AS RAPPER Tupac Shakur lay dying in a Las Vegas hospital room, commentators, reporters and critics on the left and right were all easily summing up his tragic life as a casualty of a gangsta rapper attempting to live up to his wrongheaded raps. Their analysis lacked the style or economy of my 14-year-old son, who sadly proclaimed Tupac "stupid."
My own reaction to his death was to think of the Washington poet DJ Renegade's melancholy libation for the victims of violent crime: This is for the brothers who found out too late, that going out like a soldier means . . . never coming back.
Shakur's life and death are now in danger of becoming a cliched object lesson on the dangers of drugs, guns and, unfortunately, hip-hop music. But Shakur's dreary end holds another, perhaps more profound, warning about the role of black artists in an era of crack cocaine. It says clearly that we cannot afford to be minstrels for dollars or our own dreams of stardom. His death was a lamentable loss of a gifted, misguided, young poet who spoke with insight and energy to his hip-hop world, but who committed the unpardonable sin of using his immense poetic talents to degrade and debase the very people who needed his positive words most -- his fans.
I respectfully acknowledge and dismiss the arguments I know I will get from my outraged literary colleagues when they realize I am calling Shakur a poet. They are probably choking on their herbal teas or cappuccinos. I am a poet whose literary influences include Walt Whitman and Eric B. and Rakim, Shakespeare and Public Enemy and Amiri Baraka and Tupac Shakur. I am not saying that Shakur was the equal of Baraka or my favorite poet, Henry Dumas, but on songs like "Keep Your Head Up," "Dear Mama" and "Brenda Had a Baby," one cannot help but be impressed with his use of narrative, imagery and pathos. His storytelling skills, literary craft and his vulnerability shone through on those songs and, combined with his smooth vocal delivery, made him one of rap's most distinguished voices. His songs have nearly become inner-city anthems, and his popularity grew with each album, despite the litany of trouble that accompanied his life. I was not the only writer who recognized Shakur's talents as a hip-hop bard: The great African American poet Nikki Giovanni trumpeted Tupac's poetry and spirit in her recent readings, quoting his lyrics and condemning what she saw as a racist society for trying to silence him.
But as positive, powerful and profound as some of Tupac's songs were, they do not begin to atone for his unforgivable crimes of denigrating women and calling for the murder of other young black men. I do not hold Shakur responsible for anyone who has murdered another human being, nor do I hold him responsible for toxic pollution, the current crisis in the Middle East, welfare reform, or the influx of guns or drugs into Washington or Los Angeles. I do hold him responsible for exploiting the carnage and basking in the mayhem of urban America where young girls are found raped and killed near their high schools or where brothers are murdered standing outside their homes playing catch.
In the African American tradition of poets like Baraka and Dumas, we understand that the job of the poet is to celebrate and illuminate. Simply put, the poet is always trying to get to truth and beauty, even as he or she exposes and details the horror that prevents us from arriving at that destination. Tardy apologists and post-mortem Shakur fans are now foolishly suggesting that he and other gangsta rappers were simply exposing America's ugly underside by, as we say in the hood, "keeping it real." This is a grand absurdity posited by music magazine editors who are trying to hype their insipid rags and by hypocritical radio programmers trying to justify their unjustifiable play lists, which now include a heavy dose of negative rap and generally exclude anything positive or creative.
These apologists must explain how hip-hop pioneers like Grandmaster Melle Mel, Chuck D and KRS-1 managed to "keep it real" without disrespecting their fans or their communities. Amiri Baraka was dragged from his home and beaten by the police; his wife and children were shot at and narrowly escaped death. Yet he did not think that calling black women "bitches" would change the direction of the Newark police.
Instead Baraka wrote, "Back home the black women are all beautiful . . . . The black women in Newark are fine." Henry Dumas, a 33-year-old activist-poet, was murdered -- shot in the back by a New York transit cop in 1968 -- yet his poetic legacy is of beauty and music. When I think of Dumas, I think of his lines, "Bones of my bones all you golden black children of the sun lift up and read the sky written in the tongue of your ancestors." You can also read Baraka's poem "Black Art" or Dumas's "Tis of Thee" and find anger too, poetry that is 100 times more fierce and piercing than Tupac's angriest song.
But, like it or not, Shakur is the Baraka or Dumas for a large segment of this generation. To ignore that is to deny his power and miss the chance to influence future rap poets. The danger that gifted hip-hop poets like Shakur pose, is that as grandiloquently as they sing about their mothers or the harrowing conditions of urban American, they are equally seductive in their unbridled exultation of hedonism and death. They will, I guarantee you, have more songs dedicated to their favorite drug than their favorite girl, or they rap more emotionally about their dead homiez than their living children. They do not properly illuminate the problems of the society.
In fact, they ultimately obscure its inherent flaws by focusing such rapt attention on themselves. Because Shakur accidentally killed a 6-year-old black girl, conspired in the rape of a young black woman and attacked a black movie director on the set, he made it much more difficult for black people to focus on larger realities: Republican attempts to roll back civil rights legislation or the collapse of the inner-city economy or allegations about the CIA and drugs. Gangsta rappers are like brightly colored gnats: They worry and distract more than they menace; they make examining the real menace more difficult.
Unfortunately many of us who call ourselves fans did not protest loudly enough Shakur's misogyny or violence. This includes Nikki Giovanni, who lauded Shakur as a besieged young African American male without demanding that he stop debasing African American females and celebrating violence. Black women and their children are among the most vulnerable segments of American society, but they could not intelligently look to Tupac's music for respite from apathetic and antagonistic lawmakers. Young black men, whose lives are almost always imperiled, could not turn to Tupac's music to find alternative images of themselves. These were not the people protesting Tupac's poetry -- and they should have been.
We cannot depend on folks like Bob Dole or C. Delores Tucker or Bill Bennett, who would have us all listening to their censored Top Ten or the rap version of "Up With People." We, the fans and the members of the hip-hop community, must demand that these poets point their venom at more appropriate targets and not at those of us who daily strive against deep odds to survive in our communities. We must insist on more radio air play for hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Spearhead, De La Soul, The Fugees and others, who use their rap as more than weapons to bash the heads of those who are already getting bashed by a larger bat.
We must tell these poets, as Henry Dumas instructed us in his poem "Black Star Line,"
Sons, my sons...
Make your heads not idle sails, blown about
by any icy wind like a torn page from a book
Shakur had some choices, tough choices, the kind you get often as a talented young person in money-driven society -- and he made his choice and had the words tatooed on his stomach: "Thug Life." But we must counsel all our hip-hop poets to stand as Baraka and Dumas stood -- with us -- as we stand with them. We must remind them, as we pour libation for the fallen poet Tupac Shakur, that going out like a thug, means never coming back. Kenneth Carroll is Washington coordinator of the WritersCorps program which conducts writing workshops in D.C. neighborhoods. His book "So What! For the White Dude Who Said This Ain't Poetry" will be published in December (Bunny and the Crocodile Press). CAPTION: Henry Dumas, left, who didn't betray his audience, and Tupac Shakur, who did.