Like an emcee rocking the mic, hip-hop scholar Michael Eric Dyson moved the crowd Saturday at N.C. Central University's winter commencement.
The University of Pennsylvania humanities professor offered a laugh-out-loud, sing-along, say-Amen address to the more than 2,000 people who packed the McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium.
And hey, who can forget watching a Ph.D. rap, sing and rock his way through a commencement speech?
In his rapid-fire way, Dyson reminded the 400 graduates of the responsibility that comes with opportunity and warned them against everything from homophobia to "doggin' women."
He encouraged the new grads to be politically conscious -- explaining that their degrees were more than personal achievement.
"Be courageous. Take a stand. Help somebody when it doesn't help you. Help somebody when it might cost you your reputation. Help somebody who ain't just in your family," Dyson said to the mostly black grads of the historically black university. "Sometimes you've got to say stuff that even your fellow black folk don't want to hear because you've got to tell the truth. You better speak truth to power."
Between serious topics, Dyson quoted rap lyrics or belted riffs from 1960s and 1970s soul ballads as the audience sang and clapped along. He sometimes stopped midstream to let his chorus finish a line in unison.
"I'm telling you -- if you're black, if you're white, if you're Latino, Native American, Asian, if you're poor, if you come from what we call the undermost and the underneath and the gutter -- when you're riding up, don't close the door behind you. Open up the door and give somebody else an opportunity," he said, later spitting rhymes from rap artists Nas, Rakim, Common and Mos Def to prove his points.
Dyson's speech hit a variety of topics, as have his writings. His books include examinations of rapper and hip-hop cult figure Tupac Shakur, soul singer Marvin Gaye as well as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Saturday's speech was tame compared to his 1996 commencement address at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he taught in the 1990s. That talk was criticized for its profanity and sexual references. In it, he also slammed UNC alumnus and basketball star Michael Jordan for giving $1 million to the university's School of Social Work and not to a black cultural center.
For more than a decade, Dyson has jumped headlong into the controversies of our time. His latest book, "Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?)," contradicts the comedian's comments about poor blacks, including how some have named their children.
Dyson seemed to be speaking to Lakyshaun, Shatheta, Keyonda, Twanece and Lashavia who were graduating when he likened their potential to that of Shaquille, Oprah or Condoleezza -- saying they too could be fantastic in their fields, rich, accomplished or even the U.S. Secretary of State.
"Whatever your name is, it's the creativity black folks gave to you. Let that be a symptom of the internal creativity that you ought to have in solving problems in the world in which we live," he said. "If you become a United States senator, don't use that perch to get along with folks so you won't be a problem. Use it courageously and creatively."
Joshua White of Raleigh, who manages Greensboro hip-hop artist Brandon D., was impressed.
"I felt like God woke me up this morning just to hear that speech," said White, 25, who came to see his girlfriend's sister graduate. "That's him knowing how to reach the people. In order to reach the young up-and-coming adults -- the people in here getting these degrees -- you've got to know what they know. You've got to know what they like."
SAS employee Richard Lee, 41, was surprised by the send-off for his wife, who earned a master's in psychology.
"He's got a very good point about a lot of things as far as the government is concerned. He's right on," said Lee, who lives in Cary. "He definitely got the crowd motivated. He was very well versed. I thought he was great."
Gloria Haywood, a 1958 NCCU alumna, knew of Dyson, but wasn't ready for him to flip rhymes.
"I didn't have a clue that Dyson knew hip-hop," said Haywood, who was there to see her niece graduate. "I thought it was very good at getting people's attention, if it works. It does not work for all audiences, but it worked today. It wasn't for the old folks. It was for the graduates."
After Dyson said "Peace" to end his speech, Chancellor James Ammons uttered only one word: "Wow."
Then he looked at the grads.
"We wanted him to give you something to remember," Ammons said. "Now, will you remember this?"
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Staff writer Cindy George can be reached at 829-4656 or firstname.lastname@example.org.