May 6, 2004

World's a Stage

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Some things change. Kevin Garnett’s fortune in the playoffs, Cornell tuition fees, and Christina Aguilera’s appearance. Some things, on the other hand, never change. The thought of cheez-whiz will always make me sick, the Yankees will always have one up on the Sox, and people — no matter what era — will always express themselves through art.

The art forms that I always felt lent themselves best to human emotion are songs and poetry. Because of this, academics are as enthused to understand the story behind the art, just as much as the avid fans of the artist in question. So I wasn’t too taken aback when I heard that the University of California-Berkeley offered a course on the poetry of Tupac Shakur. After all, in the modern day it is just as reasonable to study a late twentieth century artist as it is a 16th century one. Plus, it is perhaps a little more enticing to an 18 year-old.

Naturally, curiosity set in and I had to see what the hype was all about regarding Tupac’s poems. Even though I’ve always heavily favored Biggie (pardon the pun) as a rapper, I wasn’t surprised by the quality of many of Tupac’s poems. He was an extremely gifted rap lyricist, with an overpowering wealth of emotion. And for the most part, I would say that you could drop the beat from his songs and he could perform a powerful poetic rendition of his words. What did stand out to me was a rare duplicity of Tupac’s personality that immediately caused me to draw comparisons to a poet well before Tupac’s time, and well before hip-hop’s time even. Not that these two men’s personalities are alike; no, the similarity lies within their tendency to alternate so extremely from one emotional pole to the other, and with such affect. An extent to which — in either man’s case — it is hard to believe the words are coming from the same person.

The poet that Tupac parallels in this way is John Donne. In his poem “Why must u be unfaithful?” Tupac argues against man’s poor treatment of women, saying, “How could I be so mean, and say your heart has no place?/ Because mortal men fall in love again,/ as fast as they change their face.” It is hard to believe these poems were being written at the same time Tupac was announcing himself as a “playa,” writing songs such as “How Do U Want It?” with such lyrics as: “Your body is bangin’/ Baby I love it when ya flaunt it/ Time to give it to daddy … Now tell me how you want it.” I mean, does this sound like the same man?

Donne similarly displayed changing opinions on women. He famously wrote two poems, both titled “Song,” and no two poems highlighted his emotional fluctuation towards women better. In the first “Song,” he tells his love that nothing (not distance, or even death) will ever separate them: “Let not thy divining heart/ Forethink me any ill,/ Destiny may take thy part,/ And may thy fears fulfill;/ But think that we are turned aside to sleep;/ They who one another keep Alive,/ ne’er parted be.” Yet, in the second “Song,” he thinks quite differently of women, declaring there are no honest and faithful women in the world: “Ride ten thousand days and nights,/ Till age snow white hairs on thee,/ Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,/ All strange wonders that befell thee,/ And swear Nowhere Lives a woman true and fair.”

Donne’s feminine induced mood swings have been documented many times, from “The Good Morrow,” “The Sun Rising to Woman’s Constancy,” and “The Apparition,” but it seems that the depth of Tupac’s personality has only been fully realized since his death. It is interesting to think how different Tupac’s work could have been had he never been sent to jail or caught up in the East Coast-West Coast turmoil. In the albums released before his jail sentence, intelligent, socially conscious songs like “Dear Mama” and “Brenda’s Got A Baby” were a lot more frequent. But just as they say, art imitates life, and Tupac’s life was soon split between being a thug for Death Row Records, and being a shy, reserved, but true intellectual.

In a successful attempt to have Tupac remembered for his good side, many unreleased tracks, along with his poetry in the book, The Rose that Grew from the Concrete, were finally exposed to the world. The depth of Tupac’s repertoire, now available in its entirety, gives us plenty of perspective on a man whose art reflected the complex duplicity of his personality. And in terms of the abundance of work detailing the thoughts of both poles of his personality, Tupac is certainly on the same plane as Donne, making him an interesting subject for Berkeley students and pattern-seeking columnists alike.

Archived article by Tom Britton