The Souls of Hip-Hop Folks
By Amy Zimmer
Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur
By Michael Eric Dyson
Basic Civitas Books, 2001
"He was the zeitgeist in sagging jeans," Michael Eric Dyson writes in his 2001 Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. Now, six years after Tupac's death (one year after Dyson's book), the gangsta rapper is still very much part of the cultural conversation. First, we have the latest exposesa two-part (September 6 and 7) L.A. Times piece, which claims Notorious B.I.G. authorized Compton's Southside Crips to gun down Shakur for one million dollars, and Nick Broomfield's "Biggie and Tupac" documentary (released in September), which peddles a conspiracy theory involving an LAPD cover-up for a double homicide arranged by Suge Knight, founder of Tupac's label Death Row Records. More recently, the October killing of Run-DMC's DJ Jam Master Jay prompted media musings on Tupac's and Biggie's West Coast-East Coast battle (though Run-DMC are not gangsta rappers), and as rap sales plummet, record labels are promoting such rivalries as DMX versus Ja Rule, capitalizing on the captivating drama of the past. But as Dyson shows, it wasn't simply Tupac's feud with Biggie that made the tattooed tough guy with his signature nose ring so compelling and so critical in understanding the hip-hop community.
Dyson barely discusses the infamous beef. Instead he wrestles with Tupac's personal development, his words, his deeds and his lifebefore, during and after. Dyson wants to know what made Tupac into the "transcendent force of creative fury who relentlessly articulated a generation's defining moodsits confusion and pain, its nobility and courage, its loves and hates, its hopelessness and self-destruction." Tupac becomes a symbol representing "the blights on hip-hop's troubled soul." He is Dyson's filter, used to sift through the contemporary state of rap and its mix of violence, consumerism, and misogyny, hinging on the notion of black authenticity. In hip-hop, black authenticity is especially problematic and "vicious" according to Dyson, since artists desperate to prove their street cred create more than a thug or gangsta persona. Tupac lived what he rapped. He also capitalized on the clout gained from blurring the lines of art and reality. Dyson sees this as a cautionary tale: "in falling prey to the temptation to be a gangster, Tupac lost his hold on the frustrating but powerful moral ambiguity that makes the rhetoric and representations of gangsta rappers effective."
Tupac's heritage as the son of a Black Panther shaped his rebellious stance. (Dyson's florid prose sometimes veers into overblown generalizations, as when he writes, "Tupac imbibed his disdain for racial oppression from his mother's revolutionary womb.") After Tupac's mother's Panther-related jail stint, she fell into a cycle of poverty and drug addiction while raising her kids. Dyson's focus on Tupac's upbringing and the circumstances surrounding itthe political, social and economic fallout from the Panther movementis the strongest part of the book. Rooting Tupac's life in the specifics, while providing historical context, presents a nuanced narrative surrounding Tupac's celebrity.
"That birthright of Black Nationalism hung over Tupac's head," Dyson writes, "as both a promise and judgment." Would Tupac carry on where Huey, Eldridge and Bobby left off? Would Tupac's violent lyrics and behavior destroy Black Nationalism? Tupac opted for the "thorny ambivalence of thug culture" instead of the "political utility of revolution." Thugs do not organize to seek systematic restitution of the imbalances of power. The thug achieves class reversal alone, not for the whole group, explains Dyson (who includes a fascinating look into the origin of the word "thug"). "Thug ambition is unapologetically predatory," Dyson says, "circumventing the fellow feeling and group solidarity demanded of revolutionaries."
This is where Tupac's actions have caused a great generational chasm in the black community. Many blacks over the age of fortyand Dyson is a forty-plus black man himselfsee Tupac as the rejection of the traditional black values embracing "hope and positive uplift" that connected black people across generation and geography. Dyson does his part to understand the virtues and problems of hip-hop in order to reintroduce elders into dialogue with urban youth.
To get perspectives on Tupac's significance, Dyson, an ordained Baptist minister and DePaul University's resident "hip-hop intellectual," interviews other scholars (Stanley Crouch, Toni Morrison) as well as other hip-hop artists (Big Tray Dee, Mos Def); but he relies too much on Crouch for criticism of hip-hop, and he relies too much on Mos Def for hip-hop's conscience. When attempting to talk to rappers backstage at a Snoop Dog concert, Dyson writes, "I suppose I was the hip-hop equivalent of the anxious white liberalI didn't mind giving all kinds of support to the culture, but when it came time to put my body and ego on the line, well, that was another matter." Dyson writes from above, never fully entering into Tupac's world, leaving out rappers' voices.
Though Holler is primarily a pop book, Dyson's academic underpinnings shine through his attempts to canonize Tupac, grouping young man with other important thinkersMarx, Weber, Parsons, Orwelland when he calls Tupac the "hip-hop James Baldwin: an excruciatingly conscientious scribe whose narratives flamed with moral outrage at black suffering." Dyson verges into hagiography, and seems surprised and impressed with Tupac's breadth of reading material. W.E.B. DuBois wrote, "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not." DuBois also admonished seeking "apples of gold." In a nod to DuBois's concept of dual consciousness, Dyson writes that in Tupac, "two warring ideals were (w)rapped in one dark body."
Dyson rightly questions the intricate relationship between art and social responsibility, warning against "unrealistic, or even unjust demands on black artists." This doesn't prevent him from loading cultural heft onto Tupac's shoulders while simultaneously excusing some of Tupac's actions relating to violence and misogyny. Dyson glosses over Tupac's ascendancy to stardom, and his description of Tupac's music is feeble, only giving snippets of lyrics.
Dyson is doing double-dutywriting a biography as well as a piece of social commentary. Dyson has already found Tupac Shakur. He's just searching for ways to fit Tupac into a framework based on the conflict and contradictions of hip-hop culturea culture that is at once a highly commercialized art for general consumption and a homegrown art that speaks to and reflects the violence of urban black youth. "Black mythologies and legends are hard to create," Dyson writes, adding that they're "even harder to sustain." In Dyson's somewhat uncritical view of Tupac Shakur, he attempts to achieve just thata mythologythat may add to the legend rather than unpack it.