Michael Eric Dyson

Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur is another great piece to add to the Hip-Hop library by one the culture’s best dissectors, University of Pennsylvania professor, Michael Eric Dyson. It has been almost 14 years since Tupac Amaru Shakur was murdered and, according to Dyson, he is perhaps even more important and controversial today than when he was alive. The question is: Why? Dyson attempts to tackle this issue in a “not an average biography” way. Drawing on opinions from those who knew Pac almost his whole life (his mom, Jada Pinkett, Leila Steinberg, Big Syke) to those who barely knew him, but loved him anyway (Mos-Def, Talib Kweli, Al Sharpton) and even some who were very critical of him, even now. Being critical of 2Pac is a major part of the book, along with understanding him. Where did Pac go wrong? Why? What can we learn from that? How? These are some the questions Dyson asks and, from the books on Pac’s shelf to the tattoos on his arm, searches out answers for.

Part One: Childhood Chains, Adolescent Aspirations. In Chapter 1- Dear Mama: Motherhood and a Hood’s Mother Dyson focuses on the life of Tupac’s mom and Black Panther member, Afeni Shakur and the role of mothers in general in black America. “If the mother is central to black life, she is also made a scapegoat for the social disintegration of black culture,” Dyson writes, referring to the idea of the “welfare queen” made popular during the Reagan/Bush years. After discussing the obstacles many black women have to hurdle, especially revolutionaries, Dyson asks, “What kind of relationship did Tupac have with his mother, and how did it shape his life and career?” The decisions that Afeni made in her life would shape and mold a young and growing 2Pac maybe up until the day he died. “Tupac declares his love in a moment of unsparing criticism: ‘And even as a crack fiend, Mama/You always was a Black Queen Mama.’ His refusal to lie as he praises her is all too revealing.”

Dyson expands on 2Pac’s relationship with Afeni in Chapter 2- The Son of a Panther: A Postrevolutionary Childhood, this time focusing specifically on the effects of being “surrounded by figures that lived and died in the struggle for black freedom. Afeni and her lovers Lumumba and Billy Garland were Black Panthers. Tupac’s stepfather Mutulu Shakur, a black revolutionary, was sentenced in 1988 to sixty years in prison for conspiracy to commit armed robbery and murder…and attempting to break Tupac’s aunt, Assata Shakur, out of prison, where she was sent in 1977 after being convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper. Tupac’s godfather, Geronimo Pratt, loomed large as a heroic figure.” 2Pac’s roots definitely made his lyrics more thoughtful as well as more powerful. As some say of Pac, “he wasn’t your average rapper.”

2Pac’s up-bringing gave him an amazing thirst for knowledge and better understanding. In Chapter 3- No Malcolm X in My History Book: School, Learning, and Tupac’s Books, Dyson goes through the poetry and prose that 2Pac took-in during his life. “He could quote Shakespeare. He read novelist Kurt Vonnegut and political theorist Mikhail Bakunin. He read books on anarchy and Platonism. He read Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man…JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Homer’s Odyssey, Nietzsche, Freud, Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Alex Haley’s Roots, Moby Dick, Confessions of Nat Turner, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, poetry by black women Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez, WEB DuBois’ Souls of Black Folks, Imitation of Christ, Teachings of the Buddha” and the list goes on and on. 

Part Two: Portraits of an Artist. In the book’s second section, Dyson explores Pac’s role as an artist and how that role change as 2Pac himself changed throughout his life. Chapter 4– Give Me a Paper and a Pen: Tupac’s Place in Hip-Hop states: “Tupac was not hip-hop’s most gifted emcee by any of the criteria that define the form’s artistic apotheosis. Still, Tupac may be the most influential and compelling rapper of them all.” Mos Def is quoted as saying: “I’ll tell you why people loved him, because you knew him.” Tupac said of himself: “where other rappers might paint a perfect picture of themselves, I would tell my innermost, darkest secrets. I reveal myself in every one of my records. I tell my own, personal problems, and people can relate to what I believe.” In other words, 2Pac ‘kept it real’ and spoke the truth, no matter how ugly that truth was.

Sometimes, as Dave Chappelle illustrated, ‘keepin it real’ can go wrong. Is that what happened to Pac? In Chapter 5- For All the Real Niggas Out There: Authenticity Blues Dyson looks at Pac’s evolution into the “Thug Life” icon and also compares Pac’s life to that of close friend and heavyweight Mike Tyson. “Tupac’s eager embrace of a dangerous lifestyle, that he viewed as the unavoidable destiny of real niggas, lead to self-destructive choices.” Maybe Pac felt he would not be a good representative of the down-and-out and hopeless unless he felt that way himself. If Pac would have ‘stayed out of trouble’ and even stayed alive longer, would ‘real niggas’ and others have related, understood, and loved him as much? Long-time close and personal friend Jada Pinkett Smith reveals that Pac once told her: “when I’m dead and gone, the niggas will understand.”

