If Tupac Shakur had not been murdered almost two decades ago, he would be celebrating his 43rd birthday in just a few short weeks. Were he alive, he'd be the same age as veterans of the game like Snoop Dogg and Jay Z. Snoop calls himself the uncle of rap. Tupac, then, would be its father.
Eighteen years later, Tupac is still cited among this generation's favorite rappers. That's why, this month, a new and much-discussed musical is set to open at the New York's Palace Theatre, based on the rapper's enduring lyrics. In all the buzz and anticipation that Holler If Ya Hear Me has elicited, the reason for Tupac's lasting influence is suddenly clear: He wasn't just a rapper, he was a literary idol. It doesn't require a multi-million dollar hologram to keep all eyes on him.
Successful crossovers between hip-hop and theater are rare (with Lin Manuel-Miranda's In the Heights a happy exception), but if anyone can pull it off, it's Tupac. Pac's easy translation to theater has revealed one common thread of literary and dramatic sensibility in his own work. That has its roots at the start of his career. Before he was a rapper, he was originally a student at the Baltimore School of Performing Arts, and a die-hard Shakespeare fan to boot.
"He wrote some of the rawest stories, man. I mean, look at Romeo and Juliet. That's some serious ghetto shit. You got this guy Romeo from the Bloods who falls for Juliet, a female from the Crips, and everybody in both gangs are against them … Real tragic stuff," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, less than a year before his own life was taken.
Holler If Ya Hear Me is bringing that Tupac back to life. Tony-nominated director Kenny Leon, whose credits include Steel Magnolias and A Raisin in the Sun, has only praise for Tupac, claiming that the rapper belongs in the same "army of writers as August Wilson and Shakespeare even." August Wilson agrees. (Shakespeare was unavailable for comment.) When he met the musical's writer for breakfast in 2001, he gave him a simple testament to Tupac's art: "There's nothing contained in your life that's not contained in that music."
It's a hint as to why Tupac has endured. He didn't just make music, he wove philosophy and literature out of words. That legacy is even more evident in another literary name connected with the project: Saul Williams. Slam poet, rapper and wordsmith Williams, like Shakur, is involved in diverse fields. He wrote and starred in 1998's Slam, which swept Sundance and Cannes, winning multiple awards for his spoken word and publishing his own books while also holding down a career as a rap artist.
Now Williams is adding unbelievable skill and poetic feel to some of Tupac's most beloved tracks, like "California Love." Williams opens the song a cappella, and it sounds like a work of slam poetry until the beat drops. He confirms what great authors and rappers have said for decades: Tupac is a literary genius. The eponymous "Holler If Ya Hear Me," perhaps Tupac's most salient anthem of resistance, speaks of his own trauma and urges others in his community to fight back and stay strong. Decades later, it's still a potent rallying cry because it's written timelessly like the best literature.
The musical has laid bare the revolutionary spirit of the rapper — a spirit that's still doing hard social work in the real world. His mother, the subject of "Dear Mama," still does important activist work under his name at the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation and provides support for young artists. She also serves as producer for the show. Those politics drew one of our generations' best-selling poets to the show. Williams is obviously well acquainted with Tupac's politics as well as his literature, explaining, "We want to expose the hypocrisy of Puritanism in America, and what the American government doesn't want to tolerate about protest speech, which is what Pac was often singing about."
So Tupac isn't just successful for having catchy songs or a good flow. His poetic and compassionate nature drew Williams, and it's what drew another poet to Pac. The late Dr. Maya Angelou remembered, in a 2013 interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, the time she confronted an angry Tupac on the set of Poetic Justice, a film that used her poems. She revealed that she took aside a raging and cursing Tupac, saying, "When was the last time anyone told you how important you are? Did you know our people stood on auction blocks, were bought and sold so that you could stay alive today?" At that, Shakur broke down weeping, embracing Angelou in gratitude. After her death last week, the video of her relaying the encounter went viral — two literary giants, compassionate heroes, now gone.
With each passing year, Tupac's legacy only grows stronger, but these days it's easier than ever to see why. A lot of people call rap poetry, but only for a few does that actually hold true. Tupac didn't just make music, he made literature and stirring music out of universal ideas and ever-relevant emotional urgency. There's a reason that, 18 years gone, he's still our generation's most important rapper.
“We talk a lot about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. , but it’s time to be like them, as strong as them. They were mortal men like us and every one of us can be like them. I don’t want to be a role model. I just want to be someone who says, this is who I am, this is what I do. I say what’s on my mind. ” –Tupac Amaru Shakur (T. I. P). This quote was spoken by one of hip-hop’s most legendary idols, Tupac Shakur. Tupac has become an integral icon of the hip-hop culture and will live on eternally through his dynamic lyrics and poems.
Most of Tupac’s raps concerned growing up around violence and hardships in ghettos, and racial inequality in the United States. He experienced many of these factors growing up, especially race related issues. For instance, on October 1991, Tupac was stopped by two officers for allegedly jaywalking. When he responded with a profanity, he was choked and beaten severely (All eyez on me). Tupac’s lyrics always went deep into the meaning of many political and social subjects including violence, and that is what sparked the initial response of his song, “Changes”.
