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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

RIP Tupac


Tupac: Revolutionary, Problem, or Neither?
It's been 15 years since Tupac Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting.  While perusing news websites, blogs, and my Facebook status feed, I began to think about a larger moral debate that often comes together around Tupac and other rappers.

On one side, there are journalists and academics who are guilty of "Tupac worship."  I'm paraphrasing, but there are tons of journalistic and academic accounts that treat Tupac as if he were a "revolutionary" or "visionary" who changed the face of the music industry.  The more ambitious accounts like to argue that Tupac has forever changed the face of American culture.

I'm uncomfortable with the revolutionary tag and feel that people throw around this term too casually and liberally.  I'm also ambivalent with the visionary label, particularly since I think it's hard to really assess how a single artist has impacted something as vast as the music industry (let alone American culture).

C. Delores Tucker
To be fair, these accounts are responses to conservative criticism of Tupac and rap music.  The 1990s were a tumultuous time for Tupac and other outspoken black rappers.  In addition to a host of community groups and organizations, Tupac also faced intense criticism from the late C. Delores Tucker, a famous Civil Rights activist who waged a war against Tupac and other rappers.  Like many of the critics that have come before and after her, Tucker attacked the sometimes violent and misogynistic lyrics in Tupac's music, claiming that these lyrics were negatively influencing the attitudes and aspirations of black youth in the US.

Although I sympathize with the romantic treatments of Tupac, and understand some of the concerns from different critics, I think both sides commit the same error: They reduce Tupac and rap music into something essentially positive or negative.  Like debates about religion, abortion, gun control, and other hot button issues, both sides have a moral stake in the ground and seemed prepared to defend their position tooth-and-nail.

As a sociologist, I tend to think about things in less essential terms.  Instead of thinking of Tupac's music as a kind of "revolutionary music" or as a "cultural problem," why not appreciate it for all of the unique ways in which it has been a part of our lives?  One thing I love about music is that it can always take me back to some particular place and time in which I was listening to an artist or song.  Many of my fondest memories come equipped with a musical soundtrack of some sort.  Isn't this how music resonates with all of us?

"Zombie" now reminds me of intense swimming
For example, whenever I hear the Cranberries, I am reminded of the winter of my 9th grade year in Jacksonville, Fl.  At that point in my life, I was attending a prep school--The Bolles School--to pursue my dreams as a competitive swimmer.  I got a Cranberries CD for Christmas and took it back to Jacksonville with me.

In between morning and afternoon training sessions, I would come back to my room, and right before falling asleep, I'd put on "Zombie."  I don't know why, but this song was strangely comforting during that experience.  Now, whenever I hear that song or anything by the Cranberries, I'm reminded of a string of memories that begin in that place/at that time.

"Atliens" reminds me of D-Man Blancnhard
The same can be said about Outkast.  Everytime I hear songs from Atliens or Aquemini, I think about late nights rolling around Jacksonville with my "brother from another mother," Donald Blanchard.

Back in those days, Donald had a dark grey and black Nissan truck.  It had two doors, light grey interior, and very darkly tinted windows.  I didn't have a car in high school, but was able to ride shotgun with Donald wherever he went.  Most nights we never really did very much.  Aside from trips to different local malls, movie theaters, or late night restaurants, Donald and I spent a lot of time just cruising the sprawling streets of Jacksonville listening to Outkast.

What's up with this cat?
Finally, I have a ton of fond memories of Blink-182.  During my freshman year of college at UC Berkeley, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Matt Macedo.  In addition to swimming and partying together, Matt and I were also enrolled in Sociology 1: Introduction to Sociology.  At that point in time, I loved punk music.  I spent most of my free time going to punk rock shows at 924 Gilman Street, but then discovered Blink-182, NOFX, and other pop punk bands courtesy of Matt Macedo.  To this day, when I hear the song "Carousel" I remember lots of fun times with Matt and other swimming buddies.


I'm sure all of us have funny, sad, or inspirational stories of times in which we remember listening to Tupac's music.  If you feel comfortable sharing, I'd love to hear about them.

So, in short: Instead of analyzing the potential merits or problems of Tupac (or any music for that matter), why not remember all of the times in which we were listening to "Shorty Wanna be a Thug" or "How Do you Want it?" This is just my opinion, but I feel like these kinds of conversations are what's missing in moral debates about music.


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I'm always disappointed when I listen to interviews with musicians, artists, or actors I admire, because they are not at all as deep as I have imagined them to be based on their work. Tupac is no exception. I agree with you, let's spend a little more time on enjoying the damn music and a little less time on its moral interpretation.

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