This article was originally published in 2010.
A Sunday post. I've been hesitant to post this. Started working on it like a week ago. But there it is.
If you know hip-hop, then you know the story of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (Biggie Smalls). I'm getting older now, approaching the age where I can get a 30 and over club card. And sometimes I'm driving down I-295, and I hear a Pac song or a Big song — and I pause. Both them cats died at 25. I was around 16 when the two passed. But the thing I find so frustrating, looking back at that time, and even thinking about it now — is that I don't really remember people saying that it was tragic that they died at 25. I mean, what do you know at 25?
This is part of why as I get older I find hip-hop losing the grip it once had on me. There is still Illmatic, there is still every album Outkast dropped, there is still Jay Electronica or Fashawn or Blu making me want to bop my head and bang to something — but as far as it being my staple, the way that I speak to the world — so much of that is lost, and the loss is found in how we have really failed to deal with the lunacy of dying rich at 25 over a hip-hop beef. (And maybe here, I'm simplifying their deaths, which remain unsolved — but I think it's fair to say that had the profitability of hip-hop not been so rooted in posturing (which it still is) those two might still be spitting.
Tupac was the first person I ever heard talking about teen pregnancy, juvenile transfer to adult court, certain well publicised violent episodes in LA. It's a rough thing to recognise the contradictions of your hero — even rougher for me to be a young man, and have already outlived a childhood hero.
I planned on writing this — thinking about this on paper — before TNC asked if I'd fill in, and then Ms Clifton died and I thought: what would Pac or Big been like at 73, and what is wrong with a world where we can't imagine that.
Writing the word "we" is always problematic. There's this persistent risk of over generalising, and this is usually where the writing fails — except, if the word "I" is always written the reader doesn't feel included. Rightly so, too. As you figure that no particular life, in its nuance and trouble, its particular hurts and hungers, is really ever representative. But when I say "we", I'm talking to the generation of folks who remember dubbing tapes when they came out. Who remember the little piece of plastic on the bottom of tapes that you had to break to be able to record over some garbage you bought expecting it to be dope (I'm thinking specifically here of MC Breed).
I wonder if I'm wrong about this, but I've long felt like I grew up in a generation without old men. A lot of folks in my memory are exceptions. Yet, even those exceptions I met as an adult. I think growing up I had two, three friends whose dads I knew. Writing that sounds like I'm crafting a remix of the Moynihan Report. But that's not the intent. No either/ors here. I'm just thinking of how not having men around coloured my history, and maybe my generations — and wondering, I guess, if any of it is even true. If maybe, I was just so bugged out that I couldn't recognise Steve walking down the street to the bus stop in the morning, going to work. Couldn't see Mike who coached the basketball team, or David who coached the track squad. Maybe I ignored Chris teaching 10th grade maths, ignored him cause I was lost in my own blur. And still....
Some true s*** for a moment — I've admired TNC for a minute. My life has been about books. I remember finding out what Black Classic Press was and thinking Ta-Nehisi's father was like the ultimate G. Up there with Haki Madhubuti and whoever ran African World Books (a company that was also out of Baltimore). To have a father who owns a press is one of those rare gifts that makes people say, "Damn, your dad be publishing books. Man, I got a manuscript I'm working on, can you pass it to him? Yeah, I'm writing a book about love and relationships." And then, even in trailers and in the book, I think, "Damn, seems pretty cool to have a father about his business. But then, to turn out to be a gifted writer yourself. That's cool."
My generation lost a lot of what comes with a father-son bond — even to the simplest things as watching how you imagine your life larger than it is. I mean literally imaging yourself bigger. Last night I was watching my son and a friend's kid. The little boy is six and all he wanted was to be as tall as my shoulder right now.
There's a frailty in all of this. I'm thinking of father's and struggles and the loss of Big and Pac and the real thing I'm saying is what their deaths meant is that they wouldn't be able to get the feeling of what it was to give someone what you'd missed. I write about prison a lot, too much for real. It's my obsession and what I tell people is that if Milton could write about God his entire life (and be dope, I don't deny the work Paradise Lost does) than I can make prison a metaphor for whatever. And once I wrote that I'd met my fathers in prison. I've had to talk about that line way too much — but what I'm saying is that there is a graveyard where the men older than me where. Maybe there are a rack of graveyards. And they were there for all kinds of reasons. But there, they dropped the jewels that living 50 years gives you. Mornings I wake up wondering about what Pac would say at 40.
There is faulty logic in all of this. I say my generation as if I can tell what's gone on across the country from my perch in Suitland, MD. I say it as if a generation of black men were not in the homes. Someone should feel insulted. I should step back and say I'm not talking about my generation, per se, but I'm talking about a recurrent tale, a narrative that has played out in the majority of men I've known around my age. I recognise I'm ignoring cats like TNC who clearly did have the influence of a father. I'm ignoring my own father. And none of that can be helped. It's like I'm talking about dead bodies and trying to talk about them, not just Pac and Big, but friends, people lost in their own heads or in cells. I wanted to talk about them in a way that says why I'm glad my son sees me brush my teeth each morning.
This post is all about wondering. I cringe recognising that for a lot of young folks music is the height of culture. Recognising that for me music was the height of culture. Lyrics, for a long time, was where I got my wisdom from. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that — but it still leaves me wondering what would the mature voice of Pac or Big said, and how would I have responded if I heard their mature voice, their father's voices, when I was a young buck. I wonder how young bucks respond here my voice, on the cusp of being able to imagine a maturity that admits its own failures.
Watch Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders on Sunday, 29 July at 8:30pm on NITV (Ch. 34), or on SBS On Demand.
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