A.D. Carson analyzes different evidence for the same crime on ‘Sleepwalking 2’

Professor of Hip-Hop discusses violence, community engagement, power of language


University Hip-Hop Prof. A.D. Carson released his newest album, "Sleepwalking 2," last month. 

Courtesy A.D. Carson

A few months before the violent events of Aug. 11 and 12 garnered national attention for Charlottesville, A.D. Carson moved from South Carolina to begin his new post as professor of Hip-Hop at the University. Now almost a year after the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally, as the community and the nation still reckon with the events that transpired, Carson has followed up his late 2017 project with “Sleepwalking 2,” an album that meditates on the power of language in a world of strife and urges engagement with each of its tracks.

 Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and length. 

Arts and Entertainment: You describe “Sleepwalking 2” as a “mixtap/e/ssay” project, and it balances racial, political, intellectual and economic rumination with lyricism and diverse sources of inspiration. Could you talk a bit about what themes in particular you wanted to approach after spending a year in Charlottesville? 

A.D. Carson: I really wanted to focus on language, and the work that language does when we talk about violence, and how we might tie what we see manifest as violence to the language that precedes it. And so when we say something like “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” … — but then you think about the laws that are written, that are words, and you think about the Constitution, which is also made up of words, you think about all of these ways … that people are described, the ways that our reality is structured by the way we describe it and how that actually has an effect. 

I want to think about the effect that those words do have as opposed to pretending as if they don’t, or automatically buying into that because it’s what we’ve been told. That’s the place really where I started, the power of language or at least the liberation about what language does, what it is doing, what’s possible to be done with it, and then to move through several ways of examining that over the course of the project. 

AE: Since moving to Charlottesville and in your first academic year at U.Va. teaching, do you think your approach to creating music or your inspirations have changed at all? 

ADC: Well I think that the kinds of things that are going on are similar. White nationalists who are organizing … say that they are going to march, or organize, or rally in the name of free speech. And it’s very clear that that’s not their goal, and honestly the people who they try to take down … a lot of the basis of their arguments are rooted in the thing that they say they stand for. So it’s like, “this person has tweeted these things” or, “this person has said these things” or “these people are doing these things in language and we don’t like those things that they’re doing in language so those people should be quieted, or those people should be watched more closely, those people should be scrutinized, those people should be fired.” And you think, well, that’s a very odd thing, that you say you support free speech but you actually are using that as a shield for your white supremacist outlook and ideology … and what we realize is it’s not free speech that they’re organizing in support of. It’s literally white supremacy. 

I think that thread is consistent … here in the United States where these folks are saying, “I want to be free from repercussions for saying whatever it is that I want to say, because they’re just words, but I also want to make sure that if anyone is using words that I don’t like or engaging in language that I don’t appreciate that those people be shut down.” It manifests differently in a place like South Carolina as it does in a place like Virginia … but it seems that it boils down to the same essential things and defaulting to white supremacy … We dress up these issues in language that obscures the root of the issue. But like I say, if the entire country is dealing with the aftermath and the current reckoning with … a series of the same crimes, then I would say that this entire country is a crime scene and we’re looking at different evidence depending on where we are. 

AE: “Sleepwalking 2” is five tracks, considerably shorter than your previous projects. What was your reasoning for keeping it at this length? 

ADC: I think that part of it is just a matter of making sure that folks don’t get lost in like the deluge of information. The previous project was 12 tracks, before that the dissertation album was 34 tracks, and there are ways that having that much information being offered, many many things can get lost. I think that there’s plenty in the 17 or 18 minutes that you get with “Sleepwalking 2,” but in a classroom setting, for instance, you can listen to the entire project in a 50 minute class you also have 30 minutes then to talk about what you listened to. That also means that you can listen to it multiple times, to really try to take in what is going on, the reasons why I might have organized it the way it is, why are the tracks named as they are, what is going on with the choice of music for each particular track. 

I wanted to be able to offer something that folks could prompt a rich and deep discussion without a lot of the content going by the wayside or being ignored. There were ways that I felt that happened with the previous projects — in conversations that I had about my dissertation, that I still think are relevant, they never came up because it was somewhere in tracks 23 through 28 … lost in the shuffle. I also thought it could be a really powerful statement about this particular set of topics that are dealt with in this project … I’m trying to approach the conversation in a different way and be more deliberate about trying to design the information in such a way that an audience has multiple points of entry. 

AE: Something that I found really interesting about “Sleepwalking 2,” and specifically the first track, “Sticks and Stones,” was the lyric video, which was shot at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, and features many children … from the community. How much of your work, would you say, is influenced by thinking about not only education of college students but the education of youth and future generations? 

ADC: I think that’s one of the things that I think about when I think about the power of language ... folks at U.Va. are not going to dictate what is popularly engaged by young folk, generally. So I think it’s incredibly important for us to engage with the youth on their terms so that we can all understand and they can interpret, criticize and analyze the world that they are inheriting. This is a world that we are leaving to them, and I think a lot of times we’re leaving them out of the conversation ... The parents of those children are also included in the video … these issues we’re dealing with are intergenerational issues. It’s not to say that parents aren’t having those conversations with their children. I think it’s to highlight that they are, and that that is part of the work as well. 

The educators, the entertainers, the folks making art are having a conversation with the community and the community is having a conversation with them. We’re all engaging in ways that ideally a community does engage. It’s important to have that, and it’s not lost on me that without listening to the entire project the lyric video could seem misleading. But I think the ways people might interpret that video on its own also speaks to the idea that the conversation that I’m having about language and how it works … I don’t want to over-determine people’s interpretations of what’s going on in the video and the album — I really do want to leave room for people to think and talk and engage about what might be happening or what might be being said, and hopefully that is productive and it is constructive, as folks move through it.

related stories