Cobb, William Jelani

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William Jelani Cobb


Writer, history professor

The hip-hop generation has come of age, and its collective voice now resonates across American culture. One of the most perceptive analysts of the music and culture that define this generation has been William Jelani Cobb. Cobb, a professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, has brought a historian's perspective and a rapper's sensibility to a wide range of issues through his writing and teaching.

William Jelani Cobb was born William Anthony Cobb in Queens, New York, on August 21, 1969, the youngest of four children. Literacy and education were valued highly in the Cobb household. Both of Cobb's parents had migrated from the South, where they did not have access to high-quality schools. As a result, they were determined to give reading and learning important places in their family life. Cobb counted being taught to write at an early age by his father, Willie Lee Cobb—an electrician with a third grade education—among his earliest memories. On his Web site, Cobb described his father's "huge hand engulfing mine as he showed me how to scrawl the alphabet." Cobb has been writing ever since.

Like many writers of his generation, Cobb was heavily influenced by comic books during his early attempts at authorship. The short stories he wrote as a child had a definite fantasy bent. He credited comic books with nurturing his creative impulses and building his vocabulary as a youth. A voracious reader as a child, Cobb spent long hours perusing important books about black history. When he was about eight years old, his mother, Mary Bester Cobb, made him go up to the counter at the library by himself and ask for a library card. His mother insisted that he talk to the librarian directly about what kinds of books he was interested in and how to find them.

As he reached middle school age, Cobb's interest in language drew him to the rap music that was gaining in popularity at the time. By high school, he was himself an aspiring rapper. This experience, he has said, helped him hone the sense of language that he would eventually parlay into a career as a writer. "What I realized later was that the same rules that applied to writing rhyme—be creative, say something original, avoid cliches, cultivate a sense of rhythm in your sentences, and so on—all those things also apply to other forms of writing," Cobb said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). Accordingly, as he became increasingly committed to writing, one of his first goals was to be able to "sound on the page the way Chuck D (of Public Enemy) sounded on the records."

After graduating from Jamaica High School in Queens, Cobb enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C.. While studying at Howard, he found time to launch his professional writing career. His first legitimate outlet was a periodical called One that existed in Washington for about a year. One essentially gave Cobb, a writing novice, an open forum to write about whatever he wanted. As his journalistic skills developed, he began contributing to the Washington City Paper, Washington's alternative weekly. His first national outlet was YSB Magazine, part of the Black Entertainment Television, Inc. (BET) media empire, beginning in 1993. He also became more politically active during this time, and was involved with a organization, along with Raz Baraka, son of acclaimed poet Amiri Baraka, that took over Howard's administration building in 1989. It was around this time that Cobb, seeking to connect more with African tradition, decided to add "Jelani"—a Swahili word meaning "powerful"—to his name.

Cobb graduated from Howard in 1994 with an English degree, and moved on to Rutgers University in New Jersey to begin work on a Ph.D. in history. While in graduate school, he became a more frequent contributor to publications with nationwide distribution. BET ceased publication of YSB in the mid-1990s, but by that time Cobb had his foot in the door at Essence, a magazine with a broader readership base. His first article for Essence recounted the experience of being tested for AIDS and waiting for the result. The article, titled "Going for the Test," was published in August of 1997.

While doing research at the New York University library for his Ph.D. dissertation on black anti-communism, Cobb stumbled upon a cache of previously unpublished writings by Harold Cruse, an influential scholar whose controversial views included the notion (to grossly oversimplify the matter) that desegregation had resulted in the decay of African-American culture. Cobb tracked down Cruse at a retirement home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, (where he had been a professor at the University of Michigan) and obtained permission to organize and edit these writings and get them published in book form. The resulting book, The Essential Harold Cruse, edited by Cobb with a forward by Stanley Crouch, was published in 2002. It instantly enhanced Cobb's stature among the African-American Studies community nationwide.

Cobb received his Ph.D. in history from Rutgers in 2003, and was hired to teach at Spelman College in Atlanta, where he continues to work as an Assistant Professor of History. The classes he teaches include Afro-American History, a course on W.E.B. DuBois, and a seminar on hip-hop. He is also developing a course on African American family history and genealogy. Meanwhile, Cobb has continued to write prolifically on a wide range of topics, from music criticism to politics to popular culture. He became a regular columnist for the on-line publication, which later became AOL Black Voices. Along the way became a leading scholarly analyst of hip-hop as a social force, and his thoughts on the historical, societal, and artistic importance of this music culminated in the February 2007 publication of his book To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetic.

In addition to his music writing, Cobb has published numerous essays in years in such magazines and on-line publications as Essence, The Progressive, and Alternet. A collection of these essays, collectively titled, The Devil and Dave Chappelle and other Essays, was scheduled for publication in 2007, right on the heels of his hip-hop book. Yet another book, an expansion of his dissertation on black anti-communists, was also in the pipeline, leading to a possible trifecta for the year. Cobb is also a frequent commentator on public radio. On top of this impressive workload, he continues to write fiction as well, and was at work on a novel as of early 2007.

Cobb's essays occasionally spark controversy among African Americans, sometimes for unexpected reasons. One essay was critical of comments made by comedian Bill Cosby about the attitudes and behavior of African American youth. Cobb's criticism was all the more controversial given that Cosby is a major benefactor of Spelman College, and in fact Cobb's office at the college is located in Cosby Hall. A 2006 Essence article about African American men's participation in sex tourism in Brazil elicited a strong response, more because of its racy topic than its biting point about the evolution of middle-class Blacks' class relationships. As his profile continues to rise as a major spokesperson for his generation of African Americans, a generation that grew up in the hip-hop era, Cobb expects more controversies to arise from his words, and more productive dialog to take place as a result.

At a Glance …

Born William Anthony Cobb on August 21, 1969, in Queens, NY; divorced; one child. Education: Howard University, BA, English, 1994; PhD, Rutgers University, History, 2003.

Career: Freelance writer, 1993–; Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, assistant professor of history, 2003–.

Awards: Organization of American Historians, Huggins-Quarles Dissertation Award, 2000; Black Issues Book Review, Notable Book of the Year award, 2002.

Addresses: Office—Spelman College, 350 Spelman Lane S.W. Atlanta, GA 30314-4399; Web—

Selected writings


Editor, The Essential Harold Cruse, Palgrave, 2002.
To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetic, New York University Press, 2007.
The Devil and Dave Chappelle and Other Essays, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2007.


"Past Imperfect" (column), AOL Black Voices.
"Going for the Test," Essence, August 1997.
"White Negro, Please!" The Progressive, January 2003.
"Blame It on Rio," Essence, September 2006.



The Essential Harold Cruse, Palgrave, 2002.


Atlanta Journal Constitution, October 24, 2006. Essence, August 1997.


William Jelani Cobb, (January 3, 2007).


Additional material was obtained through an interview with William Jelani Cobb on January 4, 2007.