Photo via Flickr user R S
I grew up in basements. Eating pepperoni Hot Pockets and playing SEGA Dreamcast. Staring at buddy lists and Kazaa progress bars. Waiting for nine-minute scenes of Jenna Jameson, blonde and smooth and ferocious, a carnivore and an angel simultaneously, crawling toward a hard dick, mouth half-open, sweaty hairs stuck to her temples, giving orders and begging for more, wiping cum off of her eyelids.
My friend’s dad worked late at a factory that manufactured tampons. Sometimes we took lacquer from the garage and poured it into his dad’s empty beer bottles. We took off our socks and shoved them into the bottles and lit the socks on fire. Sometimes the bottles were the Smirnoff Ice his stepmom drank. My friend said only pussies and girls drank Smirnoff Ice. I wondered if there was an identity one could have in high school besides pussy or girl or god or janitor. I wondered if I would like Smirnoff Ice. Then we threw the bottles against the stone wall behind the house and watched them explode.
I went home and fell asleep on the couch. The next day I told people I’d been reading something by a dead guy who was Danish or Russian or had a mustache. Usually I was still eating Hot Pockets. Here was high school: shameless deception; processed carbohydrates; surrendering to beautiful women; destroying things simply to be reminded that I was not the only thing that could be destroyed.
And I listened to Tupac at high volumes.
Rap was to me a means of sublimation—my fantasies of saying outrageous things to men of authority in a filled auditorium; holding a girl by the waist and telling her to meet me somewhere after class. But it was also insulation from the mundane, from my impotent, microscopic existence in a suburban sprawl. It was invincibility and a jetpack. Rap did not need a greater purpose aside from making me feel transported; alive simply because it took me out of my own frail body.
Tupac was himself a prompt, he was Tupac: The Dichotomy. The thug and the poet; the lover and the lothario; the nihilist and the daydreamer. To me he was all of those things. He was something that engulfed with paralyzing immediacy; a voice that sounded half like a phone sex operator, half like he needed a cough drop. Big beautiful eyelashes. Pounding on your face like it were a locked door, shouting about leaving dead bodies in abandoned buildings. He could not be ignored. He was fucking there. He was all over you. I listened to him to escape limits, logic, definition, and so he did not have to be definitively anything. The myth was irresistible, all of its contradictions. For four minutes and 40 seconds I was a renegade, a prophet, a hurricane.
Notorious BIG did not need your love, but he wanted it. Throwing his arm around you, telling you about the girl he fucked, sharing his takeout with you in the parking lot, laughing till he coughed like his throat was about to give birth to something. Spitting at the motherfuckers while licking his lips at a girl across the room. In a castle far away asking you to come join him. But I pictured Tupac with his head leaned against a subway car window, contemplating something vast; bleak montages and despair. His songs were not gospel but something carved into a rock by a man who had been stranded on an island. There were celebrations, but even those felt like dances around a tire fire after the apocalypse. He was by himself, trying to make it. It was 2001. I was 14.
High school was not a tutorial for integrating oneself into a brutal mass, but a lens to reveal the power of being completely alone.
Promotional materials for the Broadway musical Holler if Ya Hear Me declare that it is “inspired by the work of Tupac Shakur.” This is not accurate. Holler is not Tupac’s work come to life; it is his work stuffed in a museum. It is TUPAC: THE RIDE, ONLY AT SIX FLAGS. It is a diorama, a Tupac stained glass in a church window. A commodification of nostalgia, of death, of IN MEMORIAMs. It is a Tupac kumbaya.
It is a wink-nudge to that party you ended up at in some fraternity, when “How Do U Want It” was playing and no one wanted you there. When a girl who was wearing heels on the carpet and a tube top that just would not accommodate her geometry asked you what you were doing, who you were, do we even know you? You should, like, leave, honestly. And you were sitting there on the futon, looking at her, at everyone, and you didn’t really answer her, you just sort of shrugged and wanted to tell her you were someone important, except you weren’t. So you looked down and kept drinking until she walked away.
In the balconies of the Palace Theater girls in dresses took selfies in the darkness and sung along to “Dear Mama.” In the lobby were two big chalkboards with “MY DREAM IS …” written at the top, and a dozen blanks for people to fill in. Here is what they wrote: “To make a contribution,” “To make it big,” “To be famous,” “To find happiness,” “To make a difference,” “To help lots of people.” This was the black experience sanitized for white people. A vague longing for positivity and optimism; nothing specific or terrifying, because this was the deepest that people in gingham shirts can engage with social problems. They were here to turn grief into a bumper sticker, a one-lined addendum to a tumblr reblog, a crossed-arm head shake at The Struggles because they bought a meat patty from a bodega in Bed-Stuy that one time.
Holler is a watery mix of Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood, West Side Story, and every urban drama redemption arc you have ever seen. There is the black protagonist returning from jail who is attempting to turn it all around, for real this time. There is the friend who is shot in the first act. The kingpin with a good heart. The young idealist. The handwringing mother. The sexy-but-beleaguered girlfriend who just can’t take the violence anymore. The skeptical white guy who isn’t-a-racist-I-swear. An old, hunched man in a dirty suit who only staggers and shouts bible passages from a megaphone and paints PEACE IS NEVER on project walls. The play is blackness as something recreational, blackness as something naughty and dangerous an audience can immerse themselves in for two-and-a-half hours.
There are brief sequences when the actors mash this into something resonant. Saul Williams, the lead, is a nuclear missile in every scene. He huffs and paces and spits words that seem like they scald his lips on the way out. But his performance doesn’t matter. The production is not about provoking but about rubbing your back; not about narrative but about reminding you that there once was a black person who sang a bunch of intense songs, threw gravel in your face, and then got murdered. It is an iTunes playlist. Buzzfeed’s 28 Times Tupac Gave You Feels. Jimmy Fallon swiveling in a chair with his feet off the ground while Michael from The Wire sings “Changes” with Bruce Hornsby on the piano.
This is how we process emotions now. Our histories are raided and stripped for parts, peddled at slideshows and listicles, at Full House reunions, at musicals that don’t last. We don’t connect, we recognize. We don’t have identities, we have signifiers. We have NOSTALGIA: UNRATED COLLECTOR’S EDITION. There is no punch line, no context, no investment, nothing at stake. There is no wound because there is not the thing you actually loved, the feeling you actually felt; there are no longer the memories, just the YOU ARE NOW ENTERING sign on the memory interstate. There is only the minutiae that once defined your life, dragged from the attic, pumped full of helium and released into the sky for you to look at as it floats away.
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Holler if Ya Hear Me is closing this Sunday, July 20, after just one month on Broadway. Buy tickets here.