Tupac’s ‘Thug Life’, white -washed Jesus and the black church

September 13, 2012

Growing up in an era when “thug life” dominated DC’s youth culture, Tupac Shakur’s music impacted every facet of my teenage years. The 1990s were a dark period in the city’s history and the late rapper’s persona reflected the anger and rebellion of a generation. Tupac felt like a familiar friend.


FILE - A 1993 file photo, of Tupac Shakur (Associated Press)

Sixteen years after Tupac’s death, I’m left thinking about the resonance we found in a self-proclaimed thug and why it was so difficult to relate to scripture and the teachings of the church. The answer is clear: Much of the black church has lost it’s ability to relate to a younger generation. It must reclaim the white washed passive Christ that has become the dominant image and replace it with an image much more suited to the lives of young people in search of another rebellious hero.

Indeed, when “Makaveli - The Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory” was released two months after his 1996 death, I was more concerned with decoding the “Suge shot me” myth than I was about Tupac’s blasphemous crucifixion depiction as shown on the cover of the album. Our love for Pac was so strong that months (and for some years) after his death, we lived in hope that he wasn’t dead. We wanted desperately to believe he was hiding out overseas releasing albums that gave clues into his assassination attempt.

In reality, our idol was gone. But we refused to accept it because that would force us to acknowledge our own fragility.

I didn’t know it then, but we were making a god out of Tupac. We were putting him on a throne reserved for the Creator. This is the same throne that rappers like Jay-Z and Kanye West willingly sit on today.

My young mind had limited martyrdom to those brothers and sisters in the hood who had fallen victim to gang retaliation and stray bullets. Jesus didn’t fit that equation. As far as I knew, he didn’t know those struggles nor what it meant to try to “make a dollar out of 15 cents.” Jesus was absolutely foreign to me and seeing the “Makaveli” cover art - which depicted Pac hanging from a wooden cross- may have been the first time that I saw a crucifixion portrayal that I could relate to.

A lot has happened in my spiritual journey since those days, including having gone to divinity school to study theology. For three years of my life, I absorbed a white-washed Jesus that institutions like the ivy league school I attended manufacture for the masses. I experienced firsthand what a mentor had warned me of when I was first admitted: they will take your Jesus from you and make him so unrecognizable that it will become your job to figure out how to put him back together. And that’s exactly what I did - fight to find Jesus for myself and work tirelessly to put him back together in a way that was recognizable to me.

And I did find him. I found him in critiques of imperialism and in resistance to all forms of oppression. There he was widening the circle of inclusion for those who had previously been isolated and alienated.There came a time when everything I knew about freedom struggles throughout the world could be summed up in the command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He became relateable when I was able to connect him to my experiences and values.

There are many churches committed to unmasking this image of Christ as a rebellious liberator, prophet and justice-seeker. Ministers like Frederick Haynes, Otis Moss, Tony Lee, and countless others serve as bridge builders who make Jesus relevant to the Hip-Hop generation. Theirs is a heavy load to carry - being responsive to cultural shifts and demands while simultaneously honoring the Biblical person of Christ.

How does the Black Church appeal to swagger-obsessed, you-only-live-once driven young people? How do you challenge a generation to conform to Christ’s lifestyle rather than trying to cultivate a Christ that conforms to the ever-evolving needs of each generation? How do pastors compete with the influence of artists like Jay-Z without adopting the self-serving charisma that led to their popularity?

There are no easy answers. No quick fixes. But I challenge ministers to sit with that “Makaveli” cover art prior to preparing their next sermon. Like Tupac, many of their congregants feel that life has nailed them to a rugged cross and left them to die. What message of hope and deliverance will be waiting for them in church this Sunday? And if they never make into the sanctuary, how will the Good News be brought to their very doorstep?

I don’t claim to know what it’s like to be a shepherd of flock, as pastors are to their church members. But I do know what keeps people out of the church and away from Christ - having been on that end for so much of my life. And it is my hope - my prayer - on the anniversary of his death, that we would learn how to bridge the gap between rebellious, black boys like Tupac and Suffering Servants like Christ. So much gets lost in translation, but the good thing is that if the introduction is made, the “real” Jesus will speak for himself.

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.

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