Noted African-American scholar and Baptist minister Dyson (I May Not Get There With You, 2000, etc.), in keeping with the current reappraisal of hip-hop and rap, offers provocative insights into the life and milieu of the artist he calls a “ghetto saint.”
In a lengthy preface, Dyson details how his interview with rapper Big Tray Dee (the artist broke down in tears after talking about Tupac) became for him a metaphor of the “agony many have over the loss of Tupac’s gift . . . that nevertheless continues to speak to millions around the globe.” In four sections (“Childhood Chains,” “Adolescent Aspiration,” “Portraits of an Artist,” and “Bodies and Beliefs”), Dyson attempts to understand, with the help of those who knew Tupac and also of critics like Stanley Crouch, the man who symbolized the best and worst of rap. To start, Dyson explores Tupac’s troubled childhood: his mother was a former Black Panther as well as crack addict, which meant that, though he absorbed her revolutionary ideals, he saw the Black Panthers as a practical attempt to “answer racial oppression.”her drug habit made for an impoverished and unstable childhood. In the second section he assesses Tupac’s role as an artist, who not only read widely (Sartre, Walker, and Orwell) but, understanding the reality of inner-city life—its thug culture, its hopelessness—wrote stirring raps that changed people’s’ lives. The last section analyzes the crude sexist language of many raps, Tupac’s own conflicted attitude toward women, and his spiritual beliefs—“an ongoing argument” with God as the performer both rejected and embraced suffering. Though critical of his treatment of women and of his drug-taking, Dyson notes approvingly how in death Tupac has become a posthumous icon as well as an urban legend, serving “the psychic and cultural needs of poor black youth.”
Perceptive, informative, and certainly timely, albeit a tad hagiographic.