The purpose of this song was to state how everyone knows that racial violence and issues on the streets would never change. It shows how people have to succumb to the fact that there will always be poverty, racism, police brutality and violence in the world. This is reiterated by the lyric, “Some things will never change”. This song went straight to number one on the charts in many countries in Europe and around the world. This resulted in Tupac gaining a broader and more receptive audience to his controversial lyrics.
So imagine if Tupac had used a different method to get his message across, for example, just writing the lyrics without music or creating a photo collage. Not only would the audience change but the message would also be effected by the difference in mediums. Transmediation refers to the process of “responding to cultural texts in a range of sign systems—art, movement, sculpture, dance, music, multimedia communication, and so on (Reading Online).
Leonard Schlain highlights the importance of engaging in transmediation when writing: “Digital information comes in multiple forms, and students must learn to tell stories not just with words and numbers but also through images, graphics, color, sound, music, and dance. There is a grammar and literacy to each of these forms of communication. Bombarded with a wide variety of images regularly, students need sharp visual-interpretation skills to interact with the media analytically.
Each form of communication has its own rules and grammar and should be taught in ways that lead students to be more specific and concise in communicating” (Edutopia). So remediating a text through a different tool ultimately will change the way it is communicated to its audience. For example, imagine the oratory medium that Tupac used to convey his hit song, “Changes” was instead only a written form of the lyrics. This traditional technology would not only affect the message behind the song but the audience’s acceptance of it. The second way I have communicated this song is visually.
I have constructed a collage of what I thought the song was trying to convey. This leaves area for the original message to be interpreted differently among each individual and losing sight of the originality of it. Although these mediums are proper for some texts, I think that Tupac choose the correct form, auditory to communicate his message. I began my remediation process by handwriting the first verse of the song, “Changes”. By doing this, the audience must then adapt to the new medium. Reading the lyrics of the song instead of hearing it changes the way that it is received.
More people are likely to not be introduced to the writing simply because it has been transferred from auditory to written. As a song it has exposure to the wide, variety of people that enjoy listening to music. Written on a piece of paper would affect who has access to read it causing the audience to shift from music lovers to people that just so happen to come in to contact with the text. Since it was originally presented as a song, reading the piece of work takes away the strength of the song, which is portrayed through the powerful voice of Tupac Shakur.
When he raps this song, it demands the listener’s attention because of the controversial lines and the way that it is spoken. Most rappers choose to rap about their money and cars while, Tupac used his words to try and make a difference. He bought much needed attention to important issues, such as racism. On the other hand, there is one key benefit to the transmediation of this song. If it originally were only meant to be read, people would be able to focus more on the underlying theme of the song. The audience would not be blurred by the music in the background and could listen to its true meaning.
When people think of music, they often associate entertainment with it, causing the artist’s lyrics to be downplayed. Presenting the song so that it is only read can ensure that the reader is affected by the lyrics. Having the lyrics distributed on paper will also help it reach a variety of people. People that may not enjoy listening to rap music, would have the opportunity to judge the lyrics by its context not its genre. Although, remediating the song and presenting the lyrics of it changes the audience, I believe it aids in expressing its meaning.
My experience of transforming the song into a collage was harder than I expected. I chose an overall background that pictured Tupac Shakur surrounded by newspaper clippings with headlines such as, “When Guns Replace Words”. I chose to incorporate this picture because it depicts the gun violence described in the song. Also shown is a picture of police officers fighting off a crowd. This shows their brutality towards the people. Another picture I put into the collage was of people protesting for change. They want to be heard and they demand change.
Their way of achieving this is by protesting while Tupac’s way is through this song. While I looked for pictures that matched the song, I also tried to ensure that they expressed the deeper meaning that Tupac was trying to get across. I did not just want to select a picture simply because the word was used in the song. I saw this as a problem because if “Changes” was an image that is exactly what would happen to the song. People would view the collage differently and the meaning would change. Tupacs’s originality would be gone and the effectiveness of the song would deplete.
Of course, the main factors expressed in the song would be understood but the underlying issues discussed may be overlooked. I do believe that there is a risk for leaving a piece open for the public to discuss versus having someone directly state it. Although having the song presented as a collage gives the audience an unlimited amount of ways to interpret it, this is also one of its beneficial factors. When people are able to give their own opinions and thoughts about something, they are able to open their minds to new ideas and theories. Expressed as a collage, the audience is able to give feedback and think about a subject more in depth.
A picture is worth a thousand words and therefore, more problems explained in the song are more likely to be unmasked because of an image. While experimenting with these two remediations, I learned some very important things; the way something is communicated changes its audience and affects the overall message. The medium someone chooses to get a message across is a key factor when developing that message. Like I have previously discussed, each medium produces its own strengths and weaknesses. I believe that Tupac Shakur chose the best method to communicate with his audience.