Back in elementary I thrived on misery/Left me alone I grew up amongst a dying breed/ Inside my mind I couldn't find a place to rest/Until I got that "Thug Life" tattooed on my chest .../Is there a heaven for a G?/Remember me/So many homeys in the cemetery/I shed so many tears/I've suffered through the years and shed so many tears .../ **** the world cuz I'm cursed/I'm having visions of leaving here in a hearse.
Thus spake Tupac Shakur, on his 1995 release "So Many Tears." This past Sept. 7, Shakur left the Mike Tyson bludgeoning of Bruce Seldon in Las Vegas and was driving with Death Row/Interscope executive Suge Knight when they stopped at a red light. A white Cadillac pulled up beside Knight's BMW and someone fired 13 shots into the car, hitting Shakur four times.
Doctors at University Medical Center had to remove one of Shakur's lungs. He clung to life for nearly a week as the nation's hip-hop community -- those youth who love rap music -- engaged in a morbid death watch.
"Any word on the Tupac death watch?" I asked my son Ray around 11 p.m. Friday.
"He's dead," Ray responded, bluntly, matter-of-factly and with little emotion. It's as if he expected it, thus personifying the fatalism that runs through "So Many Tears."
It must be a generational thing, I thought to myself, thinking back on how devastated I was when I learned Sam Cooke had been shot and killed at some sleazy Los Angeles motel in December 1964. For me Cooke was what Shakur was to today's hip-hop generation. When it came to music, Cooke was the man. When it comes to gangsta rap, Shakur was the man: eloquent, poignant and brilliant.
And, ultimately, trapped in the black macho lifestyle of gangsta rap that proved fatal to him. As Shakur claimed in the opening lyrics of "So Many Tears," he did indeed have the words "Thug Life" tattooed on his chest. The major pitfall of being a thug is that eventually you may run into somebody who's a better and deadlier thug than you are.
It would be easy to dismiss Shakur as someone who lived like a thug and died like a thug. A fitting end, gangsta rap critics would say, for a gangsta rapper. The critics would then reiterate the charge that the essence of gangsta rap is violence and misogyny -- as if gangsta rap is the only art form containing those elements.
But there is another leitmotif that runs through gangsta rap, one that makes the violence and misogyny pale in comparison. It is fatalism, the talk of death. Listen to Tupac's words from "So Many Tears":
So now I'm lost and I'm weary/I'm suicidal so don't stand near me/My every move is a calculated step/To bring me closer to an early death.
All too many of these guys, like Tupac, expect to die at an early age. But we're so busy railing against violence and misogyny -- as though art is supposed to tell us what we want to hear -- that we've missed the fatalism and, more importantly, the question of what are we to do about it.
For the fatalism doesn't afflict just rappers. In January 1994, I did an news story about a kid named Jacquin Van Landingham, who, ironically and unbeknown to me, was the son of a teammate of mine on Baltimore City College's wrestling team.
The day after he turned 17 in November 1993, Van Landingham was gunned down in Edmondson Village. His aunt Omega Van Landingham told me his main goal in life was just to reach the age of 18, as if he, much like Shakur, expected to go to an early grave.
Also as in the Tupac Shakur case, Baltimore police met with a wall of silence when they investigated young Jacquin's death. The boy's homeys told his aunt they would mete out justice to her nephew's murderer, apparently unaware that was exactly what the woman was afraid of.
Members of Shakur's entourage, which included bodyguards in some 10 other cars (you have to wonder what the hell Tupac was paying them for) have refused to cooperate with Las Vegas police. They saw nothing and heard nothing.
You have to wonder if they intend to be true to the black macho code of retribution and reprisal and whether a virtual bloodbath will ensue in the wake of the death of a truly gifted artist.
Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Pub Date: 9/18/96