thomas had his students conduct comparative analyses with other rap music. The Syracuse Post-Standard reported the following classroom exchange between Thomas and his students:
_“Ya’ll know that [rapper] Jay-Z joint? I got 99 problems?” [Thomas] asks his students. “How the chorus go?”
“If you having girl problems, I feel bad for you son,” Thomas says along with the class. “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”
“The chorus draws an equivalence between a girl and a bitch. Is the girl a positive or negative?” he asks. “Negative,” they say in unison.
“(Jay-Z) says his problems are bigger than a bitch.”
Then he plays a Lil’ Kim joint. One where she uses Jay-Z’s line about 99 problems except her meaning is different.
“It’s a whole difference articulation of the same words,” Thomas says.
“Jay-Z says they’re beneath him. She says bitches are not her number one enemy. Men are. See how it’s been flipped?”
Scribbling notes, several students nod._
In November 2004, Thomas turned his classroom into an unofficial rap venue when he invited Lil’ Kim to speak before faculty and students. Though initially startled by the invitation—“I was shocked,” the rapper confessed to one newspaper reporter—she enthusiastically accepted. For 90 minutes, Lil’ Kim proceeded to share her thoughts with the gathered students and faculty, before answering students’ questions on topics such as “race, gender and sexuality.” “At the same time you’re learning from me, I’m learning from you,” she said.
Critics, largely outside the university, rebuked Thomas for profaning a serious college curriculum. But Thomas had no patience for their concerns. The intellectual appeal of Lil’ Kim, he retorted, was “beautifully clear to anyone who is not committed to illiteracy in the language and literature of Hip-Hop.”
Thomas’ enthusiasm for Lil’ Kim did not sour in March of 2005, when the hip-hop star was convicted of perjury for lying about a gunfight outside a radio station. In a sulfurous polemic, Thomas condemned the conviction, seeing in it evidence of the persecution of “Black women who do not conform to white racist codes of sexual repression.” As to the charges of perjury, Thomas, notwithstanding the videotape evidence, would have none of it:
“This case was not about ‘perjury’ at all,” he said, “no more than the U.S. in Iraq is about ‘liberation.’ It’s about whether or not we cooperate with state power, however illegitimate, and this includes its power to persecute us — as usual. It is about the power of the government to criminalize and imprison us along lines of race, class and Hip-Hop affiliation, over here, when they don’t send us to commit their own violence over there. And if ‘lies’ were actually ‘immoral,’ according to the U.S. state, its prison-industrial complex might not be large enough to house those who rule us.”
Thomas is a longtime devotee of the radical black activist Elaine Brown, a former head of the Black Panther Party. So great was Thomas’ esteem for Brown that, in December of 2002, he played a key role in bringing her to the Syracuse campus to deliver a well-paid speech. Brown used the occasion to call for the immediate overthrow of the American government: “On behalf of black people and all oppressed people, I am calling for unfettered action—I would like a regime change in America by any means necessary,” Brown exclaimed. She followed up this call with a hagiographic account of the Black Panther Party, which she hailed for its “ideological commitment to black people.”
Thomas, who regularly assigns one of Brown’s books as mandatory reading for his students, was particularly delighted by her presence at Syracuse. “When you go to see Elaine Brown, you leave knowing what she’s about, and you leave wanting to learn more,” Thomas enthused to the campus newspaper, The Daily Orange. “She’s exciting, entertaining, knowledgeable—everything you could want.”
Thomas is actively involved in the black radical movement. He is, for instance, the founder and editor of one of its journals, Proud Flesh. In an editorial in the journal’s premiere issue in 2002, Thomas approvingly cited the calumnies of the convicted Black Panther felon, George Jackson, against “Urban Fascist Amerika.” Thomas then laid out the journal’s violent agenda, explaining that “we seek revolutionary words and strive to make them flesh.”
Thomas published an assault on what he termed “white domination,” in the fall 2003 issue of The New Centennial Review in which he explained: “The entire history of our African presence in ‘American’ captivity is one that lays bare a raw sexual terror that defines the cult of ‘white supremacy’ here and elsewhere.” He contended that the history of blacks in the United States could be explained as an uninterrupted procession of “direct and indirect colonization.”
In a second article, Thomas claimed that there is no post-colonial reality in America because black people are still, in his estimation, colonized. Wrote Thomas:
“Saying ‘Post-coloniality’ is like saying, President Bush, your words cry ‘freedom’ while your life is full of bombs, surveillance, police brutality, corporate looting, fire and brimstone, Black Death, comprador complicity, democratic fascism, un-freedom. When a CIA father invents a ‘dictator’ chief, installs him against a people’s will, then bombs these same people again and again; and when his unelected son continues, after said chief becomes disposable, after another chief ‘terrorist’ and former employee cannot be found, all in the name of Liberty, in the name of white men’s burdens; then it’s time we remember that Liberty was a slave ship. That it is a slave ship.”