Searching for Tupac Shakur
When I was at Fuller Seminary a man mentioned Tupac in one of my classes. I had heard of Tupac as part of the "Hard Core" rap scene in the 90's, and wasn't surprised when he was killed. In the 90's it seemed that hard core rap stars being shot was about as common as brittney spears showing cleavage during her heyday.
Somehow though it seemed that Tupac was different. You don't see paintings of Notorious B.I.G., but you do see them of Tupac. You don't see statues of Biggie Smalls but there are statues of Tupac. You don't see kids stop and pause at a lithograph of Soulja Slim, but they do with Tupac. I asked the guy in my class what made Tupac different. He said that Tupac sang about the issues that mattered to the black community, and that he was very spiritual. That didn't exactly gel with my impression of Tupac, so I asked him where I could learn more. He suggested this book: Holler If You Hear Me by Michael Eric Dyson.
The book starts off a bit like a starry eyed fan book, with the writer talking about trying to get comments from Snoop Dog and others about Tupac. They clearly have respect for Tupac, but it doesn't make for great reading. It improves quickly though as it goes into a biography of Tupac's early life and then talks about his work, the end of his life and his legacy. There is also a very good section about the treatment of women in black culture and rap in particular.
Did the book answer my question? I believe it did. I am going to share a few quotes that illustrate a difference between Tupac and so many other dead rap stars:
Quoting reverend Willie Wilson: "He was their preacher, if you will, who brought a message that [young people] can identify with, related to what was real, that spoke to the reality of the circumstances, situations [and] environments they have to deal with every day." If Wilson's words appear outlandish to some, perhaps even sacrilegious to others, it might help to remember that Tupac was obsessed with God. His lyrics drip with a sense of the divine.
Dyson then goes on to back up that assertion with quotes of songs and discussions of their religious themes.
In a later chapter Dyson continues "It is as if he were saying, 'I will be your sacrificial lamb. I will suffer for your sake, in your place. I will tell the story of your entombment in poverty and stunted social ambition. I will narrate your lives through my chaotic, desperate, self-destructive public life. And when I die, it will be to immortalize the similar deaths of anonymous black males whose names will never scar the tissue of public attention.'"
One final quote:
"The thought of Tupac's body lurching backward in suffering as he sought to dodge his murderer's assault is the thought of black males left vulnerable to arbitrary destruction. Whether it is of their own making or the doing of sinister forces outside their communities, though important to know, cannot finally deter the love that must embrace and save them."
This, then, is how at least some of the black community sees Tupac. In reading the book I got an appreciation of Tupac as a man who was intelligent, soft spoken and well read, yet horribly insecure who got caught up, by his own choice, in a lifestyle that was not survivable.
Reading this book a week or so after reading "Outliers" is very telling. Outliers is all about the situations and circumstances that lead to success. Holler if you Hear Me is all about a man who had the worst of circumstances and situations and managed to become a huge rap star, but never was able to shake those circumstances and situations, ultimately ending up dead as a result of them.
Reading this book definitely helped me to understand why Tupac is revered when others are forgotten. It also made me sad for the plight of the poor in our society, when even if they are brilliant and successful, the culture they live in makes demands on them that keeps them down.
I am not a fan of rap music, I am not a fan of Tupac, and I am not a fan of violence. Still, I think this book was well worth reading to understand a significant part of our culture and why this man is viewed the way he is by many in our society. Tupac is, to me, an American tragedy. Recommended.