Holla If Ya Hear Me: Dr. Michael Eric Dyson Talks Tupac’s Prophetic, Self-Destructive Work
Words by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson
More than 20 years after his death, Tupac Amaru Shakur remains an irresistible icon. His legendary work ethic, his remarkable fearlessness, and magnetic personality make him a perennial source of inspiration. But it is, perhaps, his prescient engagement with social, moral and political issues that make his voice more crucial now than ever. As we continue to listen to his music, we hear the voice of a 20th century prophet whose insight remains as sharp and luminous as ever.
The Following is excerpts from the 2006 Holler If You Hear Me Preface: “I Always Wanted To Make a Book Out of My Life”
This past March I made my way to the warehouse district of Los Angeles on a warm Sunday afternoon in hopes of talking to Snoop Dogg about his late friend and sometime collaborator Tupac Shakur. The famed rapper and his cohorts Warren G and Nate Dogg were set to perform at a small, private promotional concert arranged by the recreational footwear company for whom he endorses shoes. I mingled with the other writers and made small talk with the few celebrities and artists who streamed through, awaiting Snoop’s arrival. I caught a few minutes with Big Boy, the L.A. radio personality who spent time with Tupac on the road when Big Boy was a bodyguard for the West Coast hip-hop group The Pharcyde.
“You know, what I liked about the dude,” Big Boy told me as we huddled in a corner as an intimate crowd of over fifty people milled about the room. “He loved everyone, but he always knew that he was a strong black man. And he wasn’t afraid to say a lot of stuff that other people wouldn’t say. Others would say, ‘I can’t say that.’ Not Pac. If I want to get everybody’s attention, I can’t just sit here and say, ‘Hey. …’”
Without warning, Big Boy finished his sentence by cupping his hands around his mouth and screaming at the top of his lungs, startling me and the other folk in the room.
“You’ve got to say, ‘HEY!’”
After I recovered from his unanticipated sonic blast, my brow furrowed and my eyes slightly bucked, he continued, laughing at my response and the way the crowd momentarily froze.
“Sometimes you’ve got to scream. You’ve got to snatch their attention. And that’s why his music lives on, that’s why people care—because he made such an impact. It wasn’t that Pac became a star after he passed. Pac was a star from my first handshake with him; he was a star from the get-go. He always commanded attention.”
Our impromptu session over, I scanned the room for other folk that might have known the rapper. I chanced upon Ray J, a star, with his sister Brandy, of the television series Moesha and a recording artist as well. “I just recorded a new song with Tupac,” the young artist told me.
Uh-oh, I thought to myself. Although he’s talented, this is obviously a young brother who believes that Tupac is still alive. But then I remembered that Tupac’s posthumous recordings are already legendary and that many artists have gone into the studio to supply music and vocals for the hundreds of tracks he laid down. I’m relieved.
“It’s called ‘Unborn Child,’ and it’s coming out on the second release of his double CD. Nobody has heard it before.” Ray J was excited about recording with Tupac. I remembered as I spoke to him that the new technologies ensure that very few living artists even record together in the same place at the same time. So in a way the method of recording was nothing new. But his enthused expression made it apparent that the opportunity to partner with Tupac was still thrilling.
“Tupac is one of the greatest poets out there right now,” Ray J told me. I took note of his present tense, since Tupac’s continually unfolding artistry, in books, in movies, and in compact discs, makes it difficult to speak of him in the past.
“The brother just went into the studio and did songs that a lot of people can relate to and learn from before he went out. Like he said, he’s just a thug who has a lot of money. But on the other hand, he’s a thug that is giving positive messages to kids so they can be like him.”
Besides noting the persistent present tense in his speech, which was slightly jarring—done without irony and fully passionate to boot—I was curious about how a thug, even a poetic one, came off as positive to a young man noted for his clean lyrics and wholesome demeanor. So I asked him. “He taught us that we can make a living for ourselves and become rich and become entrepreneurs in the game.”
His press person whisked him away to his next appointment, and I was left to ponder just how many young people like Ray J were affected by Tupac’s message and music, how many generations would continue to admire him and keep his memory alive. Just then I spotted the ferociously gifted actor Larenz Tate, known for his agile, adept, and brooding performances in the Hughes brothers’ films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. He was studied, altogether genial and affable, and quietly reflective.
