Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Reaffirming African American Cultural Values: Tupac Shakur's Greatest Hits as a Musical Autobiography

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Reaffirming African American Cultural Values: Tupac Shakur's Greatest Hits as a Musical Autobiography

Article excerpt

Gangst Rap: The Interconnection of Capitalism, Controversy, and Culture

Since the first successful commercial rap song, "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang was released in 1979, rap music has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry that has been appropriated by corporate America to advertise a variety of products from soda to shoes. Although the growth of rap music and hip-hop culture has elevated the genre and its African American artists to icon status, rap's growth has not occurred without controversy. One genre of rap music, gangsta rap, has endured harsh criticism for lyrics that glamorize a gangster lifestyle, which Boyd (1997) has argued places ultimate value on the excesses of our capitalistic culture: materialism, power, machismo, sexism, and violence. By emphasizing the excesses of capitalism, gangsta rap has taken the idea of "getting paid" to the most extreme form. Due to gangsta rap's explicit lyrics, there has been widespread criticism from all points on the political spectrum. A discussion of the congressional hearings into gangsta rap is provided by Kitwana (1994), Ramsey (2003), and Wong (2001).

The denouncing of gangsta rap has also been common among portions of the African American community. During Benjamin Chavis' tenure as Executive Director of the NAACP, he caused internal conflicts between himself and the Executive Board by attempting to embrace gangsta rap as a Black art form (Brown & Rahoi-Gilchrest, 1999). The ultimate rejection of gangsta rap by the NAACP was echoed by many middle class African Americans and African American feminist groups (Kelley, 1996). Furthermore, an Urban League poll revealed that 67% of African Americans perceived rap artists as inappropriate role models (Holland, 2001). Compounding these negative opinions of rap music were the highly publicized incidents between gangsta rappers and law enforcement. Many gangsta rappers have been caught up in the imagery and the bravado of their lyrics as the distinction between art and life are often blurred. One rapper turned actor, whose career and life exemplified this tension was Tupac Shakur. After surviving a shooting in 1994 and time in prison in 1995 for sexual assault, Shakur was a victim of a drive by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996. The artist, who rose quickly in gangsta rap by selling six million albums, died according to the "Thug Life" he rapped about in many of his songs. Upon his death Newsweek reported that hip-hop had lost "the most articulate voice of intelligent black male anger" (Samuels & Leland, 1996). Despite receiving accolades from some scholars and many of his followers, Tupac Shakur and the genre of gangsta rap continues to be widely perceived by critics as a type of music that advocates lawlessness, nihilism and has little redeeming cultural value (Kelley, 1996; Ogbar, 1999). T. Boyd (1997) and M. Dyson (2001) provide an explanation of the primary criticisms directed at gangsta rap.

However, to simply dismiss gangsta rap or a gangsta rapper such as Tupac Shakur as a "thug" whose music has contributed to the "moral decline" of American culture would be too simplistic a statement to explain the messages contained in his music. In contrast to the negative criticisms of gangsta rap, some scholarship has illustrated the multifaceted messages of the genre and Shakur's legacy as an intellectual, political figure, and an urban folk hero. A recent symposium held by the Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard university in 2003 explored and discussed Shakur's cultural impact.

Through common experiences groups of people share cultural values that comprise their social reality. I will draw upon research from scholars who have analyzed various aspects of African American culture, have identified common experiences individuals used in response to their reality and have identified many cultural values from the experiences of African Americans. These common experiences also form the basis of what scholars label the African American community (or composite culture) and/or the African American experience. …

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