Tupac Shakur: A Rapper’s Epitome of Whitmanianism and the Answer to Langston Hughes
by Phillipe Chatelain
Shakur’s rap lyrics often outshine his works of poetry, both of which elaborately describe his gangster lifestyle as well as many of the struggles he faced growing up black in America. Tupac’s poetry, however, is a one of a kind example of a black poet fulfilling Hughes’ expectations, which was greatly based on Whitmanian criteria outlined in the “Preface.” In fact, Tupac Shakur answers Langston Hughes’ call to black writers through his poetry by pointing out injustice in American and advocating for social change, as well as a change in Black self-conception, in order to bolster Black identity.
The lifetime work of Walt Whitman, entitled Leaves of Grass, is set off by his “Preface,” a piece of work that would revolutionize poetry. In the “Preface” he outlines what he believed the goals of his and the poetry of all writers to follow should be. His effect on poetry is invaluable; he advocates for a connection between a poet’s country and his work. In his own words, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (Whitman 1963). For Whitman, one of the important aspects of poetry is the fact that it can be used to portray any sort of message; often times, however, this message is a political one. Many poets to follow would go along with the Whitmanian tradition for many years, including the famous black poet Langston Hughes. Hughes wrote numerous controversial poems about black identity in America in his time, the early twentieth century, agreeing that it is important for a poet to take his identity seriously. Hughes also explains in his essays “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and “To Negro Writers” his own version of what a poet’s goals should be that can be directly related to Whitman’s “Preface.” Whitman writes “Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is done, the greatest poet brings the spirit of any of all events and passions and scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read” describing the sense of the poet’s identity in his writing (Whitman 1974). Hughes modifies these criteria to directly describe black poets and writes in “To Negro Writers” that, “There are certain very practical things American Negro writers can do. And must do… Something has got to change in America and change soon. We must help that change to come” (Hughes 131). As the titles of his essays suggest, Hughes’ main focus was describing ideal qualities of the black writer, and their duty in sparking political change in America, which is very similar to Whitman’s message applied in a completely different context.
Hughes’ essays can be seen as important cornerstones in the development of black poetry in particular, and even well after his death, poets like the late Tupac Shakur took up the metaphorical torch, keeping those important ideals alive. Shakur gained worldwide acclaim for his short eight-year career as a “gangsta rapper,” and his reputation preceded him. Shortly after his brutal murder, that sent shockwaves throughout the music industry, his notebook filled with poems was published, entitled The Rose That Grew From Concrete. Shakur is a unique response to Hughes’ call to black writers. Hughes challenged writers to write from what they knew in order to spark social change; he characterized his own writings as “racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know” in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (Hughes 31). Shakur’s rap lyrics often outshine his works of poetry, both of which elaborately describe his gangster lifestyle as well as many of the struggles he faced growing up black in America. Tupac’s poetry, however, is a one of a kind example of a black poet fulfilling Hughes’ expectations, which was greatly based on Whitmanian criteria outlined in the “Preface.” In fact, Tupac Shakur answers Langston Hughes’ call to black writers through his poetry by pointing out injustice in American and advocating for social change, as well as a change in Black self-conception, in order to bolster Black identity.
Tupac Shakur’s poetry contains his version of very Whitmanian themes, a look into the mind of a twentieth-century black poet. Shakur, in The Rose That Grew From Concrete, aims to write about the injustices in America, a country that boasts “liberty and justice for all.” The imagery in the title of the book depicts the struggle of a black male in America; he believed it is as hard to be black growing up in America as it is for a rose to grow from concrete. The poem by the same name says, “Proving nature’s law is wrong it / learned to walk without having feet. / Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, / it learned to breathe fresh air” (Shakur 2). This poem and others in this collection were meant as more than just a social commentary. In the same way Hughes did, Shakur wished that with poems like “Liberty Needs Glasses” and “Can U C the Pride in the Panther” he would be able to speak to the black population in America, motivating them. He also targets the white population, showing them the blatant injustices that are still prevalent in a post-Dr. King America. Shakur writes for the masses and only depicted what he was familiar with in his writing, another Whitmanian ideal described in the “Preface” that was modified by Langston Hughes. He also uses colloquial, common language as a way to speak to his audience, prescribed as a best practice by Whitman, “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity,” (Whitman 1975). Each of these poems describes a different aspect of Shakur’s call for social change that can be traced back to Whitman and Hughes’ criteria established many years prior.
Shakur employs the free verse style, which Whitman made popular, in the poem “Liberty Needs Glasses” to make his metaphor for prejudice in America. In the first two lines, Tupac explains, “Excuse me but lady liberty needs glasses / and so does Mrs. Justice by her side” (1-2). Shakur thinks that for a country that advertises liberty and justice, the American people should open their eyes and see what is truly going on. He utilizes a direct perversion of the country’s Pledge of Allegiance to describe its lack of freedom as well as blatant injustice. Shakur goes on to describe the unequal treatment of blacks with the lines, “Trippin’ on Geronimo Pratt / But stepped right over Oliver / and his crooked partner Ronnie,” which are references to two famous crimes of the history of the country (6-8). The first is directed at the targeting and conviction of Shakur’s godfather, Geronimo Pratt, for alleged murder and affiliation with the Black Panther Party. Shakur feels that the government was easy to convict this black man, but at the same time Liberty and Justice “stepped over” and ultimately overlooked “Ronnie” Reagan, Oliver North, and the Iran-Contra Scandal. He emphasizes a double standard that clearly exists in America. Shakur aims to clarify to the reader of this poem that America should reconsider if it really provides liberty and justice for all or solely liberty and justice for some. He aims to give Mrs. Liberty and Mrs. Justice their glasses, so they can see America for what it really is or, at the very least, so they can see America through the eyes of a black man. Shakur referencing his godfather’s trial in many of his poems is a characteristic Hughes emphasizes when he writes that he believes that the writer should write from what he knows, and Tupac Shakur knows injustice.