“For most of his core fans and people who knew him, he was a prophet,” Tate calmly expounded in a near whisper. “It’s really weird how a person can predict things the way he did. When he passed away, everything he had talked about before he died actually happened.”
Tate gets a bit of a spark with his next comment, his intense eyes brightening as he states a parallel that’s been made time and again but whose repetition is no hindrance to the truth it means to convey.
“I think he is the hip-hop version of Elvis Presley,” Tate declared. “People are claiming Tupac sightings everywhere.” I couldn’t help but think to myself, as he spoke of Tupac and Elvis, that it’s about time. White folk are always spotting Elvis or JFK or Marilyn Monroe, which is a great thing if your icons and heroes were only apparently gone but in truth were hanging out on a deserted island, living beyond their legend in the solitude of old age. I’ve asked myself through the years why nobody has ever spotted, say, Sam Cooke or Otis Redding or Billie Holiday or even Donny Hathaway, cooling out in the shade of a palm tree, content that their tragic, storied pasts are a world away. Black mythologies and legends are hard to create, even harder to sustain.
“He has definitely etched a mark in hip-hop culture.” Tate’s words brought me back from my momentary reverie. “But he was also able to transcend the hip-hop culture into the pop world, to film and television and all kinds of media. For him to still be just as big now as he was when he was alive is amazing.” Since Tate is such a talented thespian, I asked him about Tupac’s cinematic aura.
“Your goal as a performer is to give something that’s the truth or something that is real. In the context of real-life stories—and he was usually in films that reflected real street life—he was able to draw from his experience with the streets.” The notion of truth, of authenticity, of the real, is a recurring theme in the narratives that swirl around Tupac and that he spun for himself. “Keeping it real,” is the mantra that Tupac lived to its devastating, perhaps even lethal, limits. Tate reflected on his brief encounters with Tupac, the promise they held, and the promise they left unfulfilled.
“I didn’t spend as much time with Tupac as I wish I would have,” Tate lamented. “A lot of people who knew Tupac and who knew me said it would be great if we really sat down and had a meeting of the minds, because he needed to hear more positive things. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.” Unfortunate indeed, since too often the love and inspiration black men need to stay alive is only a brother away. The thought that Tate might have made a real difference in Tupac’s life is a missed opportunity that bathes us in a moment of silent musing.
[Later], I recognized the face of Warren G, like Snoop a southerncadenced rapper whose melodies were often enhanced by the dulcet tones of gangsta crooner and preacher’s kid Nate Dogg. I figured I had better press my case immediately, since the competition was almost as thick as the weed smoke that filled the air around us.
“Brother Warren G, I’m writing a book on Tupac, and I’d love to get your opinion about him.” I felt silly in saying it so quickly, so publicly, and, yes, so desperately. My pride was aching something awful, and my resentment at having to go this route was sweeping fast. I suppose I was the hip-hop equivalent of the anxious white liberal—I 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. Plus, my self-aware status was rubbing against the unfolding drama: “I am a figure, an intellectual, a person who writes books and appears on television and has a following of people who think I’m important. This is no place for me to be, no way for me to behave. I should just leave.” But since I’d come this far, I figured it might not hurt to stay a little longer. That’s when Warren G opened his mouth.
“Damn, you gon’ hit me right here, huh?” he said in amusement, gently laughing and ambushed by a taperecorder-wielding, geriatric (by hip-hop standards) scribe wanting to know about a fallen comrade. But he was a good sport, a far better one, I was soon to find out, than his speechifying peers.
“Well, I’ve got to be ready, man,” I shot back. “What do you want to know?” he asked. “I want to know why, five years after his death, Tupac is still a significant figure.” Warren leaned back on the stairs and took hold of the door handles to steady himself as he spoke.
