Most of us knew that Tupac Shakur was going to die. He wrote songs about his funeral, used imagery in videos that revolved around death, and described young black males like himself as if they had the life expectancy of 85-year-old men. Living till the age of 30 is a luxury that some feel they can’t afford, and hip-hop seems to celebrate death as if it is as inevitable as paying the IRS during the month of April.
When Tupac was murdered at the age of 25, the public’s shock was tempered by expectation. The artist had died “right on schedule,” and the same was true a few months later when Tupac’s nemesis, the Notorious B.I.G., found himself sitting in a truck riddled with bullet holes. Biggie had also written about his pending death, with his final two albums being called Ready to Die, and Life after Death.
Most gangster rappers in America are, unfortunately, “ready to die.” This is especially true in California, where gangs, drugs and guns are more prevalent than beaches and sunshine. Planning for the future is a fantasy world, for you are preparing for a day that many young black men do not expect to arrive. I just heard my god daughter casually tell me yesterday about a three year old who’d been shot in the head in her neighborhood this week, and another 17-year-old friend who survived after being shot in the head himself. At some point, I’m hoping that some of us will stop and realize just how abnormal all this really is.
With the recent drive-by killing of the rapper M-Bone and the murder warrant placed on the head of the rapper Cassidy, we can see that even 15 years later, the culture of death and violence hasn’t left gangster rap.
Rappers are regularly shot, murdered, arrested and incarcerated for a string of incidents that lie outside the boundaries of the law. T.I. is currently in prison on a parole violation for a weapons charge and Lil Wayne just finished serving time for carrying a gun. It’s kill or be-killed in the worlds of some men, where the lucky ones get jail time, for that surely beats a pending trip to the morgue.
While it might be easy to blame the artists for glorifying violence, one must also acknowledge the cultural tornado under which many black males are born. It’s not as if these men are deliberately deciding to get involved in situations that regularly lead to death; sometimes the situation grabs onto you. The young man born in South Central Los Angeles with every intention of maintaining peace in his life has a strong likelihood of being confronted by another male, most likely black, who gave up on the option of peace a long time ago. At that point, this teenager must decide if he wants to be (as Ice Cube once said in a song) “judged by 12 or carried by six.”
T.I. often writes about how seeing his best friend murdered right next to him filled him with both suicidal and homicidal tendencies. Tupac shared a similar sentiment in his song, Only God Can Judge Me: “No more hesitation each and every black male’s trapped, and they wonder why we suicidal runnin round strapped. Mista, Po-lice, please try to see that it’s a million motherf**kers stressin just like me, only God can judge me.”These horrific choices that must be made by black men everywhere neglect to acknowledge the reality that most black men, like all other human beings, don’t look forward to being involved in the violence that plagues our streets. But the violence is so pervasive that sometimes it simply cannot be avoided. So, even if one can ignore all the influences of American media that encourage black men to embrace every single activity that is designed to kill us, nearly every young male is just one bad situation away from having a bullet in his skull.
I was on the ESPN show Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith five years ago with the rapper Method Man. “Meth” was friends with Tupac before he died. Stephen and I made (ultimately incorrect) statements during the show to insinuate that Tupac wanted to go out the way that he did. Pac seemed to enjoy fighting against the world, and proudly faced off with every other artist who rubbed him the wrong way. It’s hard to imagine that Tupac didn’t expect to die in a hail of gunfire, for a friend of mine once said that “if you rap about flowers every day, eventually someone is going to bring you some roses.”
While it was logical to conclude that Tupac embraced and chose his lifestyle willingly, Method Man corrected us immediately, making it clear that Tupac never wanted to die the way that he did. Instead, as Meth explained, “When you’re at the top, everybody just keeps coming at you.” Meth’s comment gave me additional insight and I apologized to him later.
I suspect that for the rapper M-Bone, being a leading artist in the middle of gun-slinging Inglewood California makes you an easy target for any armed and “player hating” by-stander with a gun on his hip and nothing to lose. Unfortunately, decades of failed policies in urban America have made such by-standers easy to come by. In the eyes of many of his peers, M-Bone, like Tupac, simply died according to schedule. Early death has become a fundamental component of the existence of nearly every black male in urban America, and commercialized hip-hop both reflects and expands this reality.