Eminem Says 'We' - Refers To Tupac And ...     

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12/21/2003 7:01:15 AM
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Eminem Says 'We' - Refers To Tupac And Blacks
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On the soundtrack to the documentary Tupac: Resurrection (Interscope), there are four Tupac songs produced by Eminem. On one of them, "One Day at a Time," Eminem doesn’t just bring Tupac back to life through a mixing board — he joins him on the mike and forces him to take part in a conversation Tupac might never have chosen to have. The song goes beyond grave robbing. It’s a biographical hijack.

Tupac’s verses deal with violence against black youth and the drug infestations of black neighborhoods. He raps about "communities in need," about staying "focused on the prize." He says "we" over and over, and there’s never any doubt that his "we" is a black "we." "We’ll never get our day until we learn to pray," he preaches.

When Eminem takes over, he also refers to a "we," but it’s not Tupac’s. "If we could only learn to take our anger and hate," he raps. But whose anger and hate? If he, a white MC, is not speaking for blacks (and let’s hope he’s not), then who is he talking about? His "we" is a hip-hop "we," which in 2003 is not a black "we" at all but a collective identity commonly described as being beyond race and rooted in things that are easier to market: style, language, and, of course, class, which more than any affect of blackness has long been Eminem’s ghetto pass across 8 Mile.

"I don’t make white music, I don’t make black music," Eminem said on 2000’s "What I Am." "I make fight music for high-school kids." That this makes no sense doesn’t matter: he’s telling America that making fight music means that race is no longer an issue. But Eminem is still a white MC making black music, and Tupac, dead or resurrected, is a black MC who made black music.

In his new biography of Eminem, Whatever You Say I Am (Crown), Anthony Bozza joins Eminem in forgetting that this difference actually means something. Eminem, Bozza writes, "represents the current paradigm of race consciousness in America, whereby skin color is almost a secondary consequence to one’s racial identity, where racial association seems to be more defined by behavior than color."

It’s an astonishing claim that makes Eminem the poster boy for a lie and an insult: no matter how popular hip-hop has become, no matter how many black rappers play along by leading white audiences in sing-alongs about being black, skin color is not "a secondary consequence to one’s racial identity." Arguing that behavior is the new basis for racial identity — that because Eminem, 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre are homies, centuries of institutionalized racism has just vanished into mean mugs, secret handshakes, and Urban Outfitters bags full of vintage sneakers and Run-DMC T-shirts — cruelly ignores the realities of racial oppression and racist violence that continue to destroy lives every day.

As the film Tupac: Resurrection reminds us, violence against black people is precisely what Tupac, in his more focused and lucid moments, made the central subject of his music (he uses the phrase "young black male" more than anyone in the history of pop lyrics). In Resurrection, he speaks repeatedly about black poverty and black incarceration, and he shows us the black bruises left on his face by police batons. His link to the Black Panthers is also there, from his godfather, Geronimo Pratt, to his Panther mom, Afeni Shakur, who was pregnant with Tupac while behind bars for a murder she was later acquitted of.

Most revealing, though, is what Tupac did with this legacy of black radicalism when he channeled it into what he tattoo’d across his stomach, "Thug Life." For all its gradual disintegration into champagne-room excess, group beatdowns, and Death Row crookedness, "Thug Life" began as Tupac’s hip-hop answer to the Panthers, and we hear him talk about it as "a new kind of black power" that

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