From Poetry to Rap: The Lyrics of Tupac Shakur

Article excerpt

Tupac Shakur's death on Friday, September 13, 1996, at the early age of 25, brought to an end a complex life marked both by personal controversy and artistic success. His impressive achievements include six solo rap albums, over 30 singles, starting or significant roles in six movies and a body of poems anthologized as The Rose that Grew from Concrete and published posthumously by his mother, Afeni Shakur. Tupac was clearly a performer with multi-dimensional abilities whose contributions to his art deserve to be studied from a variety of disciplinary viewpoints (see Armond White, 1997). This paper is meant to contribute to that effort. It will focus on comparing linguistic and discourse features of Tupac's poetry with the lyrics of the raps in his debut album 2Calypse Now with a view to explaining his success as a rapper compared to his limited impact as a poet. First, I propose that Tupac's upbringing contributed to his complex personal and artistic behavior and also to the central differences between his raps and his poetry. Then I compare and contrast the poems and raps in terms of topics, style, and content. Finally, I offer some general hypotheses about the reasons for the success of the raps compared to the indifferent reception of the poems.

Tupac was born in 1971 and raised in poor inner-city neighborhoods in New York. His father, Billy Garland, as well as his mother Afeni Shakur, had been significant figures in the Black Panther Movement of the 1960s. Thus, from the beginning Tupac was immersed in the culture of the African American urban working class while simultaneously being influenced by the political views, militant passions, and wider social exposure of his mother and her Black Panther colleagues.

Growing up in the Bronx and Harlem, Tupac learned and excelled in the verbal dexterity and exuberances that characterize African American working class speech culture. At the same time Tupac also absorbed influences from his mother's political past. From Afeni, from Afeni's husband Lumumba Shakur, and from Lumumba's brother, Muula Shakur, all former Black Panther activists. Tupac learned to believe that racism, economic discrimination and other forms of oppression contributed to the poverty and powerless of working class Blacks. He learned to blame the so-called white establishment, including the police, for these conditions. As White (1997:48) points out "The Shakurs' tribal activism had become a legend and a legacy [for Tupac]." White (1997:48) quotes the journalist Ron Howell as reporting that, "At fifteen, Tupac must have been thoroughly convinced that to be a Shakur was to confront the possibility of death at an early age. He was learning such lessons almost before he could walk." This indoctrination seemed to have been successful because Tupac at the age of 10 is reputed to have expressed a desire to grow up to be a revolutionary.

But there was a countervailing influence that contributed to the uniqueness of Tupac's education. This was that Tupac's mother encouraged her son to develop his creative and expressive capabilities within a traditional, conservative, educative ethos. To this end, she enrolled him in a drama school in Harlem, The 127th Street Ensemble, at the age of twelve. Here Tupac learned acting and other performance skills. Thus, from early on Tupac was taught to succeed in two different worlds: in the ethos of formal schooling in the creative arts where standard English, formal education, recitation, declamation and print poetry are the norms; and in the palpably real vernacular world of the urban "hood" with its distinctive oral traditions, its religiosity, and its culture of survival, struggle, and celebration. These often-contradictory elements seem to be represented in Tupac's raps and poetry and provide explanatory principles for his work.

In 1985, when Tupac was fourteen, his mother moved the family to Baltimore, Maryland, partly to escape the poverty and difficulties of New York. …