You had to be there to understand that the book has yet to be written encompassing all the sheer intensity of suspenseful events, mesmerizing mise-en-scène, and near mythological tragedy of the life and death of Tupac Amaru Shakur. “There was always this balance between thug life and revolutionary life. I see it reflected in his art, in his personality. He was torn and I think that’s why he represented so much more than just another hip-hop artist,” opines the Reverend Al Sharpton in Michael Eric Dyson’s new book about Shakur. True. But from the time Shakur was shot by anonymous gunmen in the lobby of Times Square’s Quad Recording Studios, to his 11-month incarceration for sexual assault on Rikers Island, to his association with Death Row Records and its infamous CEO, Suge Knight, to his public falling-out with the Notorious B.I.G., to his second, fatal shooting in Las Vegas, his life was a hypnotizing legend-in-progress, the likes of which had not been seen before in hip-hop history and haven’t been seen since.
Dyson—minister, professor, and self-professed “hip-hop intellectual”—has trained his sights on the late, great Tupac Shakur, having previously examined the lives of Malcolm X (Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr.). With Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, Dyson combines commentary from Toni Morrison, Quincy Jones, Stanley Crouch, John Singleton, Maxine Waters, and others with analytical criticism exploring the significance of Shakur’s legacy on several levels: as product of the Black Panther movement, conflicted champion and disparager of women, and Fisher King philosopher MC.
Though Dyson’s analysis of peripherally related themes often reads as veering off into tangent (e.g., his lengthy examination of Mike Tyson as “the ultimate champion for the thug life that Tupac prized and promoted,” and his treatise on the controversial mainstreaming of nigger as a defanged term of endearment), he makes a distinctly substantial contribution to deconstructing the mystique of Tupac Shakur. Dyson causes the reader to consider the isolated elements that he believes led to Shakur’s iconography, sociologically scrutinizing the life of a young black man whom Jada Pinkett Smith calls “the blueprint for the average African American male.”
Holler If You Hear Me commences with background on Afeni Shakur, née Alice Faye Williams. Mother Shakur was jailed for her affiliation with the Black Panthers’ New York 21, a group accused of conspiring to bomb several New York department stores, and fell victim to crack cocaine addiction during Tupac’s adolescent years; students of Pac’s history know this. More obscure factoids include teenage Afeni’s position as president of the Disciple Debs, the female version of New York’s infamous Disciples street gang, and Tupac and Afeni’s brief residence in the California home of Pac’s godfather, legendary Black Panther Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt.
Shakur capitalized on the dichotomy of his nature—i.e., black nationalism versus the thug life—through his art, and Dyson reveals this duality as having even deeper roots in black culture. “Panther purists claim that Tupac’s extravagant materialism and defiant hedonism are the death-knell of political conscience, the ultimate sellout of revolutionary ideals,” he aptly observes. “Critics of the movement contend that Tupac’s thug fantasies fulfilled the submerged logic of Panther gangsterism, what with its sexual abuse of women, financial malfeasance and its brutal factionalism.”
Regarding 2Pac the rapper, Dyson defends Pac’s studio gangsterism with the standard exonerations (“American society was built on violence, from the wholesale destruction of Native American culture to the enslavement of Africans”) while admitting, “It merely repackages the stereotypes that black folk have spent centuries resisting: the whorish black woman, the studly black man.” The richest insights here deal with the question of authenticity. MC-actor Mos Def testifies, “Pac lived everything that he talked about. . . . He lived the beauty of it; he lived the horror of it. And that’s a lot more than you can say for a lot of people out here.” And yet, Dyson doesn’t shrink from the larger issue: Who defines the reality of hip-hop’s “keepin’ it real” mantra, and how could that reality possibly be a universal axiom? “The question of whether Tupac was real . . . makes sense only when artists, and their audiences and critics, presume to know true black identity when they see it,” writes Dyson. Presuming a monolithic standard of being and/or behavior for blacks in this country results in the rigid stereotyping of a people.
Throughout Holler If You Hear Me, Dyson reveals a curious, somewhat annoying penchant for inventing unnecessary terms. (“Celeterrogation: the deft combination of celebration and interrogation”?) Isn’t “femiphobia—the fear and disdain of the female” merely the same stank perfume of misogyny in a different bottle, similar to the repackaging of good ol’ racism as “racial profiling”? Still, by focusing sincere academic attention on significant aspects of Tupac Shakur’s life and art, Dyson has provided an indispensable text for the university courses on Pac that have already cropped up nationwide.
Holler If You Hear Me makes clear that the fascination with Tupac Shakur as “a martyr for the cause of thug life, or black male hardship, or economic equality, or hopeless urban existence” accounts for his posthumous multiplatinum album sales much more than the place of his role in modern hip-hop music. Dyson’s book is a sharp examination of how, through hip-hop, Shakur was often a 100 percent id representation of the black male.