In “Liberty Needs Glasses,” Tupac intends to critically analyze liberty in America and, in turn, he demonstrates the Whitmanian and Hughesian criteria of writing from personal experience to connect with the masses. Hughes preaches in “To Negro Writers” the importance and urgency of writing about political policies and equal right because Black writers can use their writing to help gain equality for all people. He writes, “We can reveal to the negro masses, from which we come, our potential power to transform the now ugly face of the Southland into a region of peace and plenty,” and “We can reveal to the white masses those Negro qualities which go beyond the mere ability to laugh and sing and dance and make music, which are a part of the useful heritage that we place at the disposal of a future free America” (Hughes 131). Hughes felt that it is crucial for the Negro writers to make proper use of their writing to bolster their identity and foster liberty. Whitman also acknowledges that poets should be “the voice and exposition of liberty” (Whitman 1977). Here, Shakur uses the end of “Liberty Needs Glasses” to show his disgust for the aforementioned double standard, “I mean really if anyone really valued life / and cared about the masses / they’d take ‘em both 2 Pen Optical / and get 2 pairs of glasses” (Shakur 15-18). At this point in the poem, Shakur points out “the ugly face” of injustice and becomes the “voice and exposition of liberty” by offering Liberty the glasses that will expose the hidden injustice. Josh Nisker, who writes “‘Only God Can Judge Me’: Tupac Shakur, the Legal System, and Lyrical Subversion” to analyze the lyrics of Shakur’s songs and poetry with respect to his political message, explains that in “Liberty Needs Glasses” Tupac shows that he “regarded the criminal justice system as racist and oppressive, and his lyrical message reflects the great suspicion held by many Blacks toward the American legal system” (Nisker 178). This relatable aspect of Tupac’s writing made it possible for his fans and readers to “absor[b] him as affectionately as he has absorbed” them (Whitman 1963). Not only is Shakur stating his opinion, but he is speaking for many Blacks of his time regarding their dissatisfaction at the unfairness in America. Tupac Shakur became the voice for the Black population of America that Hughes established a Black poet should be.
In “Can U C the Pride in the Panther,” Shakur emulates Hughes’ message and urges the importance of persistence and unity within the Black race. This poem is one that speaks optimistically of overcoming barriers and success. Tupac writes, “Can u c the pride in the pantha / as he glows in splendor and grace / toppling OBSTACLES placed in the way / of the progression of his race,” placing emphasis on the word “OBSTACLES” to refer to things that could potentially slow down the development of Blacks in America, and their quest for equality (Shakur p. 127 lines 5-8). Beyond the very clear message, lies a subtle reference to the Black Panther Party to which Shakur was closely affiliated. This party prided itself upon reinforcing the ideas of Black pride and “Black Power” which would establish that sense of unity amongst all colored people. The obstacles to which Shakur refers included the fact that this party was considered radical and revolutionary, when in reality, Shakur did not consider himself radical. He simply wanted to depict that if the “panthas” can come together and “unify as one” they can bring about something very amazing that can “bloom with brilliance and outshine the rays of the sun” (9-12). In the “Preface” Whitman writes, “A great poem is no finish to a man or woman but rather a beginning” (Whitman 1983). Tupac Shakur once said in an MTV interview shortly after the release of his debut album 2Pacalypse Now, “I’m not saying I’m gonna rule the world, or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world and that’s our job,” as quoted in Armond White’s analysis of Shakur’s public presence entitled Rebel for the Hell of It (White 60). This sentiment that it is the poet’s job to spark the mind of the person that will change the world is very Whitmanian. Tupac Shakur meant to be a beginning for his readers because he felt that was his “job,” a job that is also what Hughes expected from black writers.
Shakur’s message of black unity and perseverance in “Can U C the Pride in the Panther” is one that is closely related to Hughes’ message of persistence and hope for America in “Let America Be America Again.” Shakur’s poem is considerably shorter and direct, while Hughes’ is more elaborate and metaphorical. Hughes is speaking for the masses, as he does in many of his poems, saying that he is the “poor white,” the “Negro,” the “red man,” the “immigrant,” as well as many other different types of people who he believes are begging for America to be America again, namely, the land of the free (Hughes 19-22). Hughes, like Shakur, is calling for the unity of all different kinds of people. Both poems include a hopeful message in the end. Shakur believed that once the unity is achieved, the outcome would “outshine the rays of the sun” while Hughes writes that although “America was never America to me,” he believed that in the end “America will be” (Shakur 12, Hughes 76, 78). Shakur’s poem is a translation of Hughes’ poem into his time frame, and illustrates to the reader that America is slowly but surely becoming the America that Hughes forebodes, as shown in the pride of the young “panthas.”
Tupac Shakur’s poetry depicts his desire for social change in America in a way that makes him an example of Hughes’ ideal black writer and denotes him as part of the lineage of Whitmanian writers. The connection between Shakur’s poetry and Walt Whitman’s expectations in the “Preface” is bridged by Langston Hughes’ application of his own ideas of the ideal Black writer as portrayed in “To Negro Writers.” The importance of Shakur’s poetry is often overlooked due to the fact that he was famous for his contribution to the rap music scene. However, as this paper aims to prove, Shakur is indeed an important contribution to the history of Black poetry as an answer to Hughes’ call for black writers. At the same time, Shakur’s use of various themes outlined in Whitman’s “Preface,” such as writing for the masses in a way to which they can relate and writing about the sociopolitical state of the nation, also makes him a modern version of a Whitmanian poet.
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