Let's face it: a lot of rap music is ignorant noise; and in its enthusiastic affirmation of criminality, along with its sexism and homophobia, much of rap has set back the black male public image about two hundred years. After rapper Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) was shot to death by an unknown assailant, I mentioned him to a friend (an African-American male professional who works twelve hour days, financially supports his mother, tutors his nieces and nephews regularly, and doesn't use drugs or even drink alcohol), and before I could say I regretted Tupac Shakur's death my friend said, "If you live by the sword, you die by the sword."
Rap may be internationally popular, but it's still controversial, especially among those blacks trying to live out standards of respectability the larger world does not seem to comprehend they even know. However, I come now not to criticize Tupac Shakur but to praise him.
Tupac Shakur's legacy of poetry, rap, passion, politics, and scatology continues with the recent release of Until the End of Time, a collection of raps originally recorded during his "Makaveli" period. The recording easily documents Tupac's appeal and power — and many of us are inclined to say simply Tupac, the way we say Billie (Holiday) or Jimmy (Baldwin) or Spike (Lee), in a display of affectionate though sometimes wary intimacy.
Before Tupac died, I had heard of him, but he had not been at all important to me. A couple of appreciative obituaries made me think twice about him. I saw him in a film that he made with Tim Roth, Gridlock'd, and I thought he was a terrific actor — calm, assured, thoughtful, deep. I thought he could have had a long, significant career in film. As with the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley, white rock musicians, a man of distinct sensitivity and radicality seems to have bloomed quickly and just as quickly been plucked from us. I was saddened by his death, but still did not listen to his music.
When inclined to listen to rap, I'd put on A Tribe Called Quest, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, MC Lyte, Digital Underground, Me Phi Me, or even Ice-T, generally rappers who seemed deeply humane, progressive. Mostly, I listened to jazz, world music, alternative rock, and pop music of the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn't until this year, after I saw a play about Tupac that I then picked up some of his musical works, with his latest recording, Until the End of Time, being the first of them.
In Until the End of Time, Tupac brags and puts down other men, including other rappers, who he sometimes threatens, and in one rap he says, "Thug niggers don't die...we live the good life." This was wishful thinking and he knew it — and so wrote a "letter to my unborn child," in which he passes on some of what he learned, which includes "being black hurts." In "Breathin' " he says, "I walk around with a knife in my back...Talk about a bad day? I live my life like that." Tupac lived by the sword but also by the word.
Many of Tupac's raps are unusually intelligent and observant and he moves easily from empathy to taunting cruelty, giving the record an undercurrent of real world feeling. His sex raps have a genuine erotic energy and directness. For him, rap was a mix of poetry, drama, and music in which he described situations — familial, political, social — and took on the attributes of a dynamic character within them. He used the music of various genres as atmosphere and for their beats. His work is emotional and sensuous. Yet, he was not a great poet or musician. He was — and remains — an artist and a star: a human being written large: the personality and purpose, the complexity, it takes us months or years to see in strangers who become our comrades, friends, or lovers, we see in him the first time we are in his presence. Tupac was a young man with activist and transgressive impulses and he was also an entertainer. It is hard to look at him and listen to him even now — his image alive in films and videos and photographs, his music vibrant — and not see his anger and his promise as a reflection of our own. He was and is a beautiful black man.
The play that led me back to Tupac this past spring was Up Against the Wind by Michael Develle Winn, directed by Rosemary K. Andress, at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village. It featured Anthony Mackie as a convincing Tupac, lean, smart, and tough, with a sensitivity that made him quickly perceptive and sometimes brutal. The physical resemblance between the two meant there were moments when one could almost believe that this was a resurrected Tupac.
Up Against the Wind explored the life and death of Tupac: his articulation of thug life in his work, his professional dealings with questionable record producers, his easy way with women, the charge against him of sexual assault and his conviction, and his relations with his sister and his Black Panther mother who became a drug addict (Hazelle Goodman effectively played his mother, Afeni Shakur). The play dramatized also the two shootings that Tupac suffered. In Up Against the Wind, we see that Tupac's limitations are not his alone but the limitations of the time in which we live: young black men still do not get the nurturing, respect, or support that would demonstrate truly having been welcomed to the world. It is a world in which what is prevalent is easy sex, materialistic goals, eagerness for conflict and fighting, broken family structures, the availability of drugs, and the lack of committed mentors, along with racism and sexism. Yet, Tupac lived, loved, hated, acted, rapped, and sang in this world (he was a poet and all poets sing). He was very much a part of the world, and he had not yet learned how to stand apart from it enough to find an original, independent life-giving, life-saving response; and yet his legacy remains-his work. It is a legacy of desire and pain, tenderness and rage. His albums include 2pacalpyse Now (1991), Strictly 4 My Niggaz (1993), Thug Life (1994), Me Against the World (1995), All Eyez On Me (1996), Makaveli (1996), R U Still Down (1997), Greatest Hits (1998), Still I Rise (1998), and The Rose that Grew From Concrete (2000).
I've been listening to his Greatest Hits, featuring raps such as "Keep Ya Head Up," "Brenda's Got a Baby," and "Dear Mama," in which he expresses his compassion for women. And I have been listening to The Rose, a tribute anthology featuring the performance of Tupac's poems by Sonia Sanchez, Danny Glover, Jasmine Guy, and others. The purchase of these works will fund a foundation that bears his name and related causes. It is reported that there are other recordings of his yet to be released. They will tell us more about the man Tupac was — we will continue to discover that (until the end of time?). The man he might have become is left to our imaginations. From painter Jean Michel Basquiat to poet Essex Hemphill to Tupac, we have lost many valuable young black men too soon. As singer-songwriter Ben Harper sings, "Welcome to the cruel world."