“He laid down a real message that you can feel from the heart—you know what I’m saying?” he said. “I did a lot of work with him, but we never kicked it major on the personal side, but we kicked it enough to where we had major love for each other. When he did ‘Definition of a Thug,’ that was one of the times when I was going through some stuff, and he was going through some stuff, so we chatted at each other and really got an understanding about each other.” When I asked him to tell me something about Tupac that the world didn’t know, he spoke of his work ethic.
“In the studio he was amazing,” Warren G said. “He handled his business. Once you shook hands and you talked for a minute, then he would go and he would grab that pad. Damn. Doing his stuff. And that’s when it all came together.”
By the time Snoop emerged from the bus, black sunglasses on, hair plaited in two big braids that drooped to either side of his face, I knew it would be next to impossible to reach him. So I thought I would call it a day, when I spotted Big Tray Dee, the Eastsidaz rapper who had also appeared with Tupac on the soundtrack for Gridlock’d, a film directed by Vondie Curtis Hall. I decided to head upstairs and to mill around in the kitchen where food had been prepared for the artists and their guests. I sat at the table where Big Tray Dee had found a place. His beautiful little daughter sat next to him, her braided and barretted hair a stylish complement to the Gerri-curls that peeked out from Big Tray Dee’s cap, a true West Coast player with a 1980s vibe. It was immediately apparent that Big Tray Dee had a warm spirit and that the hard reputation of the gangsta rapper found dramatic relief in the care he showed for his precious child. I asked Big Tray Dee about Tupac, and between licking from his fingers the tasty barbecue sauce that splashed the ribs he consumed, he opened his heart.
“I knew he was a workaholic,” he said, echoing Warren G’s observation. “He would write three or four songs a day. If he was really into it, and his boys was ready, he might do six or seven songs in one day. He was phenomenal to watch.” After he discussed Tupac’s style, his method of working up a song, the themes of his work, and the response it evoked in Big Tray Dee, the rapper touched on Tupac’s legacy.[Others chime in] “Everybody knows he was taken from us too soon,” Big Tray Dee said. “He didn’t have a chance to reach his full potential, like Donald Trump or Howard Hughes or Michael Jackson, somebody who is going to live out their years to see all the fame. He’s not going to enjoy seeing how the music he made is going to be remembered and the statues of him that will be made. Do you know what I’m saying? People feel for him; he was a great person. We feel his loss.”
As Big Tray Dee finished his comments and I thanked him for his time, he began to cry. Silently, without sobs, but steadily, for twenty minutes. The stream of tears that creased his cheeks reddened his eyes. His daughter held onto her father’s right arm tightly, glowering at me as if I had harmed her daddy. I offered him several napkins, and he poured his wordless anguish into them without fear of hurting his reputation or losing his manhood. When I saw that he had finished, I thanked him and made my way out. But I will never forget his crying image as a powerful metaphor for the agony many have over the loss of Tupac’s unspeakable gift—a gift that nevertheless continues to speak to millions around the globe.
Although I didn’t come away that day with what I had gone for—an interview with Snoop Dogg—I got so much more. I gained a richer appreciation for the complexity of Tupac’s life, for the contending identities that defined him, for the competing passions that claimed his attention, and for the contradictory forces that shaped his art and career. Tupac is perhaps the representative figure of his generation. In his haunting voice 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. But as his legend grows, Tupac recedes further from historical view and is trapped in the ruthless play of images that outline his myth in the culture. All the themes that surfaced in the conversations I had when I went to the warehouse are important: his strong black masculinity, his willingness to speak up, his thirst for attention, his powerful poetry, his thug image, his entrepreneurial exploits, his prophetic stances, his role as a pop icon, his search for the authentic black experience, his heartfelt messages to the urban poor, his incredible work ethic, his unfulfilled potential, his ascension to Elvis-like status, and the grief that was provoked by his premature death. These themes, and many others, are the ones I explore in this book.
In the first part of the book, “Childhood Chains, Adolescent Aspirations,” I explore Tupac’s childhood experiences and adolescent influences. His mother, Afeni, looms large in Tupacian lore; she was elevated in his beautiful “Dear Mama” but subject to public criticism by her son for her drug addiction and domestic instability before its release. Like her son, Afeni Shakur is a remarkable human being. As a black revolutionary, she fought for black liberation. As a mother, she raised two children without help from their fathers. And as a woman who descended into addiction, she risked her home to feed her habit. I explore the dual legacy Afeni gave to Tupac, as black revolutionary and as an addicted mother. I first tackle the effect Afeni’s addiction had on Tupac, how it deprived him of a stable home in his adolescence, how it shaped his view of himself as a maturing teen, and how his art reflected the existential agonies he encountered as a result of her troubles.