Part Three: Bodies and Beliefs. Hip-Hop’s treatment and projection of women is always a complex and telling debate. To this day no song explains that debate as well as 2Pac’s Wonder Why They Call U Bitch, which puts forth the argument that there are scandalous women out there that deserve to be called names just as some men should be called a few expletives also (Jeru tha Damaja’s ‘not the ladies, but what? the bitches’ song is also a good example). Dyson sets out to expand on Pac’s (and most of Hip-Hop’s controversial and sometimes hypocritical) views in Chapter 6- Do We Hate Our Women?: Female Per Versions. The author states “On Keep Ya Head Up, he gives a ‘shout-out to my sisters on welfare (2Pac cares)’ and on I Get Around, he and his mates brag about their sexual dalliances and celebrate their promiscuity. Many have suggested that this makes Tupac a hypocrite. Such a reading, however, is misguided. Human sexuality is a complex amalgam of competing interests that claim space in our evolving erotic identities.” A close friend of Pac’s once said: “It was really hard for him to find a woman because women who were attracted to his sensitive side couldn’t understand his thug side and the women attracted to his thug side couldn’t understand his sensitive side.”

Keeping with Dyson’s (and much of black America’s) religious traditions, Chaper 7- But Do the Lord Care?: God, Suffering, Compassion, and Death in the Ghetto revolves around the Pac’s philosophy of a higher power and his relationship with that power. Dyson states, “Tupac was obsessed with God. His lyrics drip with a sense of divine…‘God can you feel me?’ ‘only God can judge me’ ‘I wonder if heaven got a ghetto’ ‘scream to God, he can’t hear you’ ‘God come and save me’ ‘will God forgive me’ ‘God bless me please.’” At the same time, a friend said of Pac: “although he was deeply spiritual, Tupac sought to question organized religion, especially about conceptions of sin.” Overall, Pac felt that people should be free to chose and practice whatever religion (often referring to it as merely “teachings”) they wanted while upholding the standards of equality, unity, growth, truth, knowledge, and revolutionary action.

Chapter 8- I Got Your Name Tatted on My Arm: Reading the Black Body literally looks for meaning in the art that Pac choose to have permanently added to his ‘body of work.” Some of his tattoos read: “Thug Life” “Nefertiti” “2Pac” “Outlaw” “Playaz” “Fuck the World” “Laugh Now, Cry Later” “Exodus 18:11” “50 Niggaz.” Not only the tats, but body language and swagger as well. “Tupac embodied the idioms of black male anger” says Dyson, “middle fingers thrust defiantly in the air…punching and kicking an enemy the night he was fatally wounded. Finally, Tupac’s bullet-riddled body is an unavoidable symbol of the rage and murder that destroy precious black bodies…It was as if he was saying: I will suffer for your sake, I will tell the story of your entombment in poverty and stunted social ambition. I will narrate your lives through my chaotic, desperate, self-destructive public life and when I die, it will be to immortalize the similar deaths of anonymous black males whose names will never scar the tissue of public attention.”   

The final part to the book, Epilogue- How Long Will They Mourn Me?: Posthumous Presences of a Ghetto Saint, Dyson looks at Pac’s long lasting influence on Hip-Hop, America, and the world since his life had ended. “Tupac is still blamed for the violence in rap or the lapse in moral judgment among black youth.” Mostly, Dyson goes on to say, “Tupac is an important test case: Can a largely white and increasingly multi-cultural society continue to embrace this black rebel over the next two decades, as tastes change and tolerance of blackness waxes and wanes?” Dyson also looks at how his continuous album releases since his death added to his legacy as well as rumors and myths that he is still alive. Dyson argues he is, in fact, deceased and that many can’t accept the fact that he is gone. Dyson explains that “Tupac’s posthumous persona serves many needs: It transmutes grief to glory; it transforms mourning to celebration.”

We will keep celebrating you Pac. We will pour out a little liquor, picture you rollin, and holler cuz we hear you.

Also recommended: ‘Pac Docs’ Thug Angel & Tupac Resurrection. Books from Dyson Between God and Gangsta Rap, Making Malcolm, and Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.


Categories: Book Review, Hip-Hop History

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