Barack Rhymes With Tupac

New America Media, Commentary (Millennial View), Published Mar. 20, 2008

Editor’s Note: Two of this generations most gifted orators are in the news this week. Barack Obama confronted race in a historic speech and new revelations about the origins of the beef that ended Tupac Shakur’s life shook the rap world. Russell Morse is a New York based writer for New America Media.

New York, N.Y. — I can remember very clearly where I was when I learned that Tupac Shakur was dead. It was a pivotal and momentous event in my young life and I will always be able to tell the story of where I was when I heard the news.

On Wednesday morning as Barack Obama delivered his now famous address on race in America, I again knew that I was witnessing something that I would remember for the rest of my life.

I draw that parallel between two radically different men (a convicted rapist and the former editor of the Harvard law review) to highlight a startling truth: those men have captivated, intrigued and inspired my generation more than any other person I can name.

Tupac Shakur’s name is on more lips than usual this week because the LA Times ran a front page story Monday which yet again rattled the cage of mystery surrounding his death. The story quotes several unnamed sources (jailhouse snitches, most of them) who claim that Sean “P Diddy” Combs had prior knowledge of an attack on Tupac.

The attack, which did not go according to plan, is the event that ignited the now fossilized “east coast west coast beef” of the mid-nineties which ended in the deaths of both Tupac and Notorious BIG. (Biggy Smalls)

The LA Times has published some other preposterous garbage concerning these murders, one such story contained a claim that Biggie gave a Crip a million dollars and his own gun to kill Tupac. I would not be surprised if Chuck Phillips, the reporter filing these stories, has a screenplay he wants to sell because the sum of these stories is essentially unsubstantiated Hollywood foolishness.

But Maybe I’m off base. Maybe Phillips and the editors at the Times are onto something. Maybe, for example, Tupac really did roll a joint while dripping blood from five bullet holes (as Phillips’ piece reports), but I’m more inclined to say that this story smells like caca. (Something closer to the truth can be foundin a book called Labyrinth, which implicates members of the LAPD in both murders.) As it turns out, however, it doesn’t really matter.

As I read the story, I wondered if this case is even relevant any more. The kids who are buying rap records now (or downloading them on itunes, whatever) were six years old when Tupac was killed. They still wear t-shirts with his picture on them and can quote his songs, but they only know him as a figure. The mystery surrounding his death isn’t relevant because the only Tupac they know is a dead icon, a hallowed saint of American rap history.

This is the only way I ever knew JFK.

Mentioning Kennedy in this context brings me back to the enthusiasm which members of my generation share concerning Barack Obama’s candidacy. We’ve never seen a politician like this: a man who intrigues and unites, speaks frankly and eloquently about race and inspires historically apathetic young men and women to participate in the democratic process.

We’ve only heard stories about the men like this that came before. And we also know that all of them were shot and killed and had high schools named after them.

Tupac’s legacy is in line with the Kennedy’s and Dr. King’s if only in his ability to inspire and communicate. In fact, aside from the truth that Shakur and Obama are both attractive black men, the only thing they really have in common is that they are both incredibly gifted orators.

My generation values an effective communicator and that’s fitting, as we came up in the communication age. Tupac showed us that you can be a super communicator: a rapper, actor, poet and, yes, even a politician.

This is a footnote from Tupac’s story that often goes overlooked. At the time of his murder, he was flirting with politics, speaking at voter registration drives in South Central Los Angeles.

True conspiracy theorists have floated the idea that the US Government killed Tupac because they saw his potential power as a political leader and were threatened by it. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that if he wasn’t killed and he decided on a life in politics, he would have done quite well, criminal record be damned.

I spent most of the day on Tuesday after Obama’s staggeringly eloquent speech puzzling over these men and their respective resonance with people of my generation. As evening approached, it occurred to me that while I’ve been to countless political events this campaign season, it’s been quite a while since I went to a hip-hop show. So I got off my Brooklyn couch and went into the city to see Masta Ace (of “Born to Roll” fame) perform and ask some people what they thought of the new development in the Tupac case.

When I first got to the club, I was pleased to discover that even on a cold Tuesday night, hip-hop can still bring a crowd. The activity in front of the venue was dominated by a group of about 20 young black kids pouring out of a white hummer limo with New Jersey plates, dressed impeccably and ostentatiously in silver shoes, gold teeth and blindingly white baseball hats.

Their arrival punctuated by the clink of empty Hennessey bottles falling from the back seat of the limo and onto the Manhattan sidewalk.

I went inside behind them, trying to blend into the entourage and spent some time at the bar, watching the show. After a while, I made my way across the room and walked past a familiar face in the crowd, a man I recognized as Q-Tip from the wildly famous and influential Queens rap group A Tribe Called Quest. I managed to get his attention and ask a couple questions about the Tupac case.

He was very quick to strike down the speculation about Puffy as divisive; something hip-hop doesn’t need right now. When I asked him if the deaths of Tupac and Biggie were still relevant, he smacked his lips and told me, “Of course it’s relevant. These are our icons. But all this mess isn’t going to bring them back.”

I nodded and thanked him for his time. It is a sign of our gradual maturing that my generation’s mantle of icons has expanded to allow room for someone like Barack Obama. It is the hope of millions of young people that he can appeal to the rest of America, who are older and whiter and decidedly not Tupac fans.