It is rare that academic writing takes as its subject the life and work of a hip-hop artist, but Michael Eric Dyson is helping to change all that. Glancing at the cover of “Holler if you Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur,” one might think this was a mass-market biography of the slain star. Regrettably, though, it more closely resembles a doctoral dissertation, with few concessions in style or content made to the common or sensible reader.
A sample follows: “But aspects and moments of the 1970s also disabled political obligation to one’s neighbor and delegitimized counter-cultural dissent as a means of viable citizenship. This was glimpsed in the backlash against anti-Vietnam activity … and the eventual absorption of political rebellion into the stylistic idiosyncrasies of mass-cultural responses to generational anomie, such as marketing, merchandising, and mediation of Woodstock.”
If this is your idea of enjoyable writing, you are in for a treat, because it is largely characteristic of Dyson’s prose throughout.
There are, thankfully, some breaks from this. After all, if the book were nothing but bloated abstractions it would appeal to no one save Derrida-reading rap enthusiasts. The most accessible parts are tidbits of biography. They suggest that while Shakur might not have been, as Dyson tells us, “one of the most important and contradictory artists to have spoken in and to our culture,” he was certainly a brilliant young artist.
Tupac Shakur’s mother was Black Panther Afeni Shakur. His godfather was Geronimo Pratt. At only three days old, Tupac was taken to the 168th Street Armory to hear Minister Farrakhan speak. The family moved continually throughout Tupac’s childhood. When Afeni eventually succumbed to a cocaine addiction, Tupac was forced to become the parent to his parent.
Despite all of this adversity, Tupac grew up to be an accomplished and surprising young man. He quoted Shakespeare from memory. He was a talented actor and poet.
He enjoyed all kinds of music, including Sarah McLachlan, Kate Bush, and, believe it or not, Don McLean. Yet within this sensitive boy, there lurked rage — not only at the mother who had made his life so difficult, but also at an American society which struck him as systemically corrupt and unjust. A rap star was born.
Like so many post-modern academics, Dyson is much more interested in what events “signify” than the events themselves. For instance, while working at a pizza parlor Tupac asks his boss if he can leave early to attend a videotaped interview being conducted at his high school. The boss refuses, so Tupac lights a cigarette, grabs his leather jacket, and quits during a rush. A benign little rebellion, but the author inflates it to Promethean proportions, using phrases like “impeccable sense of vocational priority” and “countering authority with dramatic gestures of defiance.”
Dyson’s pretentiousness is often juxtaposed with shockingly unimpressive insights from Tupac’s friends and colleagues. Rapper Big Tray Dee claims that Tupac “didn’t have a chance to reach his full potential, like Donald Trump or Howard Hughes or Michael Jackson … He’s not going to enjoy seeing how the music he made is going to be remembered and the statues of him that will be made. Do you know what I’m saying?” Afraid so. Actor-director Curtis Vondie Hall speaks of Tupac’s erudition: “The brother could quote a million muthaf—-s you know.” And that world-renowned talent scout, Bill Maher, is quoted as saying that Tupac could have been a “big movie star.”
Perhaps ironically, the keenest analysis of the inner life of Tupac Shakur is offered not by the author, but by Shakur’s friend at Baltimore’s School for the Arts, actress Jada Pinkett Smith. She seems to understand the subject of the book far better than the author. Her words throughout are a breath of fresh air. Immune to the hollow generalizations that Dyson so dearly loves, she cuts through all the mystification and goes straight to the root of Tupac’s self-destruction: his addiction to alcohol and marijuana.
Tupac Shakur deeply touched the lives of all who knew him and millions of other who knew him only through his work. If he is only half as important an artist and public figure as Dyson claims, he is still crucial to any understanding of the nature of hip-hop and what it means to be young, gifted and black in America today.