Tupac against the World

Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur By Michael
Eric Dyson. Basic Books, 292 pages, $24.00

I'll never forget the one and only time I saw Tupac
Amaru Shakur, meandering
down Michigan Avenue, Chicago's main strip, with two thug homies. It was
midsummer 1993, yet all wore enough winter garments to shock the sun, despite the
94-degree sizzle. Shakur held his sweatshirt up to show off the infamous "Thug
Life" tattoo etched across his stomach, along with other calligraphic markings.
At 5'6", the rapper was not the imposing figure he appeared to be on television.
But he was audacious to the point of hilarity, and he had the kind of pressing
need to be seen and heard that one would expect in a rising recording star.

If he didn't quite seem larger than life then, he does now. There is
currently no rap artist as exalted in death as Shakur. Five years after he was
gunned down in Las Vegas, Shakur is revered around the world, not just in
America's inner cities but as far away as Soweto's townships and Brazil's
favelas. He is by far the most successful rapper ever, with more than 30
million albums sold; this makes him the only rap star to rank among the 20 most
successful solo artists of all time. There are dozens of Web sites dedicated to
Shakur's memory, and last year saw the success of an off-Broadway play based on
his life and the number one Billboard-chart debut of his latest posthumous
release, Until the End of Time.

In Holler If You Hear Me, Michael Eric Dyson attempts to explain the
mythic staying power of Tupac Shakur, while also looking at the broader
significance of hip-hop culture. This is not a new area of interest for Dyson, a
Baptist minister and professor of religious studies at DePaul University, who
frequently quotes prominent rap artists in public appearances. The best-selling
author, who earned his doctorate in religion from Princeton University and has
taught at Columbia and Brown, angered many by comparing the late Shakur to Martin
Luther King, Jr., in his book I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin
Luther King, Jr.
(Free Press, 2000). He also considered the global
significance of hip-hop in a 1997 collection of essays, Between God and
Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture.

Dyson sees Shakur as "perhaps the representative figure of his generation,"
who by unabashedly speaking about his rearing and lifestyle was a mouthpiece for
millions of disenfranchised black youths who grew up just like him. "In his
haunting voice," writes Dyson, "can be heard the buoyant hopefulness and the
desperate hopelessness that mark the outer perimeters of the hip-hop culture he
eagerly embraced, as well as the lives of the millions of youth who admired and
adored him."

Holler If You Hear Me draws heavily on the firsthand recollections of
family, friends, colleagues, and contemporaries of Shakur. They range from rap
don Dr. Dre to Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who sees hip-hop as, among other
things, "a conversation among and between black youth from one part of the
country to another." The book works as a collection of essays examining Shakur's
many influences, experiences, accomplishments, and lived contradictions, and it
leaves the legacy of Shakur more intact than one might expect given the fractured
life the star lived.

A sort of prince of paupers, Shakur came into the world in the
waning days of the black-power movement--born in Brooklyn in 1971 to Afeni
Shakur, who, like so many of her revolutionary contemporaries, ultimately fell
victim to addiction. Tupac's militant parents thrust him simultaneously into the
worlds of radical politics and abject poverty. He grew up primarily in Harlem and
Baltimore, where he later attended the exceptional Baltimore School for the Arts
before dropping out and moving to Marin City, California, leaving his mother to
cope with her crack habit. In California, Shakur got his start in rap music as a
member of the West Coast bohemian party group Digital Underground.

With the release in 1991 of his solo debut, 2Pacalypse Now, Shakur
gained instant fame. The album contained tracks like "Brenda's Got a Baby," in
which he lamented the plight of a teenage mother, and "If My Homie Calls," his
declaration of solidarity with friends in jail and on the streets. A five-year
period of productivity followed, during which Shakur released four critically
acclaimed hit albums, among them the defiant Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.
(1993), the appropriately titled Me Against the World (1995), and the
two-disk set All Eyez on Me (1996). He also appeared in half a dozen
films, playing the lead in several, including John Singleton's Poetic
(1993), and Gridlock'd, which was released in 1997 after Shakur's
death the year before.

Shakur's creative output coincided with numerous run-ins with the law, trouble
that seemed to escalate as his popularity grew. Most notably, in 1993, he was
charged with shooting two off-duty police officers (the charges were later
dropped). In the fall of 1994, he was convicted of sexual assault, before being
shot outside his New York recording studio the next day. He ultimately served 11
months of a four-year sentence. The second attempt on his life led to his death
in September 1996, six days after he was shot by unknown assailants on Las
Vegas's main strip, probably as a result of a bicoastal hip-hop feud that Shakur
helped to fuel. Shortly thereafter came his first posthumous release, 7 Day
under the pseudonym Makaveli, which seemed to anticipate his own
death and which set the stage for his legend.

Dyson notes the contradiction that the young Shakur saw between his mother's
revolutionary ideals and her debilitating crack addiction, which caused Tupac
and his siblings to suffer extended periods of abandonment and homelessness. Many
of Shakur's songs celebrate his mother's heroism while simultaneously denouncing
her failure to provide for her offspring. They also best exemplify his mixed
message--and indeed, his deeply ambivalent mind.

