Blowing it

Biography meets critique in Armond White's take on 2Pac.



Armond White's first book, The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shok the World (1995), a collection of articles written over a 10-year period for L.A. Weekly, Emerge, the Village Voice, Film Comment and the now-defunt City Sun, gave the impression that something new was afoot in the long antagonistic relationship between black and white American cultures. But despite its echoes of John Reed, The Resistance was, at best, a mixed bag, juxtaposing pristine assessments with hyperbolic screeds. It demonstrated the perils of on-the-run cultural analysis, endeic to daily journalism.

Rebel for the Hell of It is, however, the real thing, and don't be fooled by the coffee-table format or the "An HBO Movie" pretitle moniker. White has written a nuanced, expansive and impassioned study of the life and art of Tupac Shakur. Though situating the late rapper and actor within specific African-American and, more braodly, American political and aesthetic traditions, at times he casts his nets out even further, drawing European political and cultural traditions into his analysis.

But White isn't showing off. His grand gestures - which are never grandiose - pay tribute to the sides of Shakur that, until this book, remained largely hidden: shakur's own grandiloquent references, aspirations and demons.

The title refers to White's thesis: Shakur, a potential "homegrown revolutionary," blew it. Talented enough to have forged the politics of Public Enemy with the swagger of NWA and the charisma of R. Kelly, Shakur succumbed to his own hype, to the romanticized violence of gangsta rap in general and Death Row Records in particular.

Whit seem sto locate Shakur's "turn" during his prison term for sexual abuse, but White, in the final analysis, can only speculate on the possible forces that drove Shakur into the arms of Suge Knight (the Death Row Records czar currently serving a nine-year sentence on various weapons and assault charges) and the requisite gangsta duds. White also runs up against the enigma that haunts all "progressive" analyses of popular culture: At what point does the Trojan Horse of self-commodification become just another line of designer Trojans?

What gives this book its urgency is White's refusal to dodge such questions. As he notes from the outset, "We lost Tupac before he died." White traces Shakur's life from his promising beginnings as a prodigy in a 1983 Harlem theatical production of Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun, to his swaggering, cynical gangsta poses prior to his murder in 1996.

Young Shakur was a member of the Houe of the Lord Church in Brooklyn when he informed the Rev. Herbert Daughtry he wanted to be a "revolutionary" when he grew up. Shakur's childhood was already being destabilized, however, as his mother, ex-Panther Afeni Shakur, moved the family from borough to borough while spiraling into single parenthood, poverty and drugs.

White draws the camera back to let us see the wider cultural contexts of young Tupac's character. The Reagan administration's attacks on civil rights initiatives, the profileration of felonious crimes in Southern cities (including Baltimore, where Tupac spent part of his childhood), and Afeni Shakur's inability to excape drugs of find a stable male role model for her son all conspired to misshape Tupac's idealized moralism and adolescent ambitions. All Tupac had, as resistance, as legacy, were his mother's former associates, the Black Panthers.

White makes a strong case that the much-ballyhooes East Coast West Coast rivalry in rap derives, in part at least, from an analogous rivalry within the Panthers. The ensuing fallout - th alleged murder of Panthers by Panthers and FBI marksmen, the imprisonment of the surviving leaders, the spiral into petty crime and drug abuse by Huey Newton, Afeni Shakur and others - was Tupac's birthright, his inheritance. Small wonder then that he would both attempt to inflame and stamp out the smoldering ashes of the Panthers.

Small wonder too that the lesson he drew from the Panthers' debacle - the possibility of change and impossibility of consensus - replicates itself in the soldier-Souljah/gangsta-skeezer models of society engaged rap music.

The rest of Rebel for the Hell of It is primarily an overview of Shakur's recordings and movies. White succinctly analyzes, almost song by song, Shakur's five full-length CD's; a number of independent singles and sound track contributions; Shakur's tentative first recordings with Digital Underground; and the six films he starred or co-starred in.

White is down with Tupac, almost all the way, but what the means for the author, what, he insists, love always means, is that he has no problem being down on Typace when he has to be. Still, the ending is the same. "One more Black man in a box."

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