By Josh Kun
ON THE SOUNDTRACK
to the new documentary Tupac: Resurrection, executive produced by Tupac's mother, there are four Tupac songs produced by Eminem. On one of them, "One Day at a Time," Eminem doesn't just bring Tupac back to life through a mixing board. He joins him on the mic and forces Tupac into a conversation he might never have chosen to have. The song goes beyond grave robbing. It's a biographical hijack.
Tupac's verses deal with violence on black youth and the drug infestations of black neighborhoods. He raps about "communities in need," about staying "focused on the prize." He says "we" over and over, and there is never any doubt that Tupac's "we" is a black "we." "We'll never get our day until we learn to pray," he preaches, "keep our families in shape, cause they all broken, why?"
When Eminem takes over, he also refers to a "we," but it's not Tupac's. "If we could only learn to take our anger and hate," he raps, but who's anger and hate? If he, a white MC, is not speaking for blacks (let's hope he's not), then who is he talking about? Whites? Doubtful. His "we" is a hip-hop "we," which in 2003 is not a black "we" at all but a collective identity commonly described as being beyond race and rooted in things that are easier to market: style, language, and of course, class, which more than any affect of blackness has long been Eminem's ghetto pass across 8 Mile.
"I don't make white music, I don't make black music," he said on 2000's "What I Am." "I make fight music for high school kids." That this doesn't make any sense doesn't matter: Eminem tells America that making fight music means race is no longer an issue, and America apparently believes him. But Eminem is still a white MC making black music, and Tupac, dead or resurrected, is a black MC making black music. In his new biography of Eminem, Whatever You Say I Am, Anthony Bozza joins Eminem in forgetting that this difference actually means something and instead uses him to imagine a fantasy of his own. Eminem, Bozza writes, "represents the current paradigm of race consciousness in America, whereby skin color is almost a secondary consequence to one's racial identity, where racial association seems to be more defined by behavior than color."
It is an astonishing claim that makes Eminem the poster boy for a lie and an insult: no matter how popular hip-hop has become across racial lines, no matter how many black rappers play along by leading white audiences in sing-alongs about being black, skin color is not "a secondary consequence to [sic]" racial identity. Arguing that behavior is the new basis for racial identity that somehow because Eminem, 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre are homies (a more crowded version of Frank and Sammy's "Me and My Shadow"), centuries of institutionalized racism just vanish into mean mugs, secret handshakes, and Urban Outfitters bags full of vintage sneakers and Run DMC T-shirts cruelly and recklessly ignores the realities of racial oppression and racist violence that continue to impact and destroy people's lives on a daily basis.
As the Tupac: Resurrection film reminds us, this oppression and violence against black people against people classified as black on the basis of skin color is precisely what Tupac, in his more focused and lucid moments, made the central subject of his music (Tupac uses the phrase "young black male" more than anyone in the history of pop lyrics). In the film he speaks repeatedly about black poverty and black incarceration, and shows us the black bruises left on his face by police batons. His link to the Black Panthers is also there, from his godfather, Geronimo Pratt, to his Panther mom, Afeni Shakur, pregnant with Tupac while behind bars for a murder she was later acquitted of. He calls her a symbol for "the strength of the oppressed."
Most revealing, though, is what Tupac did with this legacy of black radicalism when he channeled it into what he tattooed across his stomach, "Thug Life." For all its gradual disintegration into champagne-room excess, group beatdowns, and Death Row crookedness, Thug Life began as Tupac's hip-hop answer to the Panthers, and we hear him talk about it as "a new kind of black power" that had its own code of conduct complete with an actual written manifesto that configured street hustling as politics and its eyes on community activism.
Tupac could be self-righteous and self-commodifying (the cottage empire he left behind is now Amaru Entertainment; the book version of Resurrection sits next to Eminem's biography beneath the register at Border's), but there was always a larger sense of community hovering over both his missteps and his strides. Nowhere is this more obvious than when Eminem joins him on "One Day at a Time" and forgets he's supposed to be resurrecting Tupac, not making himself immortal on top of his grave. All Eminem can do is talk about himself free of responsibility, free of belonging, free of any consciousness that he's part of a story that started without him.
"There will never be another me," he says, "and that I can guarantee."
Given the chance to dialogue with Tupac's legacy, Eminem takes refuge
in the privilege of narcissism while giving one more push to the dangerous
American romance that in hip-hop, all men are created equal.
E-mail Josh Kun at firstname.lastname@example.org.