This past summer, I lived and worked in Brooklyn, New York. How exotic, I know. But my internship was only a couple of blocks away from where Christopher George Latore Wallace (AKA the Notorious B.I.G.; AKA Biggie Smalls) began his fame as a talented young rapper. My Chief of Staff, at the District Office of Council Member Letitia James (@TishJames/@Tish2013) in Brooklyn’s 35th Council District, used to tell me about seeing him ‘way back when’ on the corners of Fulton and Saint James – nearby where our office was located. I confessed in her office one day that while I had the utmost respect for Biggie, and the legacy he left behind for Brooklyn as a cultural center for rap and Hip Hop, that my heart truly lies with Tupac Amaru Shakur. To my delight, she agreed, quoting lyrics from his, “Dear Mama:”
“And 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
You always was committed
A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how ya did it
There’s no way I can pay you back
But the plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated”
Later on that summer, I was on the phone with a friend of mine who had his own connection to Biggie: his mom, having grown up in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was once approached by the young Christopher Wallace for a date – and supposedly told, “that fat boy,” NO, she was not interested. I told him I had just finished watching a documentary about the Notorious B.I.G. – but that I resented its depiction of Tupac as solely antagonistic (i.e. an East Coast-centric model of analysis). He said to me, “Biggie was no doubt a talented rapper, but Tupac – he was something else – he was starting a revolution.”
Now this post isn’t to reify (yet another) false dichotomy of east coast/west coast Hip Hop rivalries, nor is it to claim any authority over who is better, which side wins and so on… This post is talk more specifically about the late, great rapper and the lyrical legacy he left behind. Contrary to many other opinions out there, I find Tupac’s rap music to be emblematic of scholarly critical race theory. He pays careful attention to the dynamic roles of masculinity, white sepremacy, and the LAPD as a hegemonic mechanism of racist, patriarchal practices. Tupac takes into account the history of the United States, including slavery, laws and policies representing social inequities and the systemic institution of discrimination and ghettoization of Black America.
One such example of this kind of critical work can be found in the lyrics to his song, “Panther Power” [see below]. Shakur’s mother was a former Black Panther and refers to Black Panther co-founder, Huey P. Newton, in his famous song, “Changes” (i.e. “It’s time to fight back, that’s what Huey said. Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead”).
Beyond his observations and critiques of the complicated space he occupied, Tupac presented conflicting messages when it came to feminism and feminist ideology. Many people will accuse Shakur of his misogynistic views of woman, his use of derogatory language toward women, etc. I could go on and on about how [I believe] Marion “Suge” Knight (AKA co-founder and former CEO of Death Row Records) to be powerfully influential on Tupac’s aggressive demeanor later on in his career. If you take the time to watch as many documentaries [about Tupac] as I have, you might come across certain material portraying Tupac as, dare I say, feminist. Take a look at this film footage of Tupac discussing transformative potentials of youth, gender equity and respect toward women at the age of 17:
If I have the opportunity to pursue graduate school, I would love to write my dissertation on Tupac’s lyrics as deeply layered and representative of late, twentieth century critical race theory. His music was profoundly influential as his image was widely controversial. Tupac embodied all that has been demonized in the history of the [main-stream] United States. Clearly, I am slightly biased in my admiration for his unique voice and presence in the tradition of rap music and in contemporary social landscapes, but I would resist depicting Tupac in the angelic light I [most likely] have done so in this blog post. The music and words he produced make for compelling social critiques, dialogues and theories surrounding racism, sexism, hegemony and a critical moment in 1990s America.
PLEASE WATCH THIS LINK, ON TUPAC [AGE 17] ABOUT RESPECTING WOMEN.