I also probe Tupac’s postrevolutionary childhood, seeking to discover how a child who has been reared to combat white supremacy fares in a world where such lessons must be adapted because the times have changed. I look at the themes that Tupac learned as a second-generation Black Panther, and how he both absorbed and resisted the messages he received. Since so much of his appeal rested on the divide in his mind and soul between his revolutionary pedigree and his thug persona, this is a crucial dimension of Tupac’s background. I am also interested in the intellectual influences that shaped the growing boy and budding rapper. Tupac was a remarkably bright and gifted child. His acting gifts were encouraged by his participation in an acting ensemble in Harlem and, later, at Baltimore’s School for Performing Arts. He was as well a voracious reader who had an insatiable intellectual appetite for an impressive range of books.
In the second part, “Portraits of an Artist,” I take up Tupac’s artistic vocation, since his first and lasting fame derives from his rap career. He was by no measure the greatest rapper of all time, but he is perhaps the genre’s most influential star. Although his exploits away from the studio garnered huge headlines, Tupac’s powerful, prophetic—and too often, self-destructive—work is the final basis of how we can judge his artistic achievements. But his preoccupation with being a “real nigga” looms over nearly everything he did. The question of black authenticity haunts the culture; within hip-hop it is especially vicious, with artists often adopting a stance as a thug or gangsta to prove their bona fides and their ability to represent the street. Perhaps more than any other rapper, Tupac tried to live the life he rapped about, which had spectacular results in the studio but disastrous results in the world. Tupac was in constant trouble with the law and in relentless conflict with peers, pretenders, and rivals, conflicts that sometimes spilled over into the recording studio. The infamous East Coast–West Coast beef owes its origins to Tupac’s ingenious fury and outsized agonistic rantings.
In the third part of the book, “Bodies and Beliefs,” I look at how Tupac dealt with huge themes in his art—such as gender, death, religion, suffering, compassion—and the status of the black body in his craft and career. I tackle hip-hop’s especially harsh and misogynistic beliefs, as well as Tupac’s own complex gender views—particularly in light of the sexual abuse for which he was convicted, though few believe he was guilty—through the prism of what I term femiphobia, the cruel attack on women that grows in the ghetto and beyond. I try to grasp hold of Tupac’s religious views and spiritual beliefs as they developed over his youth and his young adulthood. Tupac had strong views on God, suffering, and compassion, which I probe. He seemed to recklessly embrace his own death, even as he meditated on the nature of death extensively in his work, a subject I briefly consider. Finally, I explore the ways that Tupac viewed his body as a text, as the ink of the tattoo artist bled all over his torso. I examine as well how Tupac viewed his own body, not only as a work of art but as an object of scorn and as a vehicle for addictive pleasures and, in the end, as a temple of contagiously gloomy self-destruction.
In the epilogue, “Posthumous Presences,” I examine the impact of Tupac’s death on his evolving legend, especially the notion that he is not dead but alive in an undisclosed location. I explore how he has been cast as an urban legend, as what I term a “posthumous persona,” as a martyr and a ghetto saint. I analyze the social uses of proclaiming that Tupac is any of these things, above all to the adherents and followers who have elevated him. One of the effects of claiming that Tupac, thug persona and all, is an important figure, a legend even, is to funnel critique of the society that made him believe that was the only way to survive. Tupac’s ascent to ghetto sainthood is both a reflection of the desperation of the youth who proclaim him and a society that has had too few saints that could speak to the hopeless in our communities.
Tupac Amaru Shakur is one of the most important and contradictory artists to have spoken in and to our culture. Our adoration of him—and our disdain for his image—says as much about us as it does about him. This book is an attempt to take measure of both impulses and, in the process, to say something meaningful about urban black existence in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.