In Shakur's famous tribute "Dear Mama" (from Me Against the World), he
declares: "Even as a crack fiend Mama / You always was a Black Queen Mama / I
finally understand / For a woman, it ain't easy tryin' to raise a man." Shakur
was quick to blast away at American society--but he readily acknowledged the
shortcomings of individuals, even those of his own flesh and blood. "They got
money for wars, but can't feed the poor / Say there ain't no hope for the youth
and the truth is it ain't no hope for the future / And then they wonder why we
crazy / I blame my mother, for turning my brother into a crack baby," he exclaims
in "Keep Ya Head Up," one of his most enduring tunes (from Strictly 4 My

To Dyson, Shakur is the "conflicted metaphor of the black revolution's large
aspirations and failed agendas," a sort of rebirth of the Black Panther anger and
anxieties in musical form. Shakur celebrated his mother's radical politics in
early recordings such as "Panther Power," a song off his debut. Yet he later
became more practical, more commercial, and perhaps more nihilistic as his career
progressed, and ultimately proved unable to reconcile his unabashed depravity at
times with his hope for black empowerment and uplift.

In songs such as "White Man'z World," he even gives his "apologies to my true
sisters; far from bitches / Help me raise my black nation reparations are due,
it's true / Caught up in this world I took advantage of you." In such lyrics,
Shakur seemed to be a voice for the powerless; but in other tunes he delivered
little more than misogynistic diatribes. In "I Get Around," his first crossover
hit, he childishly declares: "All respect to those who break their neck to keep
their 'ho's in check / Cause oh they sweat a brother majorly / and I don't know
why, your girl keeps pagin' me?"

Dyson argues that Shakur should not be blamed for the nihilism he embodied,
given the circumstances he came from. "After all, he was in part playing out the
cards dealt to him, extending and experimenting with the script he was handed at
birth," says Dyson, though in "fleeing from art to the actual, from appearance to
reality, from the studio to the streets, Tupac lost his life." In the final
analysis, Dyson sees Shakur as a modern-day martyr who, despite the competing
discourses he embraced, exposed the tragedies of America's ghettos to a global
audience. Holler If You Hear Me is in fact "an attempt to take measure of
both impulses, and in the process, say something meaningful about urban black

Clearly, Shakur was continually pulled in two directions, one
constructive, empowering, and uplifting, the other hedonistic, nihilistic, and
misogynistic. As Dyson puts it, "the edifying and the terrifying in this singular
artist lived on the same block." But this is gangsta rap's simultaneous blessing
and curse, and given "its universal popularity, and its troubling effects," Dyson
says, "hip hop is a vital cultural language that we had all better learn." For to
"ignore its genius, to romanticize its deficits, or to bash it with undiscerning
generalities is to risk the opportunity to engage our children about perhaps the
most important cultural force in their lives."

Some don't see it that way. John W. McWhorter, the hour's leading young
black neoconservative, writing recently in The New Republic, argues that
Shakur's positive songs were nothing more than token gestures in a broader
panorama of despair. To McWhorter, "this allegedly exemplary voice of black
America is teaching almost nothing but hopelessness." The profanity, the
misogyny, the quest for wealth--it's all part of the "promotion of an anti-black
stereotype," in McWhorter's view. "To elevate the parochial impressions of a kid
with his eye on the till to the level of Martin Luther King's dream is rather an
insult to black America," he charges.

These are criticisms Dyson anticipated, writing of those who "are unable to
acknowledge the ingenuity of artistically exploring the attractions and limits of
black moral and social subcultures. [Such critics] endorse a 'positive'
perspective that is as artificial and uncomprehending of the full sweep of black
culture as is the exclusive celebration of pimps, playas, hos, macks, and thugs."
As much as McWhorter and others may wish to dismiss Shakur out of hand, to do so
is to dismiss a whole generation of black youths who (like Shakur)
simultaneously embrace destructiveness and resistance.

That's not to say that Dyson's book is without its flaws. For whatever reason,
the reader is rarely given more than a few lines of Shakur's lyrics to ponder,
while Dyson delivers lengthy examinations of Shakur's place within the hip-hop
canon or the popularity of black thuggery in the mass market. In leaving Shakur's
own words out of such discussions (there is not even a lyrics reference in the
appendix), Dyson does the artist a disservice. For more than most critics
acknowledge, hip-hop artists like Shakur often weigh in on the very debates they
create through their music. "Papa'z Song" is one of the few that Dyson examines
at any length. In it Shakur spends two verses deriding his father's absence in
his childhood; then he spends the third verse speaking from the perspective of
his father, allowing the father to explain that his inability to support his
children forced him to leave.

What's more, some may take issue with Dyson's positive spin on virtually every
aspect of Shakur's life--and at times Dyson leaves himself open to this kind of
criticism. At one point in the book, hoping to give yet another example of
Shakur's open heart and love of children, he recounts how during a break from
filming Above the Rim in 1994, Shakur went off to smoke marijuana with
some buddies. A young girl saw him. According to Dyson, because Shakur cared
about children so much, he pulled the girl aside to offer her this insight: What
he was doing was wrong, and she shouldn't follow his example. The incident
speaks more to the gap between Shakur's words and his actions, as well as to his
inconsistent nature and relative youth. Dyson's generous interpretation indicates
a lack of necessary skepticism and stretches the boundaries of credibility.

Despite such drawbacks, the intelligent reader should not lose sight of the
fact that Dyson, as a Baptist minister, was tutored more in the art of love than
in that of scorn. While Holler does not manage to capture all of Shakur's
brilliance or depravity, Dyson's broader conclusions will leave even the
nonfan with something to think about. He asks us what more we can ask of those
ghetto youths unfortunate enough to be consigned, often permanently, to the black
underclass than to speak out about their failures and the part our society played
in them. "Our adoration of [Shakur]--and our disdain for his image--says as much
about us as it does about him," Dyson writes. We cannot expect the revolutionary
agenda of a man who died just past the age of 25 to be perfectly coherent; but we
can expect his existential screams and hollers to be both that of a boy
and a man. For the powerful and moving style in which Shakur made himself
heard, he will not be forgotten.