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THE CULTURE WARS

Tupac: Living the Life He Rapped About in Song

September 22, 1996|Michael Eric Dyson | Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina, is the author of "Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture" (Oxford University Press). His new book, "Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line," will be published next month by Addison-Wesley

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Near the beginning of Spike Lee's film of Richard Price's novel "Clockers," a group of young black street-corner coke dealers--the "clockers" of the film's title--heatedly debate hip-hop culture. At stake: Who is the "hardest" rapper in the game? Public Enemy rapper Chuck D's name crops up, but he and other "positive" rappers are quickly moved down the list because they "never shot nobody," they aren't "slappin bitches up" and they haven't "been to jail for murder." One of the drug dealers insists that the "only niggas I hear representin' (hard-core rap) is Tupac, G-Rap and Wu-Tang."

The scene captures the bitter ironies and destructive contradictions that dogged the short, tragic life of Tupac Shakur, the rap star and film actor who died from gunshot wounds earlier this month. Tupac's hard-core image was sufficiently established to bleed through the frames of Lee's film--and through the high threshold for violence that gives too many young black males bottomless appetites for more thrilling, even erotic, displays of rhetorical and, yes, literal brutality. But the same scene, like Tupac's conflicted career, also obscures truths that young black men must uncover in order to stem the tide of urban mayhem that they, to be sure, didn't create but that they certainly extend.

After all, unlike the drug dealers in "Clockers," who sit around arguing the merits of hard-core hip-hop, real black gangsters don't always scoop up a gaggle of gangsta-rap tapes to ease them into the right frame of mind for mugging, mutilation or murder. Since they're already living the life, they often seek escape through music with decidedly uplifting themes. Notorious real-life gangbanger "Monster" Sanyika Shakur, for instance, writes that he favored Al Green. And just think, all those wiseguys of yesteryear just loved Frank Sinatra flying them to the moon and dropping them off in New York, New York, always doing it his way--a useful rejoinder to those who argue a strict one-to-one correlation between art and social anarchy.

But it's also a useful lesson to black kids about the limits of The Real and its relation to The Represented. Like the drug dealer in "Clockers" who lauds Tupac for representing the real hard core in his raps, black kids--indeed, so much of black culture--are obsessed with racial and cultural authenticity. The obsession for authentic blackness, for The Real, is driven, in large part, by the need to respond to stereotypical, racist portrayals of black life. The gestures, nuances, contradictions, complexities and idiosyncracies that define black life crowd the artistic visions of black writers, performers and intellectuals. Then, too, such a quest often restricts the range of what is considered acceptable within black life--"always put your best foot forward" is the unwritten rule governing many representations of black life.

Ironically, the complexity of black culture is stifled under such a belief: The Real gets equated with the Positive. What's considered negative in black life is determined by its unfavorable relation to an increasingly limited view of the authentically black. The negative in black life is viewed as the inevitable pathology that results from misdirection, confusion or concession to white stereotypes of black life. Such a view of blackness is disabling. It alienates those whose lives coalesce at the outer perimeters of black respectability. Those who depart from the positive ideal are stigmatized within black life. Such stigmatization evokes representations of black life that challenge the rigid orthodoxy of blackness, especially those visions of black culture that are viewed as bourgeois, high falutin'--hence, fake. The ironic quest for authentic blackness now comes full circle: It is wrested from the puritanical souls of the black bourgeois, only to rest in the hands--and in the case of gangsta rappers, the throats--of ghetto dwellers, redefined in the canon of new black authenticity as Real Niggas.

By now, though, the Real Niggas are trapped by their own contradictory couplings of authenticity and violence. Tupac's death is the most recent, and perhaps most painful, evidence of that truth. For Tupac and a host of black youth, thuggery and thanatopsis have come almost exclusively to define the black ghetto. That's a sad retreat from a much more complex, compelling vision of black life that gangsta rap and hard-core hip-hop, at its best, helped outline.

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