Thug Life

It’s 10 years ago today, on a Friday 13, that Tupac Shakur died from gun wounds received a few days earlier in Vegas after attending a Mike Tyson fight. The murder has never been solved. In those 10 years Tupac albums have come out regularly, based on hundreds of recordings he left behind — writing, working, recording furiously, maybe spurred on by the foreboding of an early death. The work left behind by a life lived at top speed & snuffed out at 25 is not only enormous in terms of its sheer output, but rimbaldian in its corrosive force and social and artistic subversiveness. The outcome of a thug’s life? But then it is worthwhile to reflect that “Thug Life” is the acronym of “The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” a truly Blakean statement. Tupac Shakur was way more than a gangsta rapper — he was, as Mark Anthony Neal put it, an “organic Gramscian intellectual” in these Umited States at the end of the past millennium. Here is an extract from Neal’s compte rendu of a 2003 Harvard symposium on the legacy of Tupac Shakur:

The mythologies that have exploded around Tupac’s legacy may simply be the process of many folk attempting to recover his moral, spiritual, and intellectual value to the black community. As [Michael] Dyson notes in his criti-biography Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, “Anonymous, ordinary individuals project their lives onto the legendary figure, merging with it where they can, fostering an even more intense identification with that figure. By contributing to the creation of a legend . . . ordinary people are in fact creating themselves.” (262)

And what exactly are black intellectuals and others creating when we fashion our own mythologies of Tupac? Clearly many of us see Tupac as a politically engaged intellectual. As Marcyliena Morgan noted during the symposium, many of us take comfort in the idea that Tupac Shakur read some of the same books that we do. Tupac’s book collection became one of the recurring themes at the Harvard symposium. Tupac’s relationship with Leila Steinberg, who befriended Tupac in the late 1980s and became his mentor, was crucial to his development as a reader. According to Dyson, “the most important role Steinberg played in Tupac’s life was that of a literary soul mate . . . it was as reading partners that Steinberg and Tupac most profoundly shaped each other’s lives.” (92) The pair spent hours in the Bohdi Tree Bookstore in LA. On a bookshelf in Steinberg’s apartment, she keeps copies of the books that Tupac read (Tupac lived with her for awhile). Included in that collection are books such as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River, Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, Eileen Southern’s Music of Black Americans, and the feminist writings of Alice Walker (In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens) and Robin Morgan (the now classic Sisterhood is Powerful: Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement).

Many of the texts cited above were read before Tupac reached the age of 20. Tupac’s bookshelf was indeed the bookshelf of a young man who, at his age, was extraordinarily well read and well-rounded intellectually — likely more so than the average student entering in the first year class of most Ivy League institutions. Dyson argues that “Tupac’s profound literacy rebutted the belief that hip-hop is an intellectual wasteland . . . Tupac helped to combat the anti-intellectualism in rap, a force, to be sure, that pervades the entire culture.” (99) This is the version of Tupac that made him such a compelling choice for Dyson to examine in a full-length text — a book that is the best-selling of Dyson’s eight books in print. The success of Dyson’s Holler If You Hear Me is not only evidence of Tupac’s significance as a cultural figure, but suggests that the late rapper’s core audience are themselves readers.

Tupac Shakur was a legitimate public intellectual — the organic intellectual that Antonio Gramsci describes in his Prison Notebooks. I can’t help but think that those of us who are scholars and do the work of deconstructing the myth and symbols of Tupac Amaru Shakur, are somehow hoping that we can be as relevant to the folks on the street corner as he was — and still remains to be.

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2 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Yo- I think you been eating magic mushrooms… Tupac was a thug period.

  2. Robert says:

    to many of the young kids in my neighbourhood, Tupac is some kind of Christ figure


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