Where do I begin? Let's start with me. It was 1993. I was fourteen years old, a white kid from a middle-class home in Kansas. For years, I'd been a fan of music, largely R&B—Bobby Brown, Shai, Portrait, Boyz II Men—those were my jams. In fact, it was the promise of a performance by Shai on the ill-conceived MTV Jams Live that got me turned onto Tupac Shakur. Ironically, prior to that day, I couldn't stand 2Pac. I laughed at his name. I hated the only song I knew of his, “I Get Around.” He seemed much too overconfident for my taste. But that evening, as I hunched over my remote control ready to push record any time Shai went on screen, I heard for the first time “Keep Ya Head Up.” The performance lacked the heart found in the recorded version of the song; nonetheless, I saw the socially-conscious side of 2Pac and I was intrigued.
I bought Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and was a fan. I found a copy of 2Pacalypse Now and studied my new favorite artist with great interest. By the time 2Pac released his third studio album, I was a devout follower. Me Against the World was a CD that changed my life. You could actually hear the pain in Shakur's voice. While his previous two efforts were very political in nature, Me Against the World was heart-felt. Regardless of what he was rapping about, there was such a depression that blanketed that album. I loved the grittiness and reality of it. I was an unabashed follower of Shakur, and this led to significant problems. As you may have surmised from my background, listening to 2Pac, wearing 2Pac shirts, rapping my favorite 2Pac songs, made middle school and high school hell. I put up with the torment for some time, but eventually I broke. If something hadn't saved me from my hell, I probably would've done something drastic. Then I found religion.
In no time Tupac was replaced with the likes of the Gospel Gangstaz and LG Wise. And it was probably for the best, because later that year Tupac Shakur was murdered. I'm not sure how I would've handled seeing my messiah killed, but I think it would've been incredibly damaging. Instead I let the news roll of my newfound self-righteousness and moved on. Years passed and I rarely looked back. I got into underground hip-hop and eventually, seeing hip-hop grow stagnant, I left the whole rap game behind.
Interestingly, a few years ago Tupac's memory started calling me again. For the many rappers I've forgotten and dismissed as teenage ignorance and/or rebellion, Shakur's music still spoke to me. It felt as though I still had something to learn from Tupac. I ignored it for a while, but recently I began to listen—to the music and the message. I opened my mind to who Tupac was and what he had to say. That led me to Holler If You Hear Me by Michael Eric Dyson.
So this “review” has gotten kind of wordy and so far I've only made one mention of the book. Maybe all of my backstory was irrelevant, but it was significant to me, and I think it might be relevant to Shakur's appeal. Reading Dyson's work on the rapper, I am struck by how complex Shakur was. I think it's easy to look at any celebrity, see the image they most put out there, and dismiss any possibility that there is more to them. When most people think of how Shakur must have been in life, I'm sure they imagine someone as thuggish and boisterous as Tupac was in his music videos. From interviews Dyson conducted, however, it is clear that Shakur considered himself first and foremost an actor, and that his rap career as 2Pac was merely one character in his acting career. When he started out, Shakur was a sweet, “artsy cat” into crystals, but, according to John Singleton, “for the sake of the whole rap game . . . he crafted the image [of the gangsta] for himself. He started to live that image out, and that's what led to a lot of his troubles.”
The Shakur the media has portrayed over the years is the character known as 2Pac. The real Shakur was a voracious reader, with a great love for Shakespeare, Vonnegut, Melville, Steinbeck... (a search for “Tupac Shakur's reading list” in your search engine of choice will bring up many lists). Shakur loved many different kinds of music; he listened to Mozart, U2, Sarah McLachlan, Eric Clapton, in addition to early hip-hop greats. Shakur was deeply into mysticism and Les Misérables and social justice and Jim Carrey and... hold on... Jim Carrey? Well, to each his own. The point is Shakur was much more unique than most of us would probably think any “gangsta rapper” could be.
I expected a biography on Shakur's life, but Dyson walks this line between a Shakur bio and an academic exploration of all things rap. Many of the chapters feel more like essays on various topics with tidbits about Shakur sprinkled throughout. There are chapters on race in rap, misogyny in rap, tattoos, religion, revolution, et cetera. This structure left much to be desired, but the facts about Shakur are still there, and Dyson's unearthing and relaying of these facts is what makes this book worth the time.
There were two things really impressed upon me from reading this book. The first was that Shakur worked very hard. Over and over, those interviewed said that when Shakur went to work on something, he was diligent in the task. If you look at his body of work, it's easy to see this industriousness. His professional acting and rapping career began in 1991. From that time until his death just five years later, Shakur released six studio albums, starred in six motion pictures, and recorded enough material for many posthumous albums. I mean, think about it, doesn't it seem like Shakur was around a lot longer than five years? He wasn't even a household name until his second or third year.
Secondly, I saw a clearer picture of the tortured Shakur. He was a person who swung from extremes. He had these grandiose ideas of saving the world and seeing the best in people; but it was his own low self-esteem that motivated his suicidal lifestyle. As lifelong friend Jada Pinkett Smith said, “He had a way of putting you on a pedestal, and if there was one thing you did wrong, he would swear you were the devil. Everything about him was extreme.” It's this exaggerated outlook which is so evident in Shakur's songs and interviews, the never-ending contradictions of a dual-natured personality. Shakur loved his mom because when she was there, she was really there for him; but when she wasn't, it was because of her own selfishness. Shakur respected and had a deep affection for women, until a woman proved her worth through infidelity or loose morality. He wanted to heal the world, but returned violence with violence, venomously spouting Thug Life rationale.
Shakur had and continues to have such a universal appeal. By no means was he the most gifted em-cee of all time, but somehow—in spite of his Thug Life tattoo, his antics in front of the camera, his tragic life story—he was perhaps the most universal. As one person interviewed said of Shakur, “He just really tried to be too many things to too many people, and you really can lose yourself like that.”
I can go on, because I find the subject fascinating, but I won't. I have to leave something for the potential reader. If you're interested in Shakur, rap, or very dynamic personalities, this book may be good to check out. The format leaves much to be desired, and it's easy to set the book aside when Dyson gets hung up in all things not-Tupac; when the subject is the person, however, it's quite fascinating. There was no way for me to know Shakur during his short life, but I find that I want to get to know him as best I can in the present. Outside of Shakur's own work, Holler If You Hear Me is a great place to start.