A History of Conflict: Entry #2
by Dax-Devlon Ross
An Introduction to the Conflict
Let me cut straight to the chase, then you, dear reader, can decide if my thoughts are worth your time. It is my belief that all people, particularly people as maligned and downtrodden as black people have been throughout this nation’s relatively brief life need heroes, mythic figures that both represent and are representations of a spirit or Zeitgeist. Those heroic figures come to embody our best and our worst, our highest and our lowest. Furthermore, black Americans have historically been entangled within a power struggle between opposing political voices over the direction they should be moving in as a collective body. From Frederick Douglass and Alexander Crummell’s dispute regarding the course black Americans should take following emancipation (assimilation or colonization in Africa) to the life-long quarrel between Booker T. Washington and his accomodationalist plan and Du Bois’ conception of a Talented Tenth; from Du Bois’ later conflict with Marcus Garvey whose espousal of black separatism and a return to the Africa captured the imagination of Earl Little, father of Malcolm Little, to Malcolm’s own assertive black militancy and outright disdain for Dr. King’s compassionate Christianity, black America’s political psyche has been shaped and molded through and by the conflicting viewpoints offered by two dominant, dynamic male figures, iconic figures, whose unique gifts lifted them out of the masses and thrust them into positions of prominence as representations of the competing interests within the race. In each of their eras they held sway over the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of black Americans because of their oratory gifts, their charisma, their courage, and their belief that they had been chosen to lead. Historically, these figures appealed to different strands of the black experience and perhaps this is best exhibited in Malcolm and Martin. One spoke to and for the southern black facing the venal scourge of an oppressive system of segregation and the other to and for the more physically liberated but equally frustrated northern black who was fed up with waiting for change and in whom the message of justice by any means resonated bitterly and deeply.
But what, you might be asking yourself, does any of this have to do with Nasir Jones (Nas) and Sean Carter (Jay-Z)? Well, to answer that question properly, thoroughly and convincingly we really have to think about the life and death of Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur. For is it their perceived antipathy in life along with the rising tide of east-west controversy, spurred on by a media itself saturated with notions of dramatic conflict within the black political sphere, not to mention their mercurial talents, their obsessions with death (Both King and X, Louis Lomax points out in his dual biography were “ready to die” for their causes) that rekindled the Martin-Malcolm dialectic and elevated the Notorious BIG and Tupac to the status of martyrs as well.
There are so many parallels that can be and already have been explored, but the one that initially caught my attention is that all four figures are remembered, eulogized, etc. as larger-than-life figures. Their spirits continue to live on because what they represented was something larger than themselves, something that defines, again, the age in which they lived. In Tupac’s case it was a post-Black Power militancy. In BIG’s case it was a post-Civil Rights materialism. Both were watered-down, essentialized versions of what those movements aspired for. In the case of BIG, the materialism is merely the surface coating symbolizing an integration into the mainstream economic artery. It does not account for or regard the other elements of integration. In Tupac’s case, his rage at the system failed to move beyond a characterization of the system as blood-sucking villain and poor blacks as its victims. Though he made polemical strides in his brief life, he never evolved an analysis of how to combat the very real resurgence of institutional racism that we all remember in the 90’s. What is strikingly common among the opposing black heroic figures I’ve mentioned already is how much they have in common, and how much those commonalities link them together in our consciousness. For example, the picture that frames my youth, in part due to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, is of Martin and Malcolm shaking hands. It is the synthesis of these two opposing forces that has consistently eluded and fascinated black political, social and cultural aspirations. Toward the end of Du Bois’ life he sympathized with Booker T. Washington. Toward the end of both of their lives, Martin and Malcolm were moving toward an encompassing and sophisticated class analyses that would’ve likely brought them together. BIG and Tupac died way too early in their careers to ever come close to reconciling their differences.
BIG and Tupac were both men of the people. Both in action and in their words they displayed their loyalty to the streets that raised them and the people that represented them. This is perhaps their most enduring legacy: the sense of authenticity, of genuine and deep love for their people. They both stood before armies of forgotten, disenfranchised, and embittered youth and spoke both their dreams and their fears. They were spokesmen for the streets in a way no other rappers had been. To be fair, Public Enemy and N.W.A. had once shared an important political moment in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s in which both groups were producing overtly political music that appealed to millions of listeners. (P.E. has been credited politicizing hundreds if not thousands of kids in their day. N.W.A. put the rampant police brutality in South Central on the map.) But part of what made BIG and ‘Pac truly unique was their relationship to one another. Just like Larry Bird had Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain had Bill Russell, the greatness of one required the greatness of the other. That was what elevated the game, what brought out the best, what draws us to make myths out of mere men.
My contention is that our personal and collective need for heroic figures to idolize and criticize combined with the assassination-style deaths of the two most prominent icons of youth culture at the height of their careers combined with the modern media’s capacity to produce icons through constant display of their image combined with their own skillful understanding and exploitation of emergent circumstances, not to mention talent and hard work, catapulted Nas and Jay-Z into the long line of oppositional, antagonistic black political icons, and that their truce symbolizes a giant step forward that should be widely recognized as more than an end to a rap beef, but as the beginning of a new moment. Moreover, as the modern heirs to the thrown of black genius it is time for their work to be viewed and understood from an intellectual standpoint in order to understand them as thinkers. Both Nas and Jay-Z have created dynamic, complex bodies of work for more than a decade. Both have managed to stay ahead of the curve in an industry in which even the most talented artists are lucky to have a shelf life of a half-decade. Even in an age of massive downsizing in the record industry, in a climate where buyers have become the new powerbrokers, Nas and Jay-Z managed to move 355,000 and 700,000 records in their first week of sales in late 2006. This is significant and as a black intellectual I feel it is my responsibility to look deeper, closer, to really take their work apart and begin to set a precedent for how we should view black art.
For too long hip-hop has been easily disposed of. In part it is the fault of artists themselves. In part it is the fault of a celebrity/lifestyle obsessed media that pays too little attention to elements of craft that truly define artistic vision. In part it is the fault of anti-intellectual culture that is particularly hostile to the young, and to people of color and which, in its arrogance, is all too quick to judge and label without actually hearing or paying attention. Our standards of judgment are hot, not hot; commercial or street. Music that offers depth is often frowned upon. We want our entertainers to be the soundtrack of our lives solely, the background music that we talk over or get high to. In the end it cheapens the efforts of the artist and our own ethical duty to be more than passive passers through. It is my aim with this book to begin a more thoughtful discussion about two of the our time’s most intriguing, talented figures, to engage in an exploration of what has made them step out of the crowd of wannabes who have vied for the ‘thrown.’ They deserve that. They’ve earned that. And unless intellectuals begin to honestly listen and hear what contemporary artists are saying to the culture at large we will never regard the impact of their work in the way it should be regarded. Just as previous generations of intellectuals have had to rescue their heroes from their worshippers and detractors alike, my intentions here are to rescue these two artists from the same sort of exploitative essentialism by either side by bringing some real rigor to an analysis of their work, their ideas, their mass appeal. By doing this we can develop a more sophisticated understanding of our motivations, our aspirations, our virtues