TITLE: The Rose that Grew from Concrete
DATE: 1/31/2005 06:39:00 AM
"Everybody's at war with different things...I'm at war with my own heart sometimes".--Tupac Shakur in VIBE interview, 2/96
Picture from alleyezonme
It was my first trip outside of New England in several years. To be as deeply parochial a person as myself and to be almost immediately confronted upon leaving my comfort zone with New York was a perfect recipe for overstimulation. The directions said to take 95 all the way down, through Connecticut, past the sinister despairing cliffs of the Bronx housing projects, and into the tangle of concrete that are the city roads in earnest, a jumble of depressed and elevated arteries as schizophrenic as the city itself.
My hand fumbled blindly on the passenger's side for my small CD book. Two larger ones were also next to me on the seat; for the long drive I had packed all of my 600 CDs, sorted in their compact CD books, two black, one khaki. This CD was toward the back of the small book, deep navy and buff color, abstract images that evoked graffiti and a brick wall. I pulled it out, slipped it in the CD slot, let it blink and think for a while, and then flipped quickly to my favorite track:
How do you want it
How does it feel
Comin' up as a nigga in tha cash game
Livin' in tha fast lane
I'm for real
And now, a confession: This is one big ol' white girl who loves...loves...loves Tupac Shakur.
In college, my roommate, Heather, was from New Jersey. Her music spanned genres I didn't know it was legal for whitebread suburbanites to own in secret, much less admit to liking publicly. Heather was all about rockin' out to "Back Dat Ass Up". And after a while, I was, too. So she deserves the credit for expanding my musical horizons while I was at college, which eventually led to me finding Tupac.
Heather led me to rap and hip-hop and other "black music," especially Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, who I remembered in the video for "It's Like This" back in the height of my Mtv-watching days, the one with the classic cars souped up with hydraulics and blurred marijuana plants on caps and baggy shirts, the one where they wind up at a barbecue at some random place and big-breasted women play volleyball. I sought out that song, and others from the Death Row label. It wasn't long before I found Tupac.
I don't remember how I first noticed him, or when I bought the CDs I own, his greatest hits.
I also can't remember, with this album, when listening to it became listening to it. But it was probably shortly after the first time I really listened to the song "Changes", which, in the end, was completely at random.
I was driving down Route 2, on my way home from UMass. I had the radio set to "scan".
I see no changes wake up in the morning and I ask myself
is life worth living should I blast myself?
I'm tired of bein' poor and even worse I'm black
my stomach hurts so I'm lookin' for a purse to snatch
Cops give a damn about a negro
pull the trigger kill a nigga he's a hero
Give crack to the kids who the hell cares
one less ugly mouth on the welfare...
The first thing that struck me was the music, a familiar piano riff from a very similar song by Steve Winwood. The dramatic descending chords of the chorus. The second thing that struck me, as I began to stare off into the space beyond my windshield, approaching that musical nirvana of Listening While Driving, was the voice.
I have a thing about voices. Doesn't matter the genre of music or the style of singing, the best voices stand out. And I'm not talking about the best Voices-with-a-capital-v, cultural voices or literary voices or poetic voices; I'm talking about pure, physical vocal talent. Examples of my favorite singers in this sense include Garth Brooks, Kurt Cobain, Fiona Apple, and Snoop himself. But that's another essay.
Tupac, in just my initial hearing of "Changes", joined their ranks.
He is blessed with an incredibly masculine, swaggering, yet infinitely nuanced voice. Every syllable shrinks away into silence with a smoky rasp.
...Take the evil out the people they'll be acting right
'cause both black and white is smokin' crack tonight
and only time we chill is when we kill each other
it takes skill to be real, time to heal each other
It ain't a secret don't conceal the fact
the penitentiary's packed, and it's filled with blacks
But some things will never change
try to show another way but you stayin' in the dope game...
Then there was that Voice-with-a-capital-v, the wisdom and the passion, the pure literary pleasure of lines like "'cause both black and white is smokin' crack tonight," and "the penitentiary's packed, and it's filled with blacks." In terms of its syntactic construction and its powerful delivery of a difficult message, the song was what I think of as a "clean masterpiece", the kind of piece that flows out of its artist with little editing, revision, or effort. The kind of piece that rushes out as if its human creator is merely a dictation specialist for its otherworldly one.
And still I see no changes can't a brother get a little peace
It's war on the streets & the war in the Middle East
Instead of war on poverty they got a war on drugs
so the police can bother me
And I ain't never did a crime I ain't have to do
But now I'm back with the blacks givin' it back to you
Don't let 'em jack you up, back you up,
crack you up and pimp smack you up
You gotta learn to hold ya own
they get jealous when they see ya with ya mobile phone
But tell the cops they can't touch this
I don't trust this when they try to rush I bust this
That's the sound of my tool you say it ain't cool
my mama didn't raise no fool
And as long as I stay black I gotta stay strapped
& I never get to lay back
'Cause I always got to worry 'bout the pay backs
some buck that I roughed up way back
comin' back after all these years
rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat that's the way it is
By the time this song was over, that unforgettable time I first heard it, somewhere around exit 25 on Route 2 (this was years ago, and I remember the precise stretch of highway), I had goosebumps the size of gumdrops. It was the first, last and only time a rap or hip-hop song has given me such a reaction. Not even Snoop's "Murder Was the Case", which raised a lump in my throat the size of my fist, had made me feel like this.
And yet, it was a voice crying in the wilderness of a world so completely different from mine that, while I was transfixed, I was also uncomfortable.
Since then, I've gotten used to listening to a wider range of music--after all, I'm not exactly a down-home country girl, either, but I like some of what my dad calls "Cee n Dubya" every once in a while--but that feeling, of, what's that jargon word, receiving something like West Coast gangsta rap still troubles me in a lot of ways.
This was probably even more deeply ingrained in my psyche by a TA I had for a discussion group in college. In my last (miserable) semester there I took a course called Language, Culture and Communication. It was for a science credit (it was taught through the Anthropology department), a gen-ed, in the lingo, but I had tried to tailor my elective-credit courses to my major in English or minor in Music in some way. For example, I actually also managed to parlay a Linguistics class into an upper-level math credit. Don't ask me how that one worked. And for another science credit, I'd taken Physics of Music. So. With one gen-ed science class left to take my last semester, I signed up for an anthro course that I thought would satisfy the requirement while at least holding my interest part of the time with a discussion on language, verbal or written, which is my favorite subject.
The course--like many at my school, although why I wasn't catching on to the fact that the word "Culture" in the course title really meant "A Heapin' Helpin' O' Racial Angst" remains beyond me--was essentially one semester-long political diatribe on race relations in this country, from a decidedly radical perspective.
My TA was a young black woman.
Who actually uttered the words, "White people shouldn't be listening to black music. It's not theirs. It's not for them."
To a classroom. full. of white. faces.
Being me, I actually attempted to argue with her, when I really should have just kept my mouth shut, gotten the science credits, and gone on my merry way. She and I engaged in a passionate debate about Eminem's role in rap music that had my classmates looking back and forth as if it were a tennis match.
In the culture of my school, I was the audacious one. I began to feel like, somehow, this was like the terrifying climate at a school like Bob Jones University...only...on the other side of the political and sociological spectrum.
On the one hand, I'd had the exact thought my TA put into words listening to rap and hip-hop. That it made me a fake. A poseur. A culturally-appropriating, backwards, redneck cracker jackass. On the other hand, I was outraged when she actually said it.
Because you're not going to find me trying to pretend I'm "from the streets." You won't find me grooving to some hip-hop on my way to a club, ready to try to talk in Ebonics. (You probably won't catch the majority of black people doing that either, but that's beside the point). But what, I think at the end of it all, can be wrong with listening to some music and enjoying it, even if it's from vastly outside my realm of experience?
Cultural tourism, say radicals like my TA. Treating the ghetto like a stage where people perform for you. No better than a minstrel show.
Okay, I think, and in some ways, it can be a valid point. For me, though, I guess it depends on a person's viewpoint. Some people might take in rap and hip-hop like a car crash--spectacles that horrify them, but they just can't look away. Some white suburban people might watch Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre the way you'd watch great white sharks attack cages on television; horrified and yet amused because you're watching from a safe distance.
But that isn't how I view it, either.
Rap, hip-hop, any kind of real, vibrant, heartfelt music, is the relation of an experience. Is it realistic, or even right, to think that the audience for any kind of expression will be only an audience that identifies personally with it?
In other words, I'd like to see a professor of classical music tell my TA she couldn't take a survey course on the European composers, because that music wasn't "meant for her."
But from another angle, what about Tupac's, er, indiscretions? The fact that he went to prison, the fact that even as he wrote in his hit "Keep Ya Head Up", "I wonder why we take from our women / Why we rape our women, do we hate our women? / I think it's time to kill for our women / Time to heal our women, be real to our women," he was brought up on sexual assault charges numerous times?
What about the fact that despite his message of peace and cultural solidarity in "Changes", Tupac was a notorious gangbanger whose more sordid hits, including "Hit 'Em Up", a battle cry that epitomized and encapsulated the East Coast-West Coast rap feud of the 1990's, were written from life?
Or the fact that though (at least according to the prevailing wisdom), it was the ire between Death Row of L.A. and Bad Boy Records in New York that eventually took the lives of both Tupac and his friend-turned-nemesis Biggie Smalls, Tupac Amaru Shakur was actually born June 16, 1971 in Brooklyn, NY?
To all these contradictions and strikes against Tupac in his life, all I can really answer is that, if we are to demand flawlessness of character from all our artists, who is left in our canon?
Certainly not Beethoven, a cantankerous madman if ever there was one. Certainly not Mozart, who was sexually profligate and inexorably--perhaps even clinically--immature. Or Wagner, a rabid anti-Semite who was the devotee of Hitler.
There comes a time where, if the shortcomings of an artist are to be factored into appreciation of his work, it should only be to enhance appreciation of the odds against him producing it. In this light, for me, there's something utterly gorgeous about Tupac's gnostic approach to his life, and his lot in life, in songs like "How Long Will they Mourn Me?" and "Life Goes On":
Bury me smilin'
with G's in my pocket
have a party at my funeral
let every rapper rock it
let tha hoes that I usta know
from way before
kiss me from my head to my toe
give me a paper and a pen
so I can write about my life of sin
a couple bottles of Gin
incase I don't get in
tell all my people i'm a Ridah
nobody cries when we die
let me ride
until I get free
I live my life in tha fast lane
got police chasen me
Tupac, as with the first time I heard him, is a voice crying in the wilderness. He allows his innermost heart to speak in songs like "Changes" and "Keep Ya Head Up." But if it weren't for the experiences he details in songs like "Troublesome",
Label me a lethal weapon
Making niggas die
Witnessing breathless imperfections
Can you picture my specific plan?
To be the man
In this wicked land
Underhanded hits are planned
These scams are plotted
Over grams of rocks
And undercover agents die by the random shots
We all die in the end so revenge we swore
I was all about my ends
Fuck friends and foes
Me a born leader never leave the block without my heater
Got me a dog and named him mobb-bitch nigga eater
Would his more lyrical work stand out as it does?
And here's another little secret: I don't skip these "harder" tracks. I listen to them, I laugh with them, I rage with them, most of all, I groove along with them. The plain fact of the matter is that what Tupac lacked at times in subtlety, he made up for with an absolutely relentless hook.
How else can you explain a 24-year-old college educated white girl on the verge of a panic attack just driving on the Cross-Bronx Expressway being delighted--soothed, even--by a song that states the following:
now if ya wanna roll with me
then here's ya chance
doin 80 on tha freeway
wait police, catch me if they can
forgive me i'm a ridah
still i'm just a simple man
all I want is money
fuck tha fame
i'm a simple man
Playa with tha passport
just like a ladder bitch
get you anything you ask for
it's either him or me
a favorite of my homies
when we floss on our enemies
By the time the song reached its end, I'd traversed New York and was ascending onto the George Washington bridge over Long Island Sound. To my left was the skyline, and as I wrote shortly after:
To the left as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, just past the EXIT 1C FOR YANKEE STADIUM was the skyline, draped yesterday in a grey-blue smoke, who knows, it could always be that way, last time I was actually in New York was in 1998 on a Girl Scout trip, and we stayed at a camp just outside White Plains. And at the end of the island was the upturned dagger of the Chrysler Building and then...nothing.
I did a double-take. I looked again. I realized what was missing.
New York bears its wounds without apology. But they are startling nonetheless. I realized I hadn't been...I hadn't seen...I hadn't laid eyes on the city since...it looks like half the city is gone.
I'll never know what it's like to be a New Yorker. I'll never know what it was like to be there on Sept. 11, 2001, or to cope with its reality ever since. I'll never know, and I'll never claim to know. In some ways, driving through New York, I was in a similar relationship with the city as the one I have to Tupac: observing the aftermath of a climactic and seminal event.
But in the end, I still drive by, still just as real as my environment, even knowing I'm a stranger, observing and taking in the scene--playing a part of my own as I am left, for all the horror, with the single difficult thought: damned if that's not beautiful.
More on Tupac:
All Eyez On Me