On the Cover
I still remember the first time I heard the name, heard the voice, saw the image of Tupac Amaru Shakur in a baseball cap, gold chain and denim jacket surrounded by a group of black men in Klan-like hoods. It was an album Dan Quayle would soon say “has no place in our society.” If anyone made a judgement based solely on aesthetics – which let’s face it most of us all too often do – there would be little wonder this album, and Tupac’s subsequent art scared the wits out of white America, my parents most definitely included.
There is no doubt that this scare factor appealed to my teenage rebellion and is part of the reason I became a Tupac fan that day. But the problem with the image, the brand that was 2Pac, is that the man that was Tupac Shakur was far too complicated and at times contradictory to ever fit into any branding niche.
Of course this is nothing that was new or revolutionary with Tupac. Our lust for two-dimensional characters and a world that can be easily divvied up into heroes and villains is as old as human nature. And the ugly cult of celebrity that is largely dependent on this kind of narrow world view was perfected by Hollywood, the record industry and the media long before Tupac’s 1991 arrival into that world. And it has continued on just fine without him since it chewed him up and spit him out on the streets of Las Vegas in 1996.
Beyond the Image
Still, there was plenty that was new, perhaps even revolutionary about Tupac. Long before his untimely death, he was for better or worse the first real hip hop martyr. His first ever run in with the law came after his first album 2Pacalypse Now was released. He received a beating from police after a jaywalking episode. He bore the scars on his face for the rest of his life. Then there was the incident that led to Dan Quayle’s public backlash. A young African American male in Texas shot a state trooper and his lawyer claimed the young man was influenced by 2Pacalypse Now and its frequent referencing of police brutality. Indeed Tupac’s first single “Trapped” is a first person narrative of a young black male harassed and even shot at by the police. In the song the character 2Pac fires back. The song ends with the line “I’d rather die then be trapped in the living hell.” The video for the song features Tupac rapping from a jail cell.
Part of what was new – at least at that time – was the particular contradictions that Tupac embodied. A dear friend of mine at seminary wrote a fine exposition of the history of hip hop for one of his final papers at seminary. In that paper, he positioned Tupac in a Genre of his own in between the socially conscious rap scene of the late 80′s and early 90′s and the gangster rap sub-genre Tupac somewhat inadvertently helped launch permanently into the multi-platinum selling stratosphere. But even this was not completely unprecedented. A few years earlier Ice Cube and Ice-T had both already sold tens of thousands of records combining the political consciousness of Chuck D and the gritty street narratives of other rappers.
The first song I heard after I saw that album cover art was actually the last song on the album. I remember it well. It was right after church. A couple of girls from my church youth group asked me if I had heard of this new guy, so new that I think they were still pronouncing his name as two-pack. The song was called “Part time Mutha.” It was a haunting and largely sympathetic look into the the lives of three single mothers. The first verse is about a woman named Cindy whose sexual exploits with men occurred one after another as they lined up in “single file.” The listener hears “That would be cool if she was a lover/but f__ that Cindy was my dope-fiend mother.” The second verse, rapped by a female guest, is the first person narrative of a teenage girl sexually abused by a step-father. She too becomes a part time mother. The twist comes in the final verse, again rapped by Tupac, is when a one-night stand leads to the male narrator also being “a part time mutha.” It was not exactly a slogan for a women’s right campaign but it was noticeably different from the way women were being talked about in other hard core hip hop during that same time period.
This pattern continued and the contradiction became more blatant with each album. Two of the four singles from his second album serve as a fine example: “I get around” a song about how Tupac and his friends from the group Digital Underground “just don’t stop for hoes” and “Keep Your Head Up” a beautifully written song in which Tupac declares:
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
So who was the real Shakur?
Tupac: part scholar, part prophet, part political activist for black males and spokesperson for African American women
Or 2Pac: at that point in time my parents worst nightmare, a young black male, angry, vengeful and yes convicted of a sexual assault charge.
Was he a hero or a villain? Could he be both? It is not my intent to defend a sometimes self-contradictory perhaps latent sexist or to call into question his undeniable prophetic voice. But it is my intent to re-humanize the demonized figure and perhaps cast a shadow on the sainted one.
On the Inside?
Another unfortunate and sometimes devastating aspect of our obsession with fame and our people branding tendencies is that we often think we know the inner workings of our heroes and villains better than we really can from a distance. I certainly felt that way about Tupac. And I was not alone.
Of the various aspects of this multifaceted man it was the paradox between macho bravado – so typical of the male dominated rap music scene – and raw vulnerability that appealed to me most. This is something that has since and often been imitated but never duplicated by any artist in hip hop. My guess is that as Tupac inevitably matured his music would have went the more peaceful and even somewhat bohemian direction of his early poetry (which has since been published) but with greater maturity. But it is a guess.
I have heard several movie critics who were big fans of his work declare he would have eventually left music altogether and developed a fine acting career.
But it is not uncommon to read on a hip hop blog something to the affect of “If 2pac were still alive rap would not be so soft.”
All sides of this complicated man had their appeal. And nobody – really nobody – knows who he would be today if it were not for his untimely death.
Tupac was truly part of the last generation that had icons – icons in the classic Hollywood sense of the word, up on the silver screen or in news papers. People who -whether we chalked them up to be heroes or villains - seemed untouchable to most of us. This has since changed drastically, at least in our perception. Now days even pop stars as big as Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber can be “friends” on facebook or twitter with 10,422,183 of their closest fans.
Now we are all icons in the smallest sense of the word. Everybody is a brand. We have brought the stories of heroes and villains first told around the flicker of campfires and eventually the glow of the silver screen down to the 13 inch screen that sits in my lap. And most of us are on one. We all have our page, our miniscule piece of the world wide web. Next to the icon is a little description of political and religious beliefs, a place for a bio and what we do for fun. We can lie until our heart is deceived that it is content or we can be blatantly and brutally honest. And then we can decide if the image another person is broadcasting to the world is what we deem to be good or bad. Are they red or blue? Believer or skeptic? We can now divide everybody up into heroes and villains, those we don’t trust and those for the time being we still do. We can relegate everyone to a category, a perceived level of intimacy or estrangement. If we want, we can assign people to an infinite number of concentric circles with varying levels of goodness or closeness. And we can do this all without ever leaving the comfort of our own home.
It would seem our lust for two dimensional characters and a world easily divvied up between heroes and villains would finally be satisfied. But we really don’t know each other any better than I knew Tupac or you know Lady Gaga. Everyone is an icon; and when everyone is an icon no one is. So many people feel more lonely, angry and disaffected than ever.
I think Tupac – at least the part of him that was undeniably a prophetic voice in the world – would say we have to change the way we eat, we have to change the way we live and we have to change the way we treat each other.If we don’t we are headed for a 2Pacalypse now, more than ever.
The old way wasn’t working. Why did we go even farther down that path? This is what happens when we do what we think we need to do to survive. Lord